Cloud Four Blog

Technical notes, War stories and anecdotes

Simpler SVG Icons

As a follow-up to my post discouraging the use of icon fonts, I recently wrote about the SVG icon process we’ve been using at Cloud Four. While most of the feedback I received was positive, some felt the steps I described seemed complicated, even intimidating.

I can’t entirely disagree. Our designers find the process easy to use (save SVG to folder, optionally update YAML file, use in HTML), but it does require quite a bit of elbow grease up-front.

And while I’d argue that our process is only modestly more complex than comparable icon font setups (examples here, here, here and here), I completely understand how it might feel overwhelming to anyone new to the SVG format (which is most of us, if we’re honest).

So I thought it might be helpful (and fun!) to devote a post to some of the simpler ways you can start using SVG icons today. Whether these options serve as your “toe in the water” or your production-ready technique of choice, I think you’ll find all of them more approachable.

Use Images

SVG is an image format, which means you can use it just like an image:

<img src="my-icon.svg" alt="Niftiest Icon Ever">

Crazy, right? Or if your icons are purely decorative:

.my-icon {
  background-image: url("my-icon.svg");
  /* width, height, etc. */
}

Neither of these techniques inherit the parent element’s text color, a feature we’ve all taken for granted since 2011. But unless your site’s color palette is enormous, they’ll probably work just fine.

Copy and Paste SVG Source

We use this technique a lot when we’re prototyping. Most of the time, you can copy and paste the source of an SVG right into your HTML document:

See the Pen SVG icon pasted into HTML by Tyler Sticka (@tylersticka) on CodePen.

The markup’s a little messy and there’s no caching to speak of, but it works just fine. SVG elements can even inherit the parent text color!

(Tip: If you find yourself saving files over and over just to copy their contents, try clicking the “Show Code” button in Illustrator’s Export dialog instead. There’s also a “Copy Layer as SVG” plugin for Sketch.)

Use a GUI

Detail of IcoMoon interface

If you really want to compile your icons into a single resource but don’t want to mess with Gulp or Grunt, several web apps exist that will guide you through the process. Our favorites are:

  • IcoMoon: Can generate an SVG sprite or an icon font (or both) using any combination of stock icons or your own.
  • Grumpicon: Generates a CSS file with embedded SVG, as well as PNG fallbacks.

Both apps are free and easy to use, generating helpful code samples along with the assets themselves.

Use Pre-Made Icons

In addition to the stock icons available via the aforementioned IcoMoon, there are a growing number of SVG icon packs available. Some of the best we’ve seen so far:

  • Material icons: Google’s material design icons are open source, and available individually or as as a sprite.
  • Evil Icons: Free and open source icon pack with an intuitive markup syntax.
  • Glyph: Large icon pack available via Creative Commons.
  • Iconic: Not free, but SVG version is incredibly full-featured.
  • Resources like The Noun Project, SVG Icons and iconmonstr offer lots of great stock icons in SVG format.

If you have a favorite icon pack that doesn’t offer SVG as an option, ask for it! For example, here’s an open issue in the FontAwesome repo requesting the format.

And Many More!

SVG as a format is only as complicated as you need it to be. None of the aforementioned techniques are inherently less valid than the fancy-schmancy process we use at Cloud Four. You can start simple and stay there, or you can choose to expand on your process later on.

So give it a try! It’s probably less scary than you think.

Looking for our next project

We have a couple of projects wrapping up soon and for the first time in two years, we’ve got openings for new clients. So if you’ve ever wanted to work with us, now is the time!

In case you’re not familiar with what we specialize in, we’re typically hired by web teams to help with complex responsive projects. The team wants it done right the first time because of the timeline or because of the high stakes involved.

Our clients often want to learn how to do this work so that their web teams can take on these projects in the future. Our projects are usually a mixture of doing and teaching.

We’ve also built quite a few Javascript applications and are enthusiastic about progressive web apps these days. Lyza wrote one of the best intros to Service Workers—a key part of progressive web apps—for Smashing Magazine.

So if you’re looking for help or if you know someone you think we might be a good fit for, we’d love to hear from you!

