Responsive vs. Adaptive Design: Reframing the Conversation

Responsive design has been around for years. It is a design methodology that allows the content on a web page to shift layouts as the browser window is resized, even down to mobile devices. This practice uses the same code by adding in media queries to call a different CSS or allows the individual content elements to flow as the content container is changed. Responsive design is great for desktop browsing experiences that allow the user to choose how they view your content. This also allows the content creators to manage all the same content across a multitude of devices.

However, some elements work on desktop, but don’t work on mobile. Responsive practitioners have become adept at scaling images, transitioning content or hiding specific content that doesn’t fit.

Responsive design helps give versatility to your content, allowing it to be consumed through a multitude of channels.


Where responsive design falls short, is it’s generally a one size fits all approach. The layout of the content is the same regardless of the context in which you’re consuming it. That means if the main content is image heavy or even text heavy it will load all the same content, regardless of the data connection or information need. If the user is on an iPhone they will see the same content as any another user on an iPhone.

Adaptive design is an approach that serves up similar content depending on what channel you are accessing the content on. Adaptive is not like responsive in that the layout on each device is often custom designed. This allows for greater control of the design, functionality and content.

It also means that multiple code bases need to be managed. A change to one, means you must change all in order for it to be consistent across all channels. If you have the resources and adequate processes to manage multiple code bases, I think the trade off is worth it.

Fortunately, it is not an “either/or” decision. We can use elements of both approaches to make elegant designs that work on a multitude of devices and serve a variety of information needs the customer may have.


Often when talking about adaptive design we stop short of what is actually possible with adaptive design. We talk about device type and that’s about it.

I believe adaptive design should not only look at the physical device it’s be displayed on, it should look at the context in which it’s being displayed.

We can leverage any number of APIs in the device to determine the context of the user. For example, we can use GPS in the users phone to determine at what rate of speed they are traveling. If they are traveling between 1-5 mph, they may be jogging. The information need is different at this speed then when standing still. The same can be said if they are traveling at 65 mph. The text in your content may no longer be relevant and it’s only the interactive elements that matter.

Adaptive design could also utilize the download speed to adjust the content. If the user in on wifi, all content can be loaded simultaneously, but if they are on slower bandwidth, then lazy loading might be a better solution. Users on slow networks can be served up lower quality, compressed images, while faster speeds will see full resolution, retina images.

The applications for adaptive design utilizing context is seemingly endless. They can be gathered through shared APIs on the device or through user toggles or settings.

Apple started doing this with their “do not disturb” setting. A user can now set the context for how and when an app should function.


When I think about applications that could utilize adaptive design, Apple Music and Podcast apps are top of mind. When I’m at my desk, the small buttons and large album art are annoying, but don’t pose any great usability issues. I’m still able to access all my music and podcasts with minimal effort. However, when driving home from work at 70 mph, the lay out of these apps pose new challenges. Skipping songs, replaying sections of a podcast or song or even changing the volume can be unusable or even down-right dangerous. If the app is able to intuit that I’m in my car and no longer stationary, it could serve up new content that fits my context and information need – big buttons and no album art.

When we not only consider the device, but also consider the context in which our content is being consumed, we will achieve the true definition of adaptive design.

Information Architecture and the Sofa

Imagine you just moved into a new apartment. You have an amazing sofa and a big screen TV. You’ve envisioned exactly how you’re going to set up your living room. It will be awesome. Your friends and family will come over and be in awe at the beautiful way you’ve designed your new space.

But what happens next is anything but. You lug your sofa up 3 flights of stairs only to find it’s 6 inches too long for the space you planned and covers the sliding glass door to your patio.

You set up your TV above the fireplace only to find the cable and electrical plugins are located 10 feet away. You must run a length of unsightly cords across the room.

And where is that bookshelf going to go? There isn’t any space created for it. I guess it’s going to have to go to your crazy cousin who doesn’t even own a vehicle and needs you to deliver it. We’ve all been there.


