Adaptive web design

I’ve thought, for quite sometime honestly, that most of a persons success in using technology, and the internet specifically, is directly related to both a person’s willingness and ability to adapt. And while parts of my thinking still reflect this belief, large parts of those thoughts are not so much changing (in the sense my opinion is flipping), as they are evolving.

Before I proceed I’d like to define what it is that I meant by “success in using technology” above. Just for the record, I’ve never thought a persons perceived (whether it’s an internal or external perception) failure to interact with any given piece of technology was the fault of the user. It’s not. It most definitely is the fault, or better still, a short-sightedness of the creator. Nor do I think the word “failure” is valid in this context either. Failure and it’s implications would suggest this is a black and white issue. And it’s not. Not by any stretch of the imagination. As with anything there are shades of grey. As there are varying degrees of success.

That said, I’d very much like to alter what it is that I meant when using the word “adapt.” How I was using the word wasn’t entirely fair. It placed too much of an expectation on the user. It’s not any users job to adapt to technology. It’s technology’s need to be used by us. Otherwise why was it thought of and built? I’d simply like to swap “adapt” for “learn.” Most of a persons success in using technology is directly related to both a person’s willingness and ability to learn how to use it. The trick is to make that initial learning curve as inviting as possible. Easier said than done.

Where this is relevant to web design interests, for me at least, is the competing concepts of adaptive versus responsive web design. And I know they aren’t competing concepts, but for the purposes of this post and my getting my head around each, I’m comparing their differences in hopes to better understand both.

Frankly, I was under the somewhat mistaken impression they were different names given to primarily the same thing. I’m speaking from rather simplistic perspective that both require feedback from the browser in order to do their things. Adaptive web design adapts a design to a browsers capabilities, also known as Progressive Enhancement. Where as responsive web design responds to the environment the design is being viewed in. Thinking it through now reveals a bigger difference than I first thought there was between the two, however, I do think there is something that could be added (not that it hasn’t already, but I’m not aware of such writings) to one to further differentiate it from the other.

On Saturday I was asked to help out on a project to make certain elements of a design “responsive.” I was under the impression my role would entail making said elements respond to the size of the browser window. Now I’m not picking apart the person who asked me to do what they wanted done. Nor am I criticizing the manner in which I was asked. But “responsiveness” wasn’t what they were after. And before I go on I should say I can’t be certain I’d have phrased the question any differently. Well not too much before Monday night, when I wrapped up my contribution.

What I was asked to do was to allow for specific buttons on an HTML5 video player to grow as a user input their preference through a “Text Size” slider. In exactly the same way as the feature I offer on my site, at the very top of this page (should you be reading this post on my website). And I believe, technically, this fits in the adaptive category. The design is adapting to the users input. So accessibile web design — at the very least, solutions that allow a user to let a design know, and that design then accommodates, their “requirements” — is adaptive web design.

This, of course, sets each in a very different light. A very interesting turn in my realizations…

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