One of my dirty little liberal arts secrets is that I took a philosophy course to fulfill my undergraduate math requirement. I know, I know: hurf durf English majors and all that. But the course was “The History of Logic,” and I loved the hell out of it. It was in this musty old classroom about a quarter mile’s hike from my dorm room, and the professor was this impossibly geeky old gentleman, who had a predilection for those überacademic sweaters—you know, with the leather patches on the elbows—but was prone to working Monty Python references into his lectures. Socratic syllogisms were never so much fun.
Anyway, I’m a decade or so removed from my literature degree, and an additional year or two removed from that class in particular, so my command of various terms is, well, thoroughly shot at this point. But lately I’ve been noticing how many discussions about responsive web design revolve around the same fallacy.
Now, I realize “fallacy” seems like a loaded term. But really, it isn’t: in its most basic, rhetorical form, a “fallacy” is a structural flaw in an argument. A fallacious argument isn’t even necessarily wrong—in fact, it can be completely and utterly correct, factually speaking. But the logic used to reach the conclusion is just a little off.
Here’s a quick example. Let’s say I walked up to you and said,
“It’s raining outside. Therefore, the sun isn’t shining.”
The problem with that statement is the second sentence doesn’t follow from the first. The result is evidence (“It’s raining outside”) that doesn’t support the conclusion (“The sun isn’t shining”). Now, that conclusion could be completely correct: the sun might very well have ducked behind a raincloud. But the logic I used to reach that conclusion is flawed. In short, it’s based on a fallacy.
What about this one?
“Different devices always require different experiences. Therefore, responsive design is flawed.”
There’s no fallacy there: taken at face value, the premise supports the conclusion. Now, that doesn’t mean I agree with that reasoning at all—in fact, I’d disagree quite stridently, and we’d be off to the races with an entirely separate discussion altogether. And we can debate those positions ad infinitum, ad nauseam, or some other ad of your choosing.
But here’s the thing: with a few notable exceptions (this shoddy primer on logic terms among them), very few people are making that assertion. Instead, you’ll see something like this pop up:
“I need to design a different experience for different contexts. Therefore, responsive design is flawed.”
Now, I’m not quoting anyone in particular here; this point just pops up frequently in discussions about responsive web design. And yes, it’s a fallacy. Let me see if I can explain why.
When I’m speaking or writing about responsive design, I try to underline something with great, big, Sharpie-esque strokes: responsive design is not about “designing for mobile.” But it’s not about “designing for the desktop,” either. Rather, it’s about adopting a more flexible, device-agnostic approach to designing for the web. Fluid grids, flexible images, and media queries are the tools we use to get a bit closer to that somewhat abstract-sounding philosophy. And honestly, a more unified, less fragmented approach resonates with my understanding of the web on a fairly profound level.
But I’m not interested in a religious debate. And chances are good that you’re not, either.
I really do believe responsive design can be a great way to design for our ever-changing web. Sure, I’ve got some fairly evident biases on that front: but with the right planning, implementation, and forethought, it can be a damned compelling approach.
But let’s say that your project—or more specifically, your audience—is better served by a mobile-/tablet-/
$DEVICE-specific experience. Heck, I’ve worked on a number of projects that benefitted from that approach: where a separate mobile site was needed, and where a responsive approach would’ve been less than ideal. That decision wasn’t driven by any “mobile vs. desktop” mindset, though: it was dictated by research, by our content strategy, and by studying the needs of that site’s particular audience.
A fair bit of the book’s conclusion talks about this process. Because maybe your site is better served by a separate mobile site than by a responsive approach. Or maybe the reverse is true: maybe a responsive approach is more appropriate. The moral here is that you should tailor the approach to the project, and put the polemic aside. Because nobody knows your project, your audience, better than you do. Anyone who suggests otherwise is committing a different kind of fallacy.