The Power of Responsive Design Sprints

In 2008, I sat gobsmacked in Web 2.0 Expo session. The topic of M. Jackson Wilkinson‘s presentation was “Design and User Experience in the Agile Process“, and I literally couldn’t imagine designing that way.

Fast forward seven years, add responsive design to the mix, and I can no longer imagine designing any other way. Responsive Design Sprints are key to our process.

Why agile for design?

Our path to agile for design started with moving to agile for development. Lyza and Megan spearheaded a move to agile development a few years ago and that change influenced the way we looked at projects.

Because of our success using agile for development, we were primed to try it when responsive design broke our existing design process.

We’ve found that agile design is ideally suited for designing responsive patterns. It allows us to focus on small pieces of a design and iterate on them quickly.

What is a Responsive Design Sprint?

Most of the time when people talk about design sprints, they’re referring to product design sprints. This is the process that Google Ventures, our friends at Fresh Tilled Soil and others have developed and promoted as a way to quickly validate product design and direction.

Thoughtbot's Product Design Sprints diagramThoughtbot’s Product Design Sprint Phases

Product design sprints are an exceptionally useful tool. The phases in our sprints have some similar characteristics—you’ll see parallels to the Understand, Diverge and Prototype phases in particular.

However, Responsive Design Sprints are decidedly different in what they’re trying to accomplish and diverge from Product Design Sprints in some specific ways.

Pre-sprint planning

Our first step when planning a project is to break the site down into the patterns—from the lowest level to higher-level components—that we need to design.

patterns-into-sprints

This is our starting position for each sprint, but because we’re working in an agile fashion, we’re flexible and can change what patterns are being worked on. We can also spend more time on patterns or bring patterns in from later sprints if we’re ahead of our plan.

Before each two-week sprint, we collaborate with our clients to figure out what patterns will be covered in the upcoming sprint. This not only allows us to confirm that our priorities are correct, but it also gives our clients a heads up on what they need to prepare for the sprint kickoff.

Sprint Day 1 — Client briefing and small screen sketching

Client briefing

Each sprint starts with a briefing on the patterns for that sprint. This briefing is led by the client team.

During the briefing, the client team provides everything they know about the patterns including:

  • How the patterns are used.
  • Any edge cases for the patterns.
  • Analytics information on the patterns.
  • User testing that has been done.
  • Support or user feedback on patterns.

If we’re dealing with foundational patterns like typography and buttons, the briefing could simply be going over any existing brand and style guidelines.

However, when we start working on more complex patterns—for example a shopping cart interface—there is often quite a bit of information about the pattern to convey.

Small screen sketching

After the briefing, we start group sketching sessions. Ideally, we do this with our client, but often we work with teams in other parts of the world so we only get to sketch together a couple of times during a project.

Everyone participates in the sketching irrespective of roles. Sketching small screen designs helps people start thinking more tangibly about the constraints of small screens. It is one of the reasons why we include clients in sketching exercises whenever we can.

We pick the portions of the patterns that we think are going to be the most difficult to fit on small screens and sketch those. This often means that we’re not sketching the entire interface or even the entire pattern that we’re looking at, but instead just a small portion of the pattern that looks particularly troublesome.

Sketches on sticky notes

We sketch on small sticky notes using Sharpies. Every sketching session is time-boxed. The constraints on time, size and low fidelity markers prevent people from getting too detailed in their drawings.

And we use Sharpie brand markers because Tyler is a marker snob.

(Tyler here: The store-brand ones bleed too much!!)

Each person posts their sketches on the board and talks about what they saw and how they were trying to solve the problems. The conversation around the sketches is just as important as the sketching itself.

Photo of me presenting some of my terrible sketches

The goal of the sketching session is to give the designers some ideas on how they might solve the problems that the patterns represent. We do multiple sketching sessions until people feel they have enough material to explore.

Focus on small screens first

For most of the sprint, we focus on small screens. We’re often asked how things will work on wider screens early in a sprint, but we try to resist thinking about that yet.

If you’ve managed to organize your life to fit inside a New York City apartment, you’re not going to have any trouble adjusting to a big house in the suburbs. The same is true of responsive designs.

If you nail the small screen design, the larger sizes will be easy by comparison.

Sprint daily activity — Quick design iterations

We move immediately from sketches to testing our ideas in the browser. We create quick prototypes of the designs that we then share with the client team in Slack.