Your UX designer may have experienced the same thing in a digital space with your information architecture.

You laid out the infrastructure of the site beautifully, but what they’re left to design around really stretches their creativity to its outer limits.

Information Architecture is not web design, in the same way architecture is not interior design. But they are fundamentally tied together.

Architects (information or otherwise) need to consider the role the designer plays in the final product. We need to understand what new technology the UX designer might want to employ or new design trend they may follow.

We need to work hand in hand with our designer to understand the vision of the final product. There will be compromise. You may get that new navigation menu you wanted, but have to concede the placement of certain buttons. Your designer is important in the process. They are not just there to slap color on you architecture. Your collaboration is integral to the final user experience.

Great architecture with horrible design is just as bad as confusing architecture beautifully designed.

The same is with IA. We may not pick the “wallpaper” or “furniture”, but we need to build a system with that arrangement in mind.

Another thing to keep in mind is which spaces rely on the placement of other spaces. A sofa placed perpendicular to the TV will not create a great user experience when binge watching Doctor Who. Or a TV placed near a window may create a glare that makes daytime TV watching out of the question (sorry, no more Judge Judy).

Once you think you’ve considered every possibility of sofa/TV combination and architected accordingly, you may think you’re done. But have you considered A/B testing post-architecture? What if during user testing you find out the acoustics in the room actually make the sofa/TV arrangement better in a different location? Does your architecture allow for such deviation?

These are important question every IA should be asking themselves before finalizing the architecture. It’s not as easy to re-architect your site as it is to redesign it.

Understanding Content and Context

If you’ve spent anytime researching or working with Information Architecture (IA), you have certainly come across this venn diagram.


It shows that IA is at the convergence of content, context and the user. Rosenfeld and Morville referred to this as the “information ecology”.

Context is the business goals, funding, politics, culture, technology, resources and constraints

Content is documents, signage and data types or the structure of things

User is the audience, customer or agent

Although this diagram has been useful for many years to help show 3 important factors of good IA, it falls short in a few areas.

Because of this, we need to change how we look at this diagram.

First, I propose “understanding”, not Information Architecture, is at the convergence of user, content and context. Instead of being at the center, Information Architects are the unseen force arranging the meeting of these areas.

Although there are 3 areas influencing IA, all we really have control over is 1/3 of the venn diagram, the content. Context and user are predefined variables outside of our control. As we manipulate the content circle we increase, or decrease, the overlap of content and context and user, thus increasing, or decreasing, understanding. This means we need to thoroughly understand the relationship between user and context, prior to working on forming the content of our site and/or app.

Secondly, I believe the definition of context is partially, if not completely, wrong. Context is not the business goals or resources. Context is actually made up of 4 basic parts: the environment, culture, psychology and physiology of the user at the time of the interaction with “stuff and things”. Or as Andrew Hinton puts it in his book, Understanding Context, context is the “where” and “who” of the user.

The 4 basic parts of Context:

Environment: the surrounding climate, location and artifacts where an interaction is taking place (i.e. outside, inside, summer, fall, traffic, London). The interactions our users have with our systems is different when they are stuck in traffic in a big city versus when they are at home on the couch. A users information need is different in these 2 environments.

Culture: a users core belief systems established through nature and nurture (i.e. religious or political beliefs, sexual preference, gender identity, nationality). Language will have different semantics on site created for the African trophy hunters compared to Understanding your users core beliefs is key to not only serving them better, but to prevent alienating them with “harmless” syntax.

Psychology: a users mindset or emotions at the time of the interaction (i.e. happy, angry, distracted, frustrated). A users mindset when sitting down to binge watch their favorite TV shows on Netflix is different than when going to their banks website to find out why their paycheck wasn’t deposited and caused their mortgage payment to bounce. The users tolerance of poor navigation or confusing interactions is different because of their psychological state.

