Cloud Four Blog

Technical notes, War stories and anecdotes

Dan Bricklin on Responsive App Design

Have you seen Dan Bricklin‘s Responsive App Design video? Yes, that Dan Bricklin. The “father of the spreadsheet” Dan Bricklin.

I desperately wanted to include this video in my last article on when responsive design makes sense for your app. But it felt forced so it got cut.

The video is worth watching. It’s fun to hear Dan compare responsive design to the challenge of fitting a spreadsheet on a 40 character screen. Check it out.

Defining Responsiveness

When people say that something is responsive, what do they mean?

I’m not being facetious. I think many of us think we know what is meant, but when you dig deeper, there is disagreement about what it means for something to be responsive.1

Responsive web design has a clear definition

To his credit, Ethan defined responsive web design clearly with three technical pieces:

  • Fluid grids
  • Flexible images
  • Media queries

That seems simple enough. But when it comes to defining what is responsive, things get a bit fuzzier.

Is Google Plus responsive?

The best way to understand where the differences of opinion exist is by looking at an real life example: is Google Plus responsive?

It looks like it might be responsive. The layout varies from one, two or three columns depending on the width of the page. The size of elements on the page change as well.

Let’s look at some reasons why Google Plus might not be responsive.

Reason #1: Google Plus is not responsive because it has a separate mobile site

The first time I cited Google Plus as responsive example, I was told that it didn’t qualify as responsive because it doesn’t go all the way down to support small screens.

This is silly to me. Nothing in Ethan’s article says that responsive web design has to support any possible screen resolution.

We’re perfectly happy calling things responsive designs that have a fixed width past a certain point on wide screens. And we praise the efforts by the BBC, Guardian, People and others that build a responsive mdot site that will eventually replace their main site.

So why would the fact that Google Plus doesn’t support small screens preclude it from being considered responsive?

Reason #2: Google Plus doesn’t use media queries

Google Plus isn’t using media queries the way you might expect.

As far as I can tell2, none of the major layout changes you see in Google Plus are handled by media queries. They are controlled in JavaScript.

This is similar to Nathan Smith’s Adaptive.js library which puts breakpoints in JavaScript instead of CSS.

So by definition, Google Plus is not a responsive web design. It may look like one, but it doesn’t contain the three technical pieces necessary to be a responsive web design.

Getting off on a technicality?

So I exaggerated a bit. Google Plus is using media queries. But as I said, they aren’t being used the way we normally think of them.

All but one of the media queries is looking at viewport height instead of viewport width. The one that looks at viewport width only applies at less than 340px; only adjusts a single icon; and I can’t get the rest of the page to adapt to less than 340px so the entire media query seems moot.

But perhaps we can give Google Plus a pass as a responsive web design because it technically has media queries even if they aren’t being used to make the design responsive?

Nah, that’s cheating. And even if we did let Google Plus off on this technicality, it would still leave us with designs that use JavaScript like Adaptive.js and wondering what we call them.

When does something stop being a responsive web design?

What happens when you use responsive web design, but add to it things that seem to be at odds with the philosophy of responsive design?

For example, do any of these change whether or not something is a responsive web design:

  • Device detection used to select the best-sized source image?
  • Redirects based on user agent string to a mobile site that is responsive?
  • Less content on small screens with more content on larger screens? What if the developer uses AJAX to pull in the additional content? What if they use device detection to make decisions before the page loads and then AJAX after?
  • A couch-mode design that only worries about resolutions from 720p to 1080i but uses responsive web design techniques for those resolutions?

These questions may seem crazy, but I’ve seen people use the presence of device detection as a reason to discount a responsive web design.

When people are looking for reasons why a given implementation doesn’t fit their perspective on what responsive web design is good for, it is pretty easy to find reasons why any given site isn’t a “pure” responsive web design.

Doing responsive web design well often requires more than responsive web design

When a client comes to us to help them make their existing site or app responsive, we know that we’re going to be using fluid grids, flexible images and media queries.

But we also know we’re going to be using much more than just those three techniques. The best responsive web designs are doing much more. And when we teach workshops or train client teams, much of what we’re discussing are the things that you do after you’ve got the three techniques down.

Which led me to the idea that there is a difference between “being responsive” and responsive web design. That responsiveness was something bigger.

So I asked Ethan for his thoughts.

A more web appropriate design

As you might expect, Ethan had great thoughts on this topic. I’m republishing part of our email exchange here with his permission, but this is just a fraction of his insights. I hope he gets the time to share his thoughts in more detail.