The video above shows collaboration happening on day 2 of a new project. We’re showing simple small screen designs in the browser and getting feedback both from our co-workers and the client team.

Often, we will have members of the client team working on patterns as well. They may be sharing mockups, photographing sketches, or even coding prototypes.

What matters most is that we’re sharing ideas quickly and iterating towards better solutions.

LICECap, the worst named, best tool ever

One of the advantages of designing in the browser is that we’re able to demonstrate how things should interact. But when we’re working with distributed teams, we need a tool to show the interaction.

That’s where LICECap comes in. LICECap makes it easy to capture screen video and save it as an animated gif.

So instead of saying to a client, “imagine we hide all of the controls behind a single button until someone clicks on it” and hoping that the client understands, we simply post an animated gif in Slack.

Animated gif showing add to cart interaction

The animated gif eliminates confusion and facilitates quick feedback.

Mid-sprint review meetings

The amount and frequency of review meetings in a sprint change from project to project, but generally we’ll have one review meeting late in the first week of the sprint to make sure we’re on the right track.

We share our screens and show any in-progress work. Those who have been active in our shared Slack channel will have seen most of the work already, but the meeting ensures that all stakeholders are looking at the patterns early in the sprint.

Depending on the complexity of the pattern, by the second review meeting we’ll have examples of how the pattern will adapt as the screen size increases.

Sample two-week sprint schedule

End of sprint review

At the end of the two week period, we have one final meeting to review the progress on the patterns tackled during the sprint. Nothing in this meeting should be a surprise because we’ve been sharing our work throughout the sprint.

After we’ve reviewed the patterns, we talk about what worked well during that sprint and what we could improve on for the next sprint. We’re not only iterating on the designs, but on the process itself.

This isn’t rocket science, but it feels new just the same

Nothing I’ve described here is new.

Agile processes have been around for years. Many people have talked about how responsive design makes pattern libraries more important than ever.

But the combination of responsive design, patterns libraries, sprints, gifs, and constant communication via Slack creates a radically different design process. Even if the pieces that comprise them aren’t new, Responsive Design Sprints certainly are.

Most importantly, Responsive Design Sprints work exceptionally well.

They helped us convert complex interfaces that seemed insurmountable. When we were asked to convert an e-commerce design to responsive in only three months, it was Responsive Design Sprints that helped us move quickly and finish the project a week ahead of schedule.

I can only imagine how stunned 2008 me would be to see what our design process looks like now.

Case Study: Our SVG Icon Process

When I wrote about why you shouldn’t use icon fonts in your next web project, I had no idea it would spark so much heated debate and intense discussion. One recurring question stood out to me: How might one actually implement an SVG icon system?

It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Should you use <img>, <svg>, <object> or pure CSS? Will you combine your icons into a single sprite or keep them separate? If you do combine them, do you use an old-school technique or embrace SVG’s built-in features? Can JavaScript factor in somehow?

Though this variety of options might feel overwhelming, it’s ultimately a good thing. SVG’s versatility empowers us to craft the most appropriate solution for our audience and use-case.

So as much as I’d like to, I can’t say exactly how you should implement SVG icons in your next project. There’s no substitution for research and trying stuff out when it comes to finding the best fit for your project.

Instead, I’m going to show how we tend to assemble and implement SVG icons, and why we do it that way.

What We Do

The icon process we’ve adopted here at Cloud Four is a byproduct of the types of projects we take on, which tend to be large responsive redesigns or brand-new responsive interfaces. Our most common deliverables are in-browser mockups and pattern libraries. We often work with existing in-house teams, designing or extending icon systems based on their brand guidelines.

The front-end problems we solve tend to be those that are too complex or idiosyncratic to tackle with a framework or a simple content reflow. Our most common use of icons is to reinforce the meaning or relative importance of interface controls (a plus next to the word “Add,” a checkmark next to the word “Okay,” etc.).

Our Requirements

With this context in mind, we can assemble a list of requirements:

  • Accessibility: Because our icons represent or reinforce content, they should exist in markup.
  • Design: Our icons will most often coexist with text. They should inherit the text color and flow with the text by default.
  • Performance: Icons should be consolidated into a single, external sprite to avoid multiple requests and maximize caching.
  • Workflow: Whatever icon prep we can automate should be baked into our existing development tools (Node.js and Gulp).
  • Browsers: Our projects tend to be optimized for IE9+, Android 3+ and the usual array of less finicky modern browsers.

