Responsive App Design

With the introduction of OS X Mountain Lion it is obvious that Apple is aligning the Mac with iOS devices, but it also feels like more.

The approach is akin to responsive web design: the need for sites to adjust and adapt to best leverage the device on which they are displayed. This is something that is becoming a standard when designing for the web and after this summer’s release I can’t help but wonder if it will become the standard for our applications. One look at this image from the Macworld article announcing Mountain Lion and another from The Theme Foundry’s Duet theme for WordPress and you see how one informs the other.

The Messages App on an iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air

The Duet WordPress theme from The Theme Foundry

Much like responsive web design, both the form and functionality of any given app are culled as real estate and processing power are reduced. Compromises are made to ensure the best possible experience on any given device. Eventually, you wouldn’t seek out an application on your Mac and then find one that can sync with it on your iPhone (e.g. nvALT and Simplenote). The expectation would be one unified application that has been seamlessly thought through at all levels, making the distinction between mobile and desktop that much more irrelevant. This could inevitably lead to a unified App Store with truly universal apps that span both OS X and iOS.

More than an alignment of two operating systems, you can’t help but wonder if this will continue to bring the best practices used in development for the web, for our apps and for our operating systems one step closer together.

Note: Updated with an additional thought on the future of the App Store and Mac App Store

7 Responses to Responsive App Design

  1. I’m not sure we’ll see “responsive app design” in the same was as we are seeing responsive web design.

    Currently I can build a website that will work well on the computer screen, an iPhone, an iPad, and an Android device. That’s what responsive web design is all about. However one thing missing there is the ability to take full advantage of the hardware, namely mobile devices. So it’s a trade off.

    To get that capability we need to develop native applications. So far developers are forced to create an app for each device out there, with the list continuing to grow (think Kindle Fire).

    So as I see it it comes down to what the app does and what native capabilities it needs. It would be great to be write one application that can run on iPad and iPhone but that’s now how it is now. That challenge is being solved by tools that allow you to write a single application (even using HTML5 and CSS3) and compile it for multiple devices.

    However today creating a responsive web design is completely doable.

    • I agree that we’ll never see it in the exact same way, but I think we will see more alignment between the two. When I say “responsive app design” what I really mean is a more holistic approach where a developer is meant to think through everything from the desktop to the tablet to the phone. We’re seeing more of that, but there are plenty of services that focus in on one or the other expecting others to fill in the gaps.

      The one argument that I’d make is that responsive web design is more than just aesthetic. There’s certainly a fair share of that, but there are also plenty of sites that lose significant function in favor of form as the site responds to different devices. This is often logical as the use cases for someone on their phone are unlikely the same as someone at their desktop. I don’t think this is a matter of develop once, use in multiple places. More a mater of being required to draw a straight line from one end of the user experience to another. Hope that clarifies things a bit.

      • When talking about the “responsiveness” of a website it is more than just the look – it’s how the site let’s the user know what’s going on (see “Don’t Make Me Think” and “Designing With The Mind In Mind” as references).

        What you seem to be talking about then, if I understand correctly, is the experience one has when interacting with a company via their website or a mobile application. Is that correct?

        Also when you say “a developer is meant to think through everything from the desktop to the tablet to the phone” now we’re getting into how businesses hire developers and:

        1. How much expertise a single developer has to be able to write both web and mobile applications
        2. How much (graphic and experience) design experience said developer has


        1. How well the development team works with the designers

        Having a disjointed experience with a company through the entry points (web/mobile) show how those 3 are going.

        For instance, Apple has written guidelines for all of it, and applications that go onto the Mac and i-devices have to adhere to those standards. Not all companies have those, though they could benefit from them.

        • Not necessarily interacting with the company (although this could impact that as well). At the moment there are several apps that will focus in on a single device or platform rather than span across OS X and iOS. Simplenote for the iPhone and Notational Velocity on the Mac is a perfect example of this.

          At the moment iOS and OS X have two separate app stores. If I want 1Password on my Mac I can either buy that through their website or the Mac App Store. If I want it on my iPhone or iPad, I have to buy a separate app or apps through the App Store. Down the road, I’m betting there will be a single unified App Store that offers the iPad, iPhone and OS X version of each. I’d imagine you can get granular and choose all or some, but believe users are going to want the same apps on any given device in the same way we now expect any given website to work on them. You even see a baby version of this model on the App Store where you can get 1Password for iPhone or iPad and a “universal” version that works on both at a discount. My money is that inevitably you’re buying something on your phone with the ability to pick it up for your iPad and Mac at the same time. Then again, I could be crazy :)

          I don’t think it will be a single build like responsive websites, but I do believe the expectation will become that a single app is available, thought through and seamless across all devices. It won’t truly be responsive, but the experience will feel that way to the end user.

          • Gotcha. So a single place to purchase a single application that runs well across all devices from the brand, in this case Apple.

            I’ll give a huge +1 to that and I’m sure that in time we will see that.

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