I suggested that “being responsive” or “responsiveness” might be characterized by larger principles such as:

  • Designs that utilize the size of the viewport to determine the layout.
  • Designs that adjust the layout and the size of the elements in the layout as the size of the viewport changes.
  • Designs that ensure content parity across devices.
  • Designs that treat URLs as sacrosanct and ensure they work across devices.

Now, Ethan disagreed there was a need to revise the original definition. But he replied:

All of them—but the last two especially—seem to me to be pretty foundational tenets of good web design, full stop. If an interface doesn’t adapt to the display—be it responsive or device-specific—its utility is pretty limited; if it doesn’t honor and respect URLs—be it responsive or device-specific—its utility is pretty limited; and so on, and so on.

The web’s still digging itself out of the constraints of the printed page, in many ways, and we’re still—some twenty years on—trying to articulate the best way to design for this medium. What you’re describing feels bigger and more foundational to me than responsive design. It really feels like you’re describing the way the web wants to be: fluid, addressable, and accessible to all.

So Google Plus, to use your closing example, might not be responsive, but maybe it’s adopting a more web-appropriate design model. And maybe that’s enough.

I think Ethan is right. In the long run, “being responsive” is simply designing for the web the way it was intended.

But in the short run, I find myself struggling to describe the new toolbox and mindset that is required to do responsive web design well. And I see people talk past each other because of their mistaken belief that they have a common understanding of what responsive means.

I’m left with Justice Potter Stewart’s definition for whether or not something is responsive, “I know it when I see it”, which is wholly unsatisfying.

I take comfort ignoring the definitions and instead asking these questions about a design and its implementation:

  • Does it adapt to screen size?
  • Does it take advantage of device capabilities?
  • Is it accessible anywhere?
  • Does it work well?

For our users, those are the things that matter.


  1. Not addressed in here is the fact that responsive is also used in the web performance community to refer to something entirely different.
  2. Google Plus CSS and JS is quite complex. I’ve done my best to confirm they are using media queries only in the ways I’ve described here, but I can’t guarantee I’ve got it right.

  3. Don’t get me started on the definition of adaptive design. Unless I’m talking to Aaron Gustafson, I know I don’t know what someone means when they say that.

Why Chrome not shipping with Android 4.4 might not be a bad thing

Maximiliano Firtman broke the news a couple days ago that Android 4.4 (Kit Kat) will not ship to manufacturers with a browser:

At first blush, this seems like a bad thing especially for those of us who have been waiting so long for the Android browser to die and Chrome to take its place. However, I think this may actually be good news.

The first thing to keep in mind is that what ships to carriers and manufacturers is not the same thing as what ships to the store. Android doesn’t include Google Maps by default. If you want that on the phone you’re building, you have to license the Google apps services separately from Android’s open source code.

I attended the Mobile Summit during Google I/O earlier this year. One of the questions we asked was when will Chrome be the default browser for Android. The answer was that couldn’t say precisely because the handset manufacturer would have a say in the matter.

This has been one of Google’s biggest challenges with Android is the speed at which handset manufacturers adopt new versions of Android (if they ever do). Over the last year or so, Google has developed a strategy for addressing this problem.

Ron Amadeo wrote a great article for Ars Technica earlier this year that outlined how Google is now side-stepping the carriers and OEMs. In the article he describes how Google is using its Google Play Services which it licenses to OEMs as a way to keep applications on a frequent update cycle.

Google Play Services takes care of lower-level APIs and background services, and the other part of Google’s fragmentation takedown plan involves the Play Store. Google has been on a multi-year mission to decouple just about every non-system app from the OS for easy updating on the Play Store.

With that in mind, let’s go back to the question of Chrome. The slow pace of carrier and handset updates is the complete opposite of Chrome’s frequent release cycle. The Chrome team prides itself on the frequent releases and touts how they’re bringing that same release cycle to mobile.

If Google released Android 4.4 to carriers and handset manufacturers with Chrome installed, they would have no control over when Chrome is updated. By bundling it with Google services that the handset manufacturers sign up for and license, Google controls the app and how frequently it updates.

The big question is whether or not when a handset manufacturer signs up for Google services if Google forces the manufacturer to ship Chrome as the default browser. Because they dictate the terms of licensing of Google’s proprietary services and apps, I don’t see any reason why Google would put that condition on usage.

Yes, there is the potential that more devices will come out with browsers that aren’t using Chrome. But those are the Android-derived devices that don’t play in the Google apps space regardless. We’re talking about the Android devices in China or forks like the Amazon Kindle. It was unlikely they would use Chrome anyways so at least when they ship a browser, we’ll know it is something different.