With requirements in hand, it’s time to build an SVG icon system!

1. Exporting Icons

Though our team digs Sketch for UI explorations, we still feel like Illustrator is a bit more intuitive for the design of icons and other illustrative elements.

We maintain a master icons.ai file in a shared spot (usually Dropbox), with each icon in the library residing in its own named artboard. We can see every icon in the context of its siblings, make any final tweaks for consistency, and simplify or combine any overlapping or unnecessary paths.

Screenshots of Illustrator artboards with icons

During this process, we purposely avoid preparing different rotations of the same icon. Traditionally, icon sets have exported separate assets for “left arrow,” “right arrow,” etc., but with SVG this repetition is redundant and unnecessary. Later on, we’ll walk through how to create simple rotational variations of the same icon.

Once everything’s looking good and feeling clean, we use Illustrator CC’s recently-improved exporting to generate SVGs from our artboards. After removing anything Illustrator over-enthusiastically prepended to our filenames, we’re ready to smoosh all of our icons into a single sprite.

2. Creating Our Sprite

As mentioned earlier, our team likes using Gulp for our local environment. If you’ve never used Gulp before, here’s a great article covering the basics. We’re going to write a Gulp task called icons this will compile a folder of separate, unoptimized SVG icons into a single, optimized sprite we can reference from our HTML.

Of the handful of plugins we’ve tried for accomplishing this sort of thing, our favorite is currently gulp-svg-sprite. It boasts a wealth of output modes and configuration options, making it the perfect choice for control freaks like yours truly.

For our icons task, we’ll be using the plugin’s symbol “mode.” This will transform each of our SVG files into a <symbol> element, which we’ll be able to reference by ID later.

Here’s what our SVG task might look like:

var gulp = require('gulp');
var svgSprite = require('gulp-svg-sprite');
 
var svgSpriteConfig = {
  mode: {
    symbol: {
      dest: '',
      sprite: 'icons.svg'
    }
  }
};
 
gulp.task('icons', function () {
  return gulp.src('./src/icons/**/*.svg')
    .pipe(svgSprite(svgSpriteConfig))
    .pipe(gulp.dest('dist'));
});

This task will:

  1. Find every SVG file in the src/icons directory.
  2. Pass those files to the gulp-svg-sprite plugin, which combines them into a single icons.svg file using the symbol output mode.
  3. Output the result to the dist directory.

Now if we run gulp icons, we should find a shiny new icons.svg file in our dist directory, ready to be referenced from our markup.

3. Including Icons in Our Markup

Now that we have our SVG sprite, we can reference it from our markup using <svg> and the <use> element:

<svg>
  <use xlink:href="icons.svg#back"/>
</svg>

This markup tells the browser “use the symbol with ID back from the file icons.svg.” This means our external file is nice and cacheable, and we can reference the same icon asset multiple times from the same file! Hooray!

Except, it looks like garbage:

Unstyled SVG icon in document

We haven’t told the browser how we want our icons to be sized, filled or aligned based on their surroundings. To do that, we need some CSS.

4. Styling Icons

We don’t want to style every svg because SVG can be used for a lot more than icons. Instead, we’re going to create a class. Our team likes using SUIT CSS naming conventions, so we’ll name our class Icon:

.Icon {
  /* Flow with text content */
  display: inline-block;
  /* Inherit the parent text color */
  fill: currentColor;
  /* Use the parent font-size for width and height */
  height: 1em;
  width: 1em;
  /* Vertically align icon with adjacent text */
  vertical-align: middle;
  /* Align more nicely with capital letters */
  position: relative;
  top: -0.0625em;
}

(Props to Chris Coyier and Jonathan Snook!)

Here’s the result after adding class="Icon" to our SVG element:

Styled SVG icon in document

Success! Our icons are successfully inheriting their size and color, and aligning nicely with adjacent type.

This accomplishes most of what we set out to do, but we haven’t taken advantage of what makes SVG special just yet. Let’s fix that.

