Mobile Web Design Trends: Q&A with Christopher Butler

Top mobile design experts share their secrets for staying ahead of the curve in this fast-changing industry.

Whether you're just getting started designing for the mobile web or you're trying to help clients understand how they can take advantage of the latest mobile web developments, knowing where to look for information can be challenging. To simplify the task, we asked some accomplished mobile web design experts to share their thoughts on how to succeed and keep pace in this exciting, ever-evolving field.

This week's interviewee is Christopher Butler. As chief operating officer of the web development agency Newfangled, Butler directs strategy, design and personnel. He consults on a wide variety of topics surrounding design and technology. He authored The Strategic Web Designer and has written for HOW, Print, Smashing Magazine and Salon.

What mobile trends are working well?

Christopher Butler

I think responsive design, generally, is working quite well as an answer to the growing range of device screen sizes. But there are a few challenges that come with it. First, the design process we've followed for years just doesn't work well anymore. So responsive is pushing us toward design systems, style guides and pattern libraries. These are great ways to handle design, but they require us to change our process and re-educate our clients on what they need to approve and what those approvals mean.

What mobile trends do you wish would just go away?

I'm not a fan of the "navburger." The stacked-bar menu icon is great on touch devices. It's perfect shorthand ­– everyone knows what it means. But on a desktop machine, using it is a step backward. It forces people to take an additional step to reveal a navigation menu, which makes sense on a smaller screen where showing or hiding information to conserve space is necessary versus a larger screen where space is abundant. It's a dumb, hyper-literal extrusion of the mobile-first ethos. I think we can leave the navburger to the small screens.

How do you determine whether a client needs an app, mobile-specific site or responsive site to reach their customers via mobile devices?

In most cases, our clients do not need an app. A few years back we were getting a lot of interest in apps, which was really a manifestation of an interest in mobile, but one that lacked a deeper understanding of how the various mobile ecosystems worked. Most of our clients are marketing-focused rather than product-focused teams. They didn't realize that app-based solutions faced major challenges: economic viability, development redundancy and searchability, among others. In 2011, I wrote a post to help with this.

I think the responsive approach is generally ideal. It saves us from having to design and build unique templates and use device-detection to funnel user experiences, which can be a pretty flawed approach. But it also assumes that content experiences should be as seamless and device- and context-agnostic as possible.

What are your favorite mobile sites that designers can learn from? Why do they stand out to you?

I love what NPR has been doing on their site. They've figured out a great economy of information on topical list pages and have this lovely and simple inline audio player for stories that have sound, in addition to text and images.

The Dissolve is also great. Beautifully designed, abundantly readable, lots of great little details in their menus and related content tools.

What resources do you recommend for designers who want to get into mobile?

These days, there's so much information out there that will help with both strategic considerations and implementation. The people of the Web are incredibly generous with their expertise! I recommend Smashing Magazine, Brad Frost's This is Responsive GitHub repository, Codecademy and Treehouse. And, of course, Newfangled

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