But for end consumers and web developers, this seems like the best possible scenario. If you buy a phone that utilizes all the Google services we think of on Android (e.g., Google Maps, Gmail, Calendar, etc.), then you’ll get Chrome and I’m speculating here, but I suspect you get Chrome by default.

More importantly, you get real Chrome. The Chrome that updates every six weeks. And not a hobbled version of Chrome that would be limited by whims of the carriers and the manufacturers as to when it is updated.

PhoneGap makes mobile app development more accessible

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from our friend Dan Moore. He recently wrote a book about PhoneGap’s new command line tools. I asked him to share what it was about these new tools got him so excited that he would do the most insane thing I can think of and become an author. Hope you enjoy. —Jason

Use of applications that run on your phone or tablet (aka apps) is growing rapidly. Building apps typically requires a specialized skill set–developers have to know languages like Objective C and Android Java. In addition, they need to have a design sense as well, because they are building user interfaces. Few developers have this combination of skills, and so those who do can charge for it.

But PhoneGap, a four year old project, now lets developers leverage standard web technologies such as CSS, HTML and JavaScript to build mobile applications. Designers who know CSS and HTML can create fantastic mobile friendly user interfaces (leveraging frameworks like Topcoat and Junior) and developers can focus on functionality and performance.

PhoneGap lab illustration

PhoneGap, and its open source foundation project Cordova, democratize the development of mobile applications.  (PhoneGap is built on top of Cordova the same way Safari is built on WebKit, so there are many similarities between the projects.)

For end users, applications built using PhoneGap are indistinguishable from those built using native technologies.  PhoneGap applications can access the camera, GPS and other device specific functionality. There is even a way (called ‘plugins’) for independent developers can write native code and access it from JavaScript.

PhoneGap Challenges

For most of the past four years, developers using PhoneGap faced a few problems when developing or maintaining PhoneGap applications. Among them:

  • The PhoneGap framework moves fast, typically releasing a new version every month.  Upgrades require understanding exactly what components beyond the standard JavaScript, HTML and CSS had changed.
  • Plugins were not separate from look and feel or business logic.
  • Every plugin had its own set of instructions for installation and/or upgrading.
  •  Supporting multiple device platforms with one set of JavaScript, HTML and CSS was a goal for PhoneGap development, but required either homegrown scripts or manual syncing between directories. Platform feature drift was difficult to avoid.
  • Specific IDEs had to be set up for each supported platform.

All of these problems are tough enough for small applications, but for apps maintained for more than one release, the issues add up quickly.

CLI to the Rescue

Version 2.9 of PhoneGap, released in June of 2013, included a command line interface to manage applications. Instead of plugins being manually installed according to a README, standardized installation procedures are available. There’s a nascent plugin directory so that discovering a needed plugin no longer requires hunting through Google search results.

Instead of having to choose how to sync JavaScript, HTML and CSS, there is one location in a project for platform independent code, and one for platform specific code. Developers can develop outside of an IDE, in the web browser, using the web development technologies they are familiar with. There even is a system for calling scripts at various points of the application’s build cycle, so the CLI can be extended.

Developers still have to install and maintain device specific platform SDKs, but once they’ve done that once, they can add or remove a platform for a given project with a single command.  And if a developer is just doing a quick prototype or can live with the (considerable) constraints, there is PhoneGap Build, a cloud service, which can build PhoneGap applications without requiring platform SDK installation.

With the PhoneGap/Cordova CLI, a developer can code and test a mobile application without running the device specific tools (like an IDE or ant script) even once. Of course, if an IDE makes a developer happier or more productive, they can use one for developing application code as well.

The CLI makes coping with change easier

The breakneck pace of PhoneGap development hasn’t changed, but the cost of upgrading has dramatically decreased. Instead of having to recreate platform environments entirely manually, or (more likely) simply not upgrading, most configuration has been pushed into standardized files. In some cases, upgrading can be as simple as running a few commands.

The command line interface opens up new worlds of automation, and continues PhoneGap’s march to democratize the mobile application development world.


Dan Moore is Director of Technology for 8z Real Estate, a Colorado and California real estate brokerage, and the author of “Developing Cross Platform Mobile Applications with Cordova CLI”

Picking a Responsive Tables Solution

One of the most common questions I get asked during responsive design workshops is how to handle tables. I usually show some of the techniques and then tell people they should pick the right technique for the content in the table.

There are a series of questions that you can ask about the content in a table that will help you pick the right technique.

Do people use the tables to compare rows? Compare columns?

Example 1: People don’t compare rows or columns

Let’s assume for a moment that people don’t compare rows or columns. What would be an example of a table like that? How about a listing of top movies?

jquery-movies-table

In this example from the jQuery Mobile library, we have a table containing the top movies ordered by rating.