5. Adding DRY Variations

Back when we were exporting icons, we only exported a single arrow asset (back.svg), the contents of which looked something like this:

<svg xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" viewBox="0 0 24 24">
  <path d="M22,10H6.83l3.59-3.59A2,2,0,0,0,7.59,3.59l-7,7a2,2,0,0,0,0,2.83l7,7a2,2,0,0,0,2.83-2.83L6.83,14H22A2,2,0,0,0,22,10Z"/>
</svg>

Let’s pop open our favorite code editor, and create a new forward.svg file to compliment it:

<svg xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg"
  xmlns:xlink="http://www.w3.org/1999/xlink" 
  viewBox="0 0 24 24">
  <use xlink:href="#back" transform="rotate(180 12 12)"/>
</svg>

Here’s what’s going on:

  1. Our <svg> element is identical to back.svg, except we’ve added an xmlns:xlink attribute. This helps avoid errors during optimization by letting the plugin know that this SVG will reference other elements.
  2. Instead of including the forward icon’s path data, we reference our existing #back icon from a <use> element (similar to how we reference icons from our markup).
  3. The transform attribute rotates the icon 180 degrees from the center of our viewBox.

If we recompile our sprite, we should now be able to reference both icons from our markup:

Original arrow icon and derivative icon in document

Any changes made to back.svg will cascade to forward.svg (or any future variations). Plus, we save a small amount of file-size in the compiled sprite. Win/win!

6. Enforcing Mandatory Colors

Sometimes there are icons that really shouldn’t inherit everything about the parent. A common concern we hear from design teams is that the meaning of certain icons (in particular those representing “error” or “warning”) can be diluted over time if they are applied inconsistently.

In these cases, it’s helpful to remember that SVG elements are subject to the same style cascade as everything else. By specifying mandatory colors via attributes on the elements themselves (fill, style, etc.), we can overrule some or all color inheritance.

As an example, this error.svg file has fill attributes on the elements themselves:

<svg xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" viewBox="0 0 24 24">
  <path fill="#ff4136" d="M13.74,3l9,15.7A2.21,2.21,0,0,1,20.9,22H3.1a2.21,2.21,0,0,1-1.8-3.34l9-15.7A2,2,0,0,1,13.74,3Z"/>
  <path fill="#fff" d="M10.59,17.82a1.41,1.41,0,1,1,1.4,1.4A1.42,1.42,0,0,1,10.59,17.82Zm2.77-9.63a32.3,32.3,0,0,1-.61,4.5l-0.34,2.11H11.6l-0.34-2.11a32.77,32.77,0,0,1-.61-4.5A1.24,1.24,0,0,1,12,6.78,1.24,1.24,0,0,1,13.36,8.18Z"/>
</svg>

Even with our .Icon class applied, these colors will not be overruled:

Error icon that will not inherit its fill color from document

7. Improving Accessibility

Arguably the best reason to adopt SVG is to take advantage of its accessibility features. Thanks to Léonie Watson’s Tips for Creating Accessible SVG, we know to add the following elements and attributes to our icons:

<svg
  xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" 
  viewBox="0 0 24 24"
  aria-labelledby="title desc">
  <title id="title">Back</title>
  <desc id="desc">A leftward arrow</desc>
  <path d="M22,10H6.83l3.59-3.59A2,2,0,0,0,7.59,3.59l-7,7a2,2,0,0,0,0,2.83l7,7a2,2,0,0,0,2.83-2.83L6.83,14H22A2,2,0,0,0,22,10Z"/>
</svg>

This insures that our icons have human readable fallbacks for blind and partially sighted people in a variety of user agents.

But there’s a problem with this approach. IDs must be unique, and we’ll be combining multiple files into a single SVG document. Our accessibility efforts will be thwarted if two <title> or <desc> elements attempt to use the same ID within the same document.

