Initial Thoughts on Logistics of Responsive Design and Rapid Prototyping

Finally, we (UX practitioners) had everything going for us: After years of having to toil with static drawing tools such as Visio, or agonize over tools intended for developers, rapid prototyping tools such as Axure made it possible for a non-developer to dream-up and demonstrate compelling interfaces. During a brief period of bliss, between 2007-2010 or so, while things were far from perfect, everyone was happy: Stakeholders, developers, users and of course - us, UX people. 

But clouds of trouble gathered with the rapid proliferation of mobile devices, starting with the iPhone, iPad and the now numerous offerings from others. For our clients, making sure their websites and software works well on all devices quickly changes from 'nice to have' to 'absolutely must have'. From providing some level of competitive advantage, ensuring your software is device-agonistic has become a financial deep-hole, with marginal advantage when offered, to punishing consequences if not. 

On the surface, this situation would suggest a gold mine to anyone in the UX profession, since the implications are that there is tons or work we need to help with. And indeed, one might argue that the opposite situation would be worse, and I agree. However, as device-agnostic design becomes a core demand from clients, a non-trivial mission is being viewed by the people who pay for it, as trivial. In other words - They want to pay less, to get more, and as usual - faster. It makes sense, from the client's perspective, because, when you look at a good simple design, it looks so simple, so easy to do...just like competitive ice-skating, perhaps. Only those who went through a design project can appreciate the complexities.

In the grand scheme of things, however, these are early days, Adding to the mess created by multiple operating systems, web-browsers and other competing standards, we now have to deal with more operating systems for mobile device, and the devices of course. The situation is not sustainable. period. Customers demand, and rightly so, access using their device, and they don't care, and should not care about the incompatibility issues.Responsive design is the latest savior of the day because it promises to reduce the costs and complexities associated with developing and maintaining apps on all devices known to Human Kind, with some clever techniques that make a website respond to the device it is use on. No dedicated apps are needed.
So back to us, UX practitioners, who got comfortable with our dedicated no-programing-needed prototyping tools. Responsive design requires multiple distinct experiences that will be displayed dynamically on the device, based on it's size and orientation. If you use a tool such as Axure, it may be tempting to prototype the various experience permutations AS WELL AS the dynamic, fluid transformation between one state to another. I have seen several examples posted here and there, and the approaches are well intentioned, clever and in some cases even appropriate.
But for any project of meaningful size, responsive design should be approached with excitement mixed with dread: 
  • Do our stakeholders understand what we are getting ourselves into?
  • Do we understand?
In speaking with colleagues in the US and Eurpoe, I'm getting the impression that UX might be sliding into a state of chaos, with companies scrambling to develop presence across the new mobile frontier, but lack the time, budget and expertice to get this done. Most our prototyping tools are not well equipped with the demands of a single complex, multi-phased, mulit-release project, and the compaunding weight of simultanious interfaces in not sustainable.