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Responsive design is never a lick of paint

Any project that starts out as a re-skin becomes a ground-up rebuild when someone pipes up with: “mobile first,” or "responsive design."

Sure, a redesign is a good reason to take stock: find out what’s working and what isn’t doing so well. It’s the perfect chance to do some bloat-weeding. But turning an existing site into a responsive site – one that works on different-sized screens like smartphones and tablets – always takes more than a lick of paint.

We built the website for the University of Cambridge Accommodation Service a decade ago, and it’s been through a few redesigns along the way. This time, the redesign was prompted when the University put together new guidelines to make its hundreds of semi-independent websites consistent. And they called for responsive design.

The guidelines come with templates to make theming easier, and we found that these work great for straightforward content: words and images in the shape of a page. But the Accommodation Service’s web app is more than a collection of pages. It’s a tool for people connected to the University to find places to live (think Rightmove for visiting Cambridge scholars). Oh, and the app is a critical piece of kit for the Service. They use it to manage thousands of interactions between seekers and landlords.

Most of the app’s functional features aren’t covered in a template: filtered search, interactive maps, user accounts, property management and the rest. Each feature and interaction had to be redesigned by reading between the lines of the new guidelines.

What we’ve ended up with is a sleek web app which has also been working for 10 years. It sits comfortably with the University of Cambridge’s huge collection of websites, but has been built for a very specific purpose: to let the Accommodation Service find lodgings for thousands of people, and help them get settled into life in Cambridge.

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