Physiology: the users actual body state (i.e. blind, deaf, left handed, tall, fat). The buttons and colors on an app designed for children may need to be designed differently than for professional sumo wrestlers. Button interactions may be more difficult for people with larger hands and will need be designed with this in mind. Blind users may need different queues instead of the normal audio queues after a button is pressed or an action took place.

Because of the above definitions, I believe that the user and context circles are even more “intertwingled” than the original venn diagram illustrates – even to the point of complete overlapping. Thus, we can simplify the venn diagram to merge user and context together into one circle.


In the end what you are left with is that understanding is at the intersection of context and content. Our job as information architects is to organize the meeting of content and context. The closer we move them together, the greater the understanding for the user.


This new arrangement is important to understanding the role of IA in creating understanding. If we don’t know the beginning point of context, then how do we know if we should move the content circle right, left, up or down. To fully understand context, you must understand how environment, culture, psychology and physiology inform the user behavior. Mind you, this is no easy task, but critical.

Because context plays such a critical role in understanding, Information Architects must wear several hats to bring about this understanding. We must be anthropologists, psychologists and content specialists. We must study human behavior within these contexts in order to inform our work.

Instead of using a clichéd venn diagram to describe our work, I propose a new word: Contexnt or maybe Contenxt. Okay. I’m still working on it. Instead, below is a visual representation of this ideal.


When content and context completely overlap we will bring about great understanding and great user experiences.

The Power of Storytelling for the User Journey

Storytelling is a great tool to help you understand the user journey.

Every user is the hero in his or her own story. Every visit to your site or app starts as a story with a goal and inciting incident, crisis, climax and an end. How we craft the user journey through the site will depend on the user goal. If we don’t understand the user or their goal how can we craft a user journey that helps them get to their a resolution of their goal.

To determine the goal of each user, we must first create personas to attach predefined goals to. A persona may have several goals and each needs to be factored into the crisis and climax moment. Personas is not the same as demographics. Personas takes much more thought and interacting with the user than just looking at analytics. Well defined personas are designed around goals, psychological profiles and user context.

In order to improve engagement and loyalty, we need to carefully create a crisis moment in the user journey. When a user overcomes the crisis, their loyalty to the story increases. They feel a sense of accomplishment. This crisis should be created in such a way that every user can overcome it, without creating a cliffhanger. This does not mean we create temporary painful user experiences only to manufacture a false sense of accomplishment. The crisis moment could be that they can’t find the right product and your site helps them navigate to find everything they needed and more. The crisis moment could be financial in origin. Just when the user thinks they can’t pay for the products they want, you present them with a coupon or bonus item or some content to move them beyond the crisis moment to a climax moment.storyarc-green-eggs

The climax is the resolution of the initial goal. They found the product or service they were looking for. Your site or app helped them accomplish this goal.

However, if a user arrives at the crisis moment and you do not help them to move to the climax moment, their story may result in a cliffhanger (ie. exit site or app). The crisis/climax transition needs to be crafted in such a way that the user knows you will help them through it and quickly. They must see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Once you feel you have the major elements of your story outlined, you can begin mapping that user story through storyboarding. As you map this out you may come across “subplots” and need to map those out as part of the journey as well. All goals, plots and sub-plots must find resolution to bring about a satisfactory conclusion for the user and build that loyalty to your product or service.

The user story could be episodic (a single visit) or a fully mapped user journey (life goals) with multiple crisis/climax moments. Each is important and should be mapped for each persona.

Defining the user journey through storytelling will not only help you to better understand your user and help them reach their goals, it will help you present these ideas to key stakeholders in your organization, either through storyboarding or user journey maps. As design and development get underway to support the user journey, each stakeholder can reference the story to determine if what they are designing and building matches the story arc and helps the user accomplish their goal.

Designing with Your CMS Team in Mind

When designing a new site or app, you may begin to pen down all the great, revolutionary new features you are going to add in. As you begin user research you might notice them looking for information that is just not there on your current site or app. This is a great opportunity to build in that content into your designs.

