George Zamfir at podium

When you hear the term responsive web design, what do you picture? Surprisingly enough, very little of it has to actually do with design directly. Instead, it has much more to do with the accessibility of the design itself. As speaker George Zamfir puts it, responsive design is about “updating the design to bring out the content.”

By focusing more so on the content, Zamfir explains how that, in turn, provides the user with a quality experience without all the unnecessary bells and whistles. It’s a form of innovative design that’s neglected, but is paving the way for better user accessibility. With technology becoming more advanced, accessibility is much more fathomable than ever before.

Accessibility can mean a lot of things for a lot of different people.  While it doesn’t always refer to people with visual, auditory, mobility, cognitive or speech disabilities, these are some of the most over-looked users. Oftentimes, developers don’t know how to make truly accessible design because they look at said disabilities without measuring these people upon what they can do. Responsive design does not have to be an impossible feat, especially with today’s technological standards.

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” - Tim Berners-Lee

Part of that universality has to do with web accessibility. “Web accessibility is building websites that anybody can access, regardless of the device, ability or assistive technologies - user context.” Creating a flexible layout that accommodates a variety of devices is one step in reaching that.

George ZamfirThe next step is acknowledging and catering to users’ context, such as brainstorming the user’s ability, environment, device and compatible assistive technology. There are various possibilities depending on the user, it’s simply a matter of finding ways to cover each of them.

Another factor to keep in mind when creating a responsive design is offering keyboard accessibility. The key ability to keep in mind with this feature is making sure that anything is accessible by keyboard without worry of any confusing “shortcuts”, stick to the basics and offer the user everything they need to know in a direct manner.

Lastly, consider designing for edge cases, and start small (mobile to desktop) when designing responsive software. Doing so forces you to think about your content and work accordingly depending on the screen size.

George Zamfir presented What Accessible Design Can Teach You About Responsive Design at SCREENS 2013. Above photos courtesy of N. Maxwell Lander. 

Erika Szabo

Erika Szabo (@erikaszabo) is a gaming, tech and sexuality blogger living in Toronto. Her love for technology knows no bounds. You can find her musings at Retroware TVEggplantexoxoamore and Youtube.