Musings on deeper Responsive Design that adapts to the uniqueness of each user

June 14, 2014 at 11:16 AM

Slowly the way people use software and computers is changing, design is getting better thanks to a focus on usability and the technique of Responsive Web Design. But this idea can be taken further when user interfaces respond and adapt to the particular and specific needs of the person using it.

A “one size fits all” approach where designers dream up an ultimate solution for how everyone should interact with the software or device has to disappear, indeed I believe it will, because what is beautiful and useful to consume information for one person might not be for another.

Swiftkey typing heat map, shouldnt our keyboards morph and change slightly to adapt to the shape and position of where our fingers tap?

My Swiftkey typing heat map showing where and how often my thumbs tap. Shouldn’t our keyboards adapt to us? Note how I don’t tap on top of the A, if that key shifted slightly for me, would I type faster?

It might be OK for some if the search bar is vertically placed, or if the “back” button is not an arrow and it’s not positioned to the left. What about people who can’t see at all?  These are very simple examples but the breadth of human culture and history should teach us that people see and interact with the world in different ways to the point that the things that are the most important in our lives are usually personalized and made our own. The “one size fits all approach” to software interfaces should especially be challenged as the world finally becomes connected in its entirety.

I’m not putting forward the idea that designers should come up with new and crazy designs for people to choose from, like in the way “skins” and interface layers are placed on software. Instead I believe that the idea of “responsiveness” taken to its full expression really escapes the designer and becomes the user’s territory, the user experience and information architecture should morph to serve the user in all of her intricacy.


There are deeper ways software interfaces could change and adapt to the user and his context:

  • The advent of tracking vital signs and other biological information through wearables such as fitness trackers and phones with medical sensors opens opportunities for adapting interfaces to a persons different physical states. Think of an interface enriched by the idea of the feedback of a mood ring.
  • The size and of buttons and other interface elements could slowly become bigger or smaller depending on the size of the users fingers. Children have small fingers, older people might have less precision in theirs, while some disabled people might not have any. The interface should sense and change to their needs.
  • Devices themselves could change and respond to specific user needs if the aspiration of smart materials is fulfilled.
  • User context, where they are, who they are with, what they are doing should also be an automatic factor for adapting software interfaces. If I get into my car, the way I interact with software should change. If i’m with friends, social activities should be on hand.
Information should be free from it's interface vessel

Information should be free from it’s interface vessel, changing into whatever form we want it to

  • The possibilities of Gamification have only just begun to be explored, both to reward and encourage the user. Platforms like Adwords could greatly be enhanced with game-like feedback.
  • The layout of the interface could shift and re-arrange depending on where the users’ eyes are spending the most time.
  • Texture and depth are part of the everyday world, why couldn’t a screen and interface aim to mimic this reality to create deeper connections with users?
  • Perhaps in a dystopian way, if software could respond and adapt to our very thoughts and mental states the line between our own mind and software could become seriously blurred.


As more people use software, and they become more adept at using it, the challenges grow to provide a solution for all the use cases and preferences that they will undoubtedly call for. Information must be freed from the constraints of the vessel that is holding it, like wine in a glass it must be spilled and allowed to be rearranged by the user. Responsive Design as a concept, should go beyond the mere arrangement of the graphics on your screen to a tailored user experience that is unique to you.

Google is making strides in this space with Material Design approach which is the idea of using rules akin to those in the physical world in a UX design.

Indeed, when design really adapts and responds to the individual it will usher user experiences that truly fit the timeless aspiration that Steve Jobs coined to explain effortless user interfaces: It just works. 

The concept of Responsive Design is that one design format should fit and adapt to all screen sizes

The concept of Responsive Design is that one design format should fit and adapt to all screen sizes