What to consider when you're building a responsive SharePoint site

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When you spend the majority of your SharePoint time tangled up in backend development, it can be easy to forget that the content you’re presenting will be consumed through the web. Whether you’re building a bare-bones internal file store or a flashy customer-facing website, your users will be accessing it through a browser, with all the baggage that brings along.

This is a big issue nowadays, because web browsing habits are in the middle of a paradigm shift. Once upon a time, it was safe to assume that all the traffic worth thinking about was desktop-based, but this is no longer the case – mobile now accounts for 33 per cent of all internet activity, according to a June Cisco report, and is on track to surpass PC as soon as 2018.

As such, one of the hottest topics in web development over the past few years has been what’s called responsive design – the idea that thanks to the advanced features of HTML5 and CSS3, we no longer need to build separate sites for mobile and desktop but can make a single layout dynamic instead.

The SharePoint community has traditionally been seen as a little behind the curve on this front, but things are beginning to change – it’s becoming more and more common to see developers make their intranets and websites adapt to different browsing models on the fly, accommodating users whether they’re sitting in front of desktop computers, smartphones or tablets.

Responsive design isn’t just about flexible layouts and font sizes, however – there are dozens of other factors you need to consider to make your site a success on more than one platform. Here are some of the top considerations for SharePoint developers in particular; have they informed any of the thinking behind your latest project?

Presenting the right information

One of the reasons you might choose SharePoint for a web development project is its ability to present information from a wide range of sources, whether SQL databases, Excel spreadsheets or unstructured Word documents.

If you’re working in the responsive design paradigm, however, you need to be a little more aware of what constitutes a reasonable amount of information to present to your target audience. Let’s say you have a complex table or graph, for example; your desktop users might be able to view the whole thing without much trouble, but on a small-screen smartphone, it could be a different story.

As such, responsive design isn’t just about having an adaptive layout – you should also look to streamline the actual content on offer across multiple devices.

Minimising performance problems

Even as mobile browsing becomes more common, it’s important to remember that many smartphone users will access your site over cellular connections that might not be as fast or reliable as fixed-line broadband. Stuff each page with dozens of high-resolution images and streaming videos, and you’re bound to frustrate more than a few mobile visitors.

Add to this the fact that most smartphones and tablets don’t have the processing power of desktop and laptop computers, and an asset-rich site can be anathema to cross-platform browsing. To combat this, some of the steps you can take include serving lower quality images to mobile browsers, cutting down on the use of custom web fonts and ditching fancy scripts that hurt performance without adding much to the visitor experience.

Optimising for a touch interface

Finally, a key consideration for any responsive design project is compatibility with both pointer-based and touch interfaces. On the one hand, the latter obstructs some of the stalwarts of desktop interface design, such as mouseovers; on the other, it offers unique forms of interaction, like swipes and tilts. In order to build a responsive SharePoint site, you’re going to need to find a happy middle ground.

It can be tempting to assume that users on smartphones and tablets don’t typically interact with your content as much, or as deeply, as those on desktop computers. This isn’t strictly true, however – mobile devices are rapidly gaining acceptance as important productivity tools in their own right, so the sooner your web apps are accessible to them, the better.

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