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Trends on Tuesday: Web Standards Advocate Advises Adaptive Web Design for Government Sites

I like an escalator because an escalator can never break, it can only become stairs. — Mitch Hedberg

This August, Aaron Gustafson, Web Standards Advocate at Microsoft, industry thought leader and speaker, and an author who wrote a leading book on adaptive web design, spoke to the government tech community at the U.S. General Services Administration and provided many magnificent insights into mobile strategy, design and tech development for reaching the widest audience possible across devices.

Gustafson’s insights are especially important and impactful for government agencies because he focuses on the full-gamut of technologies audiences use—not just the latest mobile phones, OSes and apps—so his work and perspective can help inform government agencies on how to grapple with the technology needs of very diverse constituencies. I highly recommend you take the time to watch Gustafson’s “Beyond Responsive” presentation on Youtube or at least view the slides to learn more.

Here are a few notable takeaways:

  • The Web is everywhere and expanding to exponential platforms and viewports. From WAP-enabled mobile phones to embedded webviews in social media apps to computers to smartphones to connected cars—the Web goes to all these places through a single platform and code base, unlike mobile apps that have to be built and maintained specifically for each platform. (Slides 1-10)
  • Smartphones have reached 75% penetration in the U.S. but that’s concentrated in 61% of households. Half of people making less than $30,000 a year don’t have a smartphone and more than a quarter of those making $30,000-$75,000 don’t have smartphones. (Slide 14)
  • There’s a huge user base and opportunity in the number of Americans earning under $30,000—that group accounts for more people than the upper income groups combined and is also one of the predominantly mobile-only audiences, so giving them a good mobile experience on lower-end devices is crucial because they often don’t have alternatives. (Slide 18)
  • Just because your audience has a “smartphone” doesn’t mean the experience is super smooth. Lower-cost, lower-tech smartphones are used heavily by low-income individuals, and while they are still considered smartphones, they have less memory, storage, CPU and GPU power which can cause many issues for users. (Slides 19-22)
  • The majority of Internet-connected devices, after phones, are connected cars that have Web access. At the end of 2014, connected cars made up 62% of the non-phone subscriptions for AT&T. (Slide 23)
  • If you’re judging your audience by using something like Google Analytics only, you’re missing a segment of the users that have devices without Javascript support. Most analytics platforms require Javascript to track data, so we often don’t know who’s out there and what they’re using. (Slide 34)
  • The solution to reach these high-tech, low-tech, ghost users is building with adaptive web design (also called progressive enhancement) principles, technologies and content. This is illustrated nicely by Gustafson using Legos and summarized by a funny quote from Mitch Hedberg, “I like an escalator because an escalator can never break, it only becomes stairs.” (Slides 44-48)
  • Take a deep dive on how to actually execute excellent adaptive web designs. The remaining presentation provides dozens of real world visual, strategy and code examples on how to build with adaptive design to create a better user experience that works for all devices and platforms. (Slides 62 and beyond)

Definitely take the time to listen to Gustafson’s full presentation on YouTube and share it with your coworkers and bosses (to help get you buy-in for the future).

In a tech world where code choice sometimes becomes almost a religion, he’s one of the most reasonable, least dogmatic evangelists around, and government agencies should pay attention because he is focused on providing access to the Web to everyone, rather than just the elite with the latest devices.

Government agencies should support and follow Gustafson’s prescribed adaptive ideology to serve all of our constituencies bestfrom the users of low-tech, low-cost Trac Phones to the iPhone 6 Plus phablet user driving a Tesla with a 17-inch touch-enabled Web browser who also has a Web-enabled refrigerator at home.

Concept graphic by Brad Frost shows various devices and appliances with web screens

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