Responsive design, top tasks, and higher education websites

Responsive Design and Web Content: Top Tasks are a Critical Element

It is just a week since I’m back from our sixth annual Customer Carewords partners meeting in Dublin, Ireland. Each year proves to me that while you can do much online, there indeed is no substitute for in-person meetings with new and old colleagues.
This year I especially enjoyed a presentation by Christiaan Lustig, senior consultant at Sabel Online in the Netherlands. Christiaan’s July article “The case for responsive web content: it’s all about the users” helped me with a nagging concern about the rush to responsive web design that’s been bothering me for a year or so now. 
The Holy Grail: Create Content Once, Publish it Everywhere
I’m always a bit suspect when the entire world moves suddenly in a single direction. 
Responsive web design has many strong points and Christiaan reviews them well in his article. But I suspected that a major reason for the attractiveness of responsive design was an understandable one: the lure of eliminating the cost in time and money of creating mobile web environments distinct from traditional websites. The new Holy Grail is a world where web folk can create content once and publish it everywhere… desktops, smart phones, tablets, refrigerators, TVs and who knows where else.
And I was startled by the vitriolic response on Twitter to a Jakob Nielsen Alertbox article in May. It was as if everyone waiting for years to draw and quarter the man had finally found a reason to pounce. What did Nielsen say? Responsive design might be OK for some websites but likely not for all websites. And most of the examples he’s seen to date were “primitive” with respect to their user interface.
Before Responsive Design: Eliminate the Garbage Content
Most websites today (higher education included) contain a huge amount of garbage content that is seldom if ever used by anyone. Politics or simple neglect keeps us from any serious attempt to eliminate that content. We’ll know things have changed when “content elimination” becomes a standard part of people’s job descriptions and we no longer keep everything online because someone, sometime might want to see it.
Excessive content makes it nearly impossible to fix the problem that Carewords partners so often encounter: visitors can’t quickly do the task(s) they came to the website to do. Transform a poorly performing traditional website to fit mobile devices and you still have a poorly performing website.
Before Responsive Design: Top Task Identification
Christiaan is quite supportive of responsive design while stressing a key point: top tasks will differ based on where a person is, what they are doing at the time, and what device they are using to do it. If that’s the case, then content must differ as well.
  • The first step to get a handle on this is to do top task identification research. If Christiaan is right, and I believe he is, top tasks on a page visited at home or in an office on a desktop may not be the same as top tasks that should appear on a smart phone  when someone is out and about and truly mobile.
  • People expect to do different things on different devices. And so a single home page is an unlikely solution if we focus on making things easy for web visitors. 
The Holy Grail is “create once, publish everywhere.” Alas, creating and maintaining an effective website in our complicated world might not be that simple.
That’s all for now.

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