IT departments are increasingly required to deliver services out to the mobile Web, but in circumstances under which they have no control or even certainty over the types of devices being used by staff and customers to view content.
In order to ensure that the user experience is not compromised by the choice of device or the form factor of the screen IT departments are increasingly turning to development approaches like responsive Web design to deliver more ubiquitous, lower cost outcomes than can be achieved with native apps across multiple mobile operating systems like iOS Android and BlackBerry.
Responsive design allows developers to build applications for desktop, tablets and smartphones while maintaining a single code base and without the need to align to any one phone manufacturer. It uses fluid grids and flexible images to adjust to the screen size, irrespective of the form factor.
CIO Australia spoke to developers and managers in a range of industries about their experiences with this emerging approach to Web development.
Alisdair Blackman is the project manager (Intranet and Extranet) at Coates Hire, a company he describes as having “a terrific IT vision”. He also has a long track record in the Web development industry in Australia having been involved in the foundation of digital agencies like Ixion Interactive and Pivot Digital.
“A lot of the projects under way in Coates today are being pursued with a very innovative, forward thinking approach,” he said.
The company has over 2.5 million units (equipment). Its customers include civil construction companies, engineering firms and local councils. “These organisations need to see exactly what they have on hire, and for many of them that can include tens of thousands of pieces of equipment across multiple sites. Their challenge was to build a platform for customers to be able to self-manage their hire needs.”
Blackman was brought in to run the company’s Customer Portal project. “There have been many iterations of it over the last 10 years to let them know what invoices are on issue or to know what their current hires are. But what we are doing know is reconstituting our current offering so as to be far more value centric and we believe this to be a huge point of differentiation.”
It’s within this environment that the Customer Portal project was born. “The goal is to securely and efficiently make available information to our clients across a range of different mediums. They can see the piece of kit in front of them, the day rate, how it’s being charged to them. That means they can approve invoices — or dispute where the case exists. Basically, it allows customers to take control of their account with Coates.
Blackman said there were a range of issues and questions that led them to adopt a responsive design approach to the Web app development.
“If you treat a new website and an app development in isolation then there is a lot of duplication associated with the delivery of both of those systems. That is especially true when considering ongoing management and maintenance costs. We wanted to find an approach that would help circumvent these costs and overheads and that’s what led us into responsive design.”
The big advantage of the responsive design approach is that it is device agnostic. This is important for Coates Hire due to the disparate nature of its customer base. These can range anywhere from white collar professional buyers sitting in a head office in another city to owner operators on the road, using their smartphones or tablets, or logging in from home on an old PC.
Given that responsive design is still an emerging field, inevitably there were compromises to be made. “With the rollout of any technology there is that give and take approach. For us the biggest challenge is around the data set — the volumes of data that on occasions need to be made available to our customers depending on how and where they sit in the customer hierarchy.
“We tend to have tens of thousands of invoices on issue with some of our customers, for instance. How do you present that information in a meaningful way such that it does not become a usability fail? However beautiful and fluid and flexible your site is, these are the kinds of issues you need to not lose sight of.”
Blackman acknowledges that responsive design, while a core component of the project, does not provide all the answers. “We will also be rolling out an app as well — there are sometimes very distinctive requirements, and customers need to take advantage of all that functionality.” Even here, responsive design has a part to play.
One element of native app development that concerns many IT shops is the fear that they will need to continuously develop and maintain applications across multiple phone platforms. To address the platform proliferation dilemma Coates Hire deployed a solution from Antenna Software which enabled them to take HTML 5 from the responsive design site and render it across iOS, Android and BlackBerry apps. “So we were about to create three different versions of the app based on the HTML 5 from the website.”
This blended approach to Web and native app development is the direction many believe (and hope) the industry will take.
Sydney-based developer Chris Apria has built several responsive design sites, both through his work with development shop Langoor and through his own projects such as Rusty Carriage.
He shares Blackman’s view that we will increasingly see companies opting for environments that blend native apps with responsive design.
“I suspect both Apple and Android will come to understand that responsive design apps are more desirable. They could, for instance, release a software developer kits (SDK) written in something like Java that lets you access more of a phones functionality.”
There are other costs to consider beyond the code, however; costs and time required to retrain staff in responsive design techniques.
As someone who has already moved into the responsive world, Aprea confirms that the learning curve for developers in pretty straightforward.
“I was kind of surprised as how easy it was to pick up. Basically, if you're a bit of a CSS warrior and if you know what you are doing it’s not that hard to pick up the basic principles of responsive design. It’s a lot less of a burden than creating a totally different mobile website and of course it’s much easier than creating a native app.”
He estimated that for a competent CSS developer, their first responsive design may carry about a 20 per cent overhead, “but once you have been through it the first time, it’s really second nature after that”.
For others, responsive design is simply the fastest and cheapest way to reach the maximum number of channels with the minimum amount of fuss.
For instance, Craig Roussac, the general manager in charge of sustainability and environment at commercial property outfit Investa, said the appeal of responsive design for his organisation was the opportunity it afforded to get a quick win on a website refresh.
“With the Investor Sustainability Institute website we recognised that people were accessing the site from all sorts of devices. And I know from my own personal experience a lot of websites look pretty lousy when you view them on a mobile.
“So from our perspective, it was a really simple website and the responsive design approach really made it look a lot better. We were also on a bit of a budget so it was effective from that perspective as well.”
Others within Investa have also been persuaded by the experience. “I was told recently by the head of marketing that they are redoing the corporate site and that it will be made responsive as well. That wasn’t on the radar and they have been persuaded pretty quickly.”