We could just be really diligent about choosing unique IDs, but that’s kind of a pain. If only we could manage these titles and descriptions in a central location, relying on our Gulp task to assign unique identifiers…

Luckily, we can! All we need to do is provide all our titles and descriptions in a separate YAML file:

back:
  title: Back
  description: A leftward arrow

error:
  title: Error
  description: A red sign with a white exclamation mark

forward:
  title: Forward
  description: A rightward arrow

search:
  title: Search
  description: A magnifying glass

Then update the Gulp task with the location of that file:

var svgSpriteConfig = {
  mode: { /* ... */ },
  shape: {
    // Titles and descriptions
    meta: './src/icons/icons.yaml'
  }
};

When we run gulp icons again, gulp-svg-sprite will add <title> and <desc> elements with unique, namespaced IDs and update the aria-labelledby attribute accordingly.

(It’s important to note that while we’ve specified <title> and <desc> elements within our sprite, you should still take care to use accessibility attributes in the page itself when the icon’s meaning is not re-enforced by its surrounding content.)

8. Supporting More Browsers

Time to address the elephant in the room…

Our icon sprite is a separate file, which is great for caching. But referencing symbols in an external file doesn’t work in Internet Explorer (though it does in Edge).

Icons not displaying in IE10

To address that, we’re going to use a polyfill called svgxuse. The script works by detecting failed external references, loading the referenced file via AJAX, injecting the sprite into the page itself, and updating the xlink:href attributes to point to the in-page resource. We like svgxuse because it minimizes the duplicated path data while retaining the ability for icons to reference each other.

The polyfill will work as-is, but we should make a couple of changes one small change to our task config to avoid any collisions with in-page content:

var config = {
  mode: { /* ... */ },
  shape: {
    // Titles and descriptions
    meta: SRC + '/icons/icons.yaml',
    // Add suffix to IDs
    id: {
      generator: '%s-icon'
    }
  }
};

Now we won’t have to worry about the SVG sprite being visible in Internet Explorer, and the IDs for our icons are far less susceptible to collisions once they coexist in the same document. Once we update our icon references to include the -icon suffix, we should have our target browsers covered:

Icons displaying in IE10 with svgxuse

Update: An earlier version of this post included specific configuration options for hiding the injected SVG sprite, but svgxuse handles that automatically now. Open source is awesome!

Putting It All Together

We made it! Here’s what we accomplished:

  • Our Gulp task will compile a folder of icons into a single, cacheable SVG sprite.
  • Individual icons can be referenced one or more times from anywhere in our HTML document.
  • By default, icons will base their position, size and color on their parent elements and surrounding text.
  • Icons may defy the default styles where appropriate.
  • To avoid repetition, some icons can be simple variations of others.
  • We can specify conflict-free accessibility details within icons.yaml.
  • When external references fail, the asset will be injected into the page itself.

You can see a live demo of the end result or browse the code.

Our completed SVG icon demo

Before we pat ourselves on the back too vigorously, it’s important to remember that that there is no one, true SVG icon process. Your ideal setup might involve the picture element, grunt-svgstore, SVGInjector or even an existing library. It can and should change based on the needs of your project. We modify ours all the time.

So consider this just one potential starting point for your own SVG icon system. I hope you’ll share what you come up with!

Converting an existing site or app to a responsive design

Over the last few years, we’ve converted quite a few existing sites and applications to responsive web design. We’ve gotten pretty good at it so I thought I’d share our process.

Not a full redesign

Many of our clients have come to us with desktop sites that are working well that they are rightly afraid of messing up.

For example, when we first starting working on the Walmart Grocery site, the main Walmart desktop site had recently undergone a major redesign effort. We liked the new design, and were pleased to see that the designers had already considered touch-friendly targets.

Walmart.com Homepage

Given how recently Walmart had redesigned the site, any responsive plans that required a full redesign were non-starters. This wasn’t the time to rebrand the site.

In addition, Walmart and many of our other clients are running successful businesses on their desktop sites. They conduct user testing and constantly analyze site usage to optimize performance and profits.

Therefore, our goal has been to convert the site to a responsive web design with as little disruption to the business as possible.

Not a responsive retrofit

At the same time, these projects have been much more extensive than a responsive retrofit. Ben Callahan has written about several techniques for responsive retrofits. In the article, Ben poses the following scenario:

To start over with something like this would be a year long project costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Is there anything you can do with just CSS to make the existing experience a bit better for smaller screens?

Ben does a wonderful job describing the techniques people can use to apply CSS with scalpel-like precision to start a site on their way to responsive without making major changes to the underlying code. If that’s the constraint you’re working with, I highly recommend his article.

