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Is responsive design making the web a sea of same?

If 2016 showed us anything in the world of digital design it was the mainstreaming of responsive website design (RWD). From flagship etailers to corporate B-to-B players, responsive sites are everywhere, and, with the continued proliferation of mobile devices, it appears they are becoming the standard.

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For those not familiar with the term, a responsive website adapts to the user’s screen or view port. The result is that a visitor to your site will see the same experience on their ultra-wide monitor as they do on their iPhone. RWD sites are characterized by their fluid grids and flexible images; the necessary ingredients to stack and organize content dynamically as screen sizes change.

Responsive design also has strong support from the development community, who no longer want to support separate sites. Finally, RWD is also Google’s preferred means of making websites mobile-friendly. And once Google shared that mobile friendly design was a contributing factor in their SEO ranking, people really started paying attention.

The drawbacks

While the case for going responsive is strong, its implementation has some drawbacks. Faced with a common problem-set, reducing layouts dynamically, designers and developers have embraced patterns and frameworks. A quick look at a handful of responsive sites and you’ll see the layout similarities; horizontal panels with alternating colors, square modules aligned in rows and columns (AKA card-based designs), an abundance of carousels despite what most conversion studies say, and the ubiquitous ‘hamburger’ icon  providing navigational access.

Compounding the matter is the wide acceptance of development frameworks like Bootstrap that provide working code; making responsive site development faster and cheaper to build, but even more consistent in behavior.

While these conventions are good for users who have become trained-up on how sites behave, they are also limiting. And experience limitations can be problematic in intensely competitive industries like ecommerce. With Amazon looking like an increasingly immovable object it’s up to the individual etailer to create an irresistible experience. It’s a daunting task without added constraints.

Storytelling to the rescue

While responsive design and development frameworks have fostered a more consistent web, there’s no reason you need to make trade-offs between branding and usability. Establishing your brand’s digital experience relies on perhaps the oldest and most effective means of communication – storytelling. Whether describing the story of your founding or simply giving your audience a look inside, an authentic and inspiring story will set your digital experience apart.

Some companies, like Patagonia, have a higher calling like protecting the environment and supporting fair trade. Everything they do is in support of this from the materials they use to the labor they employ. Even their product merchandising frequently takes a back seat to their mission.

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The Warby Parker founding team sought to disrupt the eyewear oligarchy, but similarly value social good. For every pair of glasses sold, Warby gives away a pair. Warby wisely translates this to the impact you have as a consumer; helping others in an enticing one-to-one way.

Buy a pair, give a pair

The key is finding your story and sharing it in an authentic way. Even if your company story lacks an inspiring, change-the-world dynamic, the tale of a problem effectively solved will resonate with the like-minded.

The team at Bonobos couldn’t find a good fitting pair of pants. The founder of Untuckit just wanted to stay untucked. Dollar Shave Club wanted to help men get a great shave at a great price. You get the idea. However, simply having a unique story is just the start. To bring your story to life you need to leverage the three pillars of digital storytelling including great content, impactful photography, and an authentic voice.

Content – the Once and Future King

Leading brands know great stories require great supporting content; whether saving the planet or outfitting you in style. Take the purveyors of men’s style – Mr. Porter. Mr. Porter, an e-tailing stalwart, seeks to make style, and not fashion, socially acceptable for men.

One of the lynchpins in their strategy is to partner with established tastemakers to develop high quality content. The association does double duty as endorsement and provides social air-cover for men who might look at fashion as a knock on their masculinity. Talking a digital page from Esquire Magazine, Mr. Porters’ daily style guides provide a reason to return and great SEO in the process.

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Detroit-based Shinola knows a thing or two about storytelling. By capitalizing on their story of helping resurrect American manufacturing, Shinola has expanded their product line from premium watches to accessories and leather goods. The press-friendly story has helped garner tremendous attention furthering their reach and justifying their high price points.

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A picture’s worth…

The most immediately impactful element of storytelling is great photography. Bang & Olufsen (B & O) are perhaps the most well-regarded designers of home theater and audio systems in the world. What sets B & O apart, aside from their dizzying price points and quality materials, is the industrial design of their products. They don’t just sound great, they function as art. And B & O takes full advantage by integrating their products into lifestyle shots of Soho lofts and Palm Springs bungalows.
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Furniture design upstart JoyBird knows all to well the challenges of selling furniture online. Furniture is tactile, expensive, and often a shared decision; making it a very high-consideration purchase. They check all the boxes with great product photography, but they didn’t stop there. Joybird furniture is also shot in their warehouse; reinforcing their story of American design and manufacturing. Additionally, Joybird has turned storytelling on its head by showcasing customer stories that include gorgeous lifestyle and interior shots of customer homes (carefully curated of course) that allow readers to ‘shop the look.’

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It’s how you say it

In today’s world of bite-sized content it can be easy to dismiss the power of the written word. Don’t fall into this trap. Your brand’s voice is one of the best ways you can distinguish yourself from competitors and resonate with intended customers. A unique voice is particularly important for upstarts trying to make a name for themselves in a crowded field.

Take Dollar Shave Club. They could have focused on the simple articulation of their value proposition; a great and convenient shave at a low price. But that alone wasn’t enough to garner attention. Their bold and humorous web videos took care of that.

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A great voice is also important for brands that have little to no direct person-to-person interaction with their customers. Email marketing power house Mail Chimp could have focused on simply creating an intuitive utility, but their fun and smart tone manages to educate and entertain consumers without being patronizing. Mail Chimp even went so far as to publish their Voice & Tone Guidelines; opening it up and encouraging adoption and adaptation.

MailChimp Voice & Tone Guide

The verdict

Setting your digital experience apart through storytelling isn’t easy, but it’s the best way to set your site apart from others when patterns prevail. And while the conventions of responsive may chafe your inner brand-maven, those patterns are actually helping you tell your story by getting interface problems out of the way so you can focus on what makes you, you. A website’s user experience is like a great musical score. It should support your story, but not distract or deter.

Finally, keep in mind that your website is never done; it’s a fluid presence that should adapt iteratively as you learn how to tell your story more effectively, or as new patterns emerge.