Beyond Responsive Design to Reactive Design

The latest rage sweeping the Web design world is responsive design. This is a set of design principles and techniques which allow a design to shift dynamically in response to the environment in which the user is viewing the site. At its core, it means that views resize gracefully.

Most modern Web designers seem to favor designing first for the small screen of a smartphone and then expanding the designs out to the full-sized browser, perhaps with an intermediate stop at a pad-sized view.

This is very cool stuff and I heartily applaud it.

Today as I read this column on TechCrunch by well-known designer Jay Jamison, it occurred to me that one problem with responsive design is that as the design effectively "shrinks" from full-sized to phone-sized presentation, the designer of necessity makes decisions about what content and links and imagery will appear on the opening screen, which is the hard-line equivalent of "above the fold." Speaking from experience, that's not always an obvious or easy call. Balancing the user's interests against the publisher's needs and desires is never easy and when you compress the real estate within which you can make those trade-offs, you make those choices more difficult.

What if we let the user make those decisions rather than the designer? Furthermore, what if we allowed the user decision to be inferred from behavior on (and perhaps even off) the site? In other words, rather than having the user experience merely adjust visually to the differing screen size, we make dynamic decisions about what to display based on what user behavior has previously told us about his or her preference on the site?

I propose to call this new approach reactive design because the design reacts to user behaviors and preferences, expressed and implied, in deciding what and how to present its information.

Any thoughts?

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