For the most part, our clients have different constraints. They don’t mind changing markup if necessary. And they expect the CSS to change quite a bit.

What they want to preserve is the wide screen experience because that is what is currently working and what their users are accustomed to.

Responsive conversions

If they’re not responsive redesigns and they’re not responsive retrofits, what do we call projects where an organization wants to move to responsive design, but wants to preserve the desktop experience?

For lack of a better term, I’ve been referring to them as responsive conversions.

The desktop experience will have to change some

Clients often seek to preserve the desktop experience for completely understandable reasons. This often leads to a mandate that the “desktop site cannot change.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to convert a site to responsive design without some changes to the wide screen version. Inevitability, there are situations where tweaks to the desktop experience would make the responsive implementation significantly easier.

And more times than not, the changes that come from figuring out how to design the mobile experience make the desktop experience better.

For these responsive conversion projects, our guiding principles have been:

  • We will do our best to keep the wide screen experience feeling as close to its current experience as possible.
  • Under the hood, we’re free to do whatever is necessary to make the site responsive.

We strive to make the experience better no matter what size screen someone is using.

Breaking the existing site into smaller patterns

Our first step in converting an existing site into a responsive design is to identify the patterns we think we will need to design.

This process usually consists of a couple of team members sequestering themselves in a room and reviewing the site and writing on sticky notes what patterns they see. This pattern identification provides us with a guide for estimating the time we think projects will take.

The results of a high-level pattern identification.

Recently, Charlotte Jackson wrote about an exercise that teams can undertake to identify patterns. We’re looking forward to trying this on a future project.

Ordering the patterns into sprints

After we’ve identified the patterns, we start organizing them into sprints. Some of the things we consider when organizing the sprints are:

  • In general, we want to start with the smallest patterns and build up to the most complex.
  • We check with our client to see if any components are particularly important and need to be addressed earlier. If so, we figure out any dependencies for those components and prioritize them.
  • As each sprint passes, our velocity increases as does our ability to tackle more complex components.

patterns-into-sprints

The whole point of agile is to be flexible so this plan isn’t set in stone. But it does give us a starting point and lets our clients know what they need to prepare for each sprint. Our client team plays a huge role in making each sprint successful.

Responsive Design Sprints

The biggest change to the way we work is that we now design in sprints. Responsive design sprints are a topic worthy of their own article and I plan to write more about them soon.

In the meantime, here are the highlights of the way we approach these design sprints:

  • Sprints focus on patterns.
  • We work with the client ahead of time to determine what patterns will be tackled in an upcoming sprint.
  • At the beginning of each sprint, the client team presents everything they know about the patterns—how and when they are used; what user testing has been done; and any edge cases we need to consider.
  • We then start sketching small screen versions of the patterns.
  • Once we’ve got a good direction, the team divides up the work and starts designing in the browser.
  • We share what we’re designing with our clients nearly every day via Slack so we’re constantly adjusting and refining the designs.
  • At the end of our two-week sprint, we’ve got working prototypes of those responsive patterns.

Sample two-week sprint schedule

There is much more to say about this process. Read my follow up article on The Power of Responsive Design Sprints.

Rinse and repeat until we’re “done”

Once we start the responsive design sprints, we simply continue the formula until all of the patterns and components that we’ve been tasked to design are complete.

One of the interesting things about this process is that the definition of what “done” means changes from project to project. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, our client’s engineering team is often responsible for taking our work and integrating it into whatever backend system they use. In these cases, our work can be complete long before the site launched and officially “done.”

Second, we’re frequently asked to teach web teams. On more than one project, we’ve had designers and developers from the client’s team embed inside our team to learn from us.

This means that we start projects with the goal of teaching the team to fish for themselves and once they can, we hand over the project to their designers to finish things up.

The process works

When we’re confronted with a complex fixed-width interface, I often have no idea what the responsive version of that interface will be. But I do know even the most complex interfaces can be converted to a responsive design by breaking them into smaller patterns and designing in sprints.

I have complete faith in the process because I’ve seen it work multiple times. If you’re stuck on a complex responsive design, I recommend giving it a try. If you need help, let us know.

(P.S. You may enjoy my follow up article on the Power of Responsive Design Sprints)