On a wide screen, it is helpful to see the movies in a table because it makes it easy to scan each column. But it is unlikely that people are relying on the table to compare rows or columns.

There isn’t a tremendous value to be gained by comparing the director from row 1 (Orson Welles) to row 2 (Michael Curtiz). Similarly, comparing the ratings column to either of the columns next to it—year and reviews—doesn’t add much, if any, meaning to the table.

Because people do not compare rows or columns, this table is a good candidate for being transformed into a list on smaller screens:

jquery-movies-list

Which is exactly what the jQuery Mobile developers do in their demo. Check it out.

Example 2: People compare rows or columns

If you have a table listing a bunch of stock and their prices, like the one below from Simon Elvery, then you will probably find that people are comparing one stock to another to see if they are investing in the right places.

stocks-table-wide

In this case, we want a solution that allows people to continue to compare rows. In the example Simon provides which is based on work by David Bushell, the table flips so that the header row is a header column and the rows are now columns that are scrollable.

stocks-table-narrow

Again, this is something best seen in action by going to Simon’s Flip Scroll example. This is very similar to Zurb Foundation’s responsive tables solution.

Another way to handle this need to compare is to reduce the number of columns so that the table fits as demonstrated by the Filament Group.

filament-stocks-table-wide

They also used a stocks table as their example, but on narrow screens, they hide columns that are deemed less important.

filament-stocks-table-narrow

If someone needs to see a column that has been removed, they can use the pull down menu to add it into the table.

filament-stocks-table-narrow-pulldown

Check out the Filament Group demo and a similar demo from the jQuery Mobile showcase.

What information is essential?

If you find yourself in a situation where you want to show fewer columns on small screens, then you have to start asking yourself what information is essential. It is helpful to ask yourself these questions.

What information do people care about the most?

  • Which columns are most critical to understanding what the meaning of the table is?
  • Which columns are people most likely to care about?

What is necessary to be able to differentiate one piece of information from another?

If you’re looking at row after row of information, what information would allow a person to quickly distinguish between two rows? This is particularly important in scenarios where the rows are used in applications interfaces.

Say you have a table that shows information about users. Administrators can select a user and then edit that user’s account.

On wide screens, you would might include things like the user’s roles, last time they logged in, etc. But on small screens, you simply need to make sure that you’ve provided the critical information that an admin needs to be confident that they are selecting the right user.

Is it necessary for everything to be on the same screen or can you conditionally load additional detail as needed?

A lot of the more complex responsive tables implementations I’ve seen have come in situations where the developer was trying to fit every piece of content that was available on wide screens onto small screens.

In some of the more extreme examples I’ve seen, this has caused huge performance and layout problems as tables with hundreds of rows and dozens of columns were combined with fixed header rows and columns and squeezed onto a small screen.

I think the mistake a lot of people make is believing that responsive design means that they have to everything in the same document regardless of screen size.

If you were to start a mobile first design of a stock table, you might say that on small screens, you are going to show the following columns:

  • Company name
  • Ticker symbol
  • Price
  • Percent change

If the user wants more data, they select a stock to go to a detail page and view more information about the stock.

Then as the screen got bigger, you might show more columns. You might even decide that on wider screens that you will make AJAX calls to retrieve the data from the detail page you built for small screens.

This all makes sense. You’re using progressive enhancement based on screen size. No big deal.

There is a funny thing that happens when you flip it around—when you start from existing big table of data that was designed for wide screens. People no longer allow themselves the option to not have everything on the same screen.

I’ve observed on more than one occasion that designers and developers no longer feel like it is acceptable to not show all the columns or to have people go to a detail page to see more information on small screens. That doing so is not responsive design and is cheating in some way.

I think it is a mental trick that we play on ourselves depending on our starting point. If we start mobile first, we never doubt it. If we start from an existing desktop table, we unconsciously limit our options.

Here’s what matters when it comes to tables in responsive design:

  • Do people understand the meaning of the table in all contexts?
  • Can people get to all of the information somehow?
  • Have you made sure that every URL is accessible regardless of device?

If you can answer yes to all three, then you’ve done your job.

Your content will dictate the best responsive table solution

There are a lot of different ways to handle tables in responsive designs. And I expect that we will see more alternatives and techniques as time passes.

But regardless of how many responsive tables solutions we have to choose from in the future, the way to select the right one for your project will remain the same.

Your content will dictate the best responsive table solution. You just have to ask the right questions of it.

Responsive table resources

The following is a non-comprehensive list of potential responsive tables solutions. I use them primarily as inspiration and design patterns.