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Unification: The latest in responsive design has arrived

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Web designers, it’s time for some spring cleaning.

Thanks to the rise of mobile devices, responsive web design (RWD) has been one of the biggest web trends of the past few years. (And it is great—I explained why in a previous post.) But like trucker hats, fanny packs, and other trends of yesteryear, the latest and greatest thing never stays that way for long.

As RWD has evolved, it’s birthed all kinds of design-related buzzwords. “Device-agnostic.” “Mobile-first.” “Adaptive content.” “Resolution-independent.” All of these have helped web designers communicate (or confuse) as they navigate the world of desktop, mobile, and everywhere in between.

All together now

Now, the next phase of web design’s evolution has arrived. So, of course, we’re in for a new buzzword: “Unification.” Unification rejects the idea of building separate mobile-only and desktop sites with content and layout tailor-made for each. As the name suggests, unification means just one site, with information and appearance that’s identical (or nearly so) no matter where you look at it.

Standard RWD typically calls for mobile sites that are condensed versions of a company’s primary, desktop site. People use mobile devices when they need quick info on the go, web designers reasoned, so let’s cut out the fluff and only give mobile users what they absolutely need.

Now that responsive sites have gained traction, and we’ve all had some time to figure out what they can do and how they’re being used, web designers have come to a few important conclusions.

First, mobile users aren’t necessarily “on the go.” Plenty of people use their smartphones to read the news, look up recipes, do research…all while sitting on the couch.

Second, as designers, we shouldn’t dictate what users are allowed to see where. Users choose what devices to display our sites on, and a full site should be available to them, no matter what.

A new approach

So does this mean a return to the pre-RWD era? Hardly. In assessing the value of mobile vs. desktop sites, designers came to a third conclusion—perhaps the most important of all:

User like mobile site. Mobile site good.

The great thing about mobile sites is that they’re inherently usable. They’re not bogged down with complicated menus and loads of text. They’re streamlined, simplified—and designed with UX in mind at every step.

This is the big breakthrough of unification. We’ll start designing one-size-fits-all sites for all devices—but they’ll look like mobile sites. Why? Because the user is, ultimately, all that matters. And mobile app-style interfaces make for some of the most user-friendly sites we’ve ever seen.

Sites will still be responsive, in the sense that image and column widths will automatically adapt to screen size. What will change is a slimming-down of content.

Dropping the excess

Things are getting cleaned up around the web. Companies are starting to ask themselves, “If this isn’t important enough for my mobile site, why am I including it at all?” Unified sites compel designers to feature only what’s truly needed—to give users the most no-frills, awesome experience possible.

Unification is still in its early stages. But it won’t be long before we start seeing sites like them all over our tablets, laptops, gaming consoles, and hey, maybe even our Google glasses. That is, until the next big thing comes along.

Want to be sure your business’s web presence is keeping up with the times? Talk to designers at Atomic to get in the know.

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