However, adding these new elements into your site can have a significant impact for the CMS team who manages the data.

Take for example you’re working on an eCommerce site that sells t-shirts and you learn that users really want to know what the cotton/polyester blend is on said t-shirts. So you build in an awesome new widget that allows the user to filter out t-shirts within a given ratio. You also determine that t-shirt color is important and create a little swatch grid for users to select their desired color without navigating to the product page. These are both great ideas and should be implemented, but at what expense?

dont-forget-about-meToo frequently we design and develop with little thought towards who’s going to be managing this content going forward. And who is going to add these new data points to thousands of SKUs within the CMS or commerce platform?

The previous t-shirt example happened to me. I was managing the CMS team at the time of this new feature roll out. The designer built a beautiful new page design, got these new features to the developer and the developer started work immediately. I got called into the discussion 3 weeks before launch to approve the new feature roll out plan.

I asked the designer and developer, “How we were going about getting the swatch image for each SKU. Was it going to be automatically calculated based on the SKU image?” Nope.

“You’ll need enter in the hex code for each SKU”, they told me. “Oh, and we will launch in 3 weeks and we didn’t build in a fallback plan if a SKU doesn’t have a swatch.”


My team spent the next few weeks scrambling, reaching out to t-shirt vendors, seeing if they had the hex code handy. We also added plugins to our browsers to capture the hex code with a color picker. Fortunately, for everyone involved in this project we filled in every last hex code just days before the launch (we did have to spend some time post launch cleaning up some colors that were “off”). During this time of adding this new data point into our CMS, I had to pull valuable resources previously allocated to other projects, putting those projects behind schedule.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way we won’t have to worry about hex codes any more, right? Wrong. It’s now a new data point that we have to capture on each of the almost 100 new clothing SKU we add every week. Let’s say that this one new data point only takes us 1 extra minute to gather and input into our CMS. That is 100 minutes (2.75 hours) every week dedicated to this singular data point. By the way, we rolled out 15 new features and 6 new data points with that build. We later had to hire a new editor just to support the reduction in bandwidth on the team. All of which we had not planned on.

All this pain could have been significantly reduced, if not prevented altogether had the conversation started much earlier in the process. Often the CMS team can be the missing puzzle piece to help unify the final project and ensure a smooth launch and ongoing management.

So when you start your next design project, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who’s going to manage this new feature?
  • Is the ROI for the new feature worth the management impact?
  • Should we loop the managing team into the design discussion?

After all, you want that new feature to be rolled out and managed correctly, right?

5 Fundamentals of Information Architecture

IA is not voodoo, smoke or mirrors. It is a real science and vital to creating the best, most engaging user experience your customers need and deserve. Without IA your customers will get lost in the navigation or confused in the meaning or worse, just leave and never come back.

So it’s important not only for IAs, but for those who work with IAs, to understand what it is they do and why it’s essential.

1. Information is Not Data

While it might seem like information architecture is arranging the data to help a user, this is way too simple an explanation. Information is the connection between data and user. How does the arrangement of the data, within a given context, brings about understanding of the system(s) to the user? This is the question an information architect asks themselves on a daily bases. Continue reading 5 Fundamentals of Information Architecture

Developing a Better UX Organization

Inspired by a Peter Merholz lecture at IA Summit 2015:

To deliver great user experiences, it’s not just about getting the best design out the door. It starts with getting the organization right.

There are different organizational models to deliver great UX. Each has strengths and weaknesses.

The most common organization model is a decentralized and embedded model. This allows each team (commerce, social, marketing, etc) to have a designer and developer and allows the designer to be included throughout the entire lifecycle. They are involved in decisions and part of the team. However, this causes a fractured user experience throughout the site and can be lonely for a designer to not be with other designers/developers.

Continue reading Developing a Better UX Organization