I hosted a conversation with Mark Lesswing and Chad Curry from the National Association of Realtors during a session at the Real Estate Connect event last month in New York City. The workshop, "Updating Your Digital Presence for the Post-PC World," covered a variety of intriguing topics, including responsive Web design — which auto-sizes a site to fit on the screen of any device accessing the site.
Mark Lesswing is the chief technology officer at the National Association of Realtors and is one of the industry’s top tech thought leaders.
Chad Curry is managing director at the Center for Realtor Technology (CRT), has been a Web developer for the past 14 years, and is actively working to move NAR’s Web properties from proprietary to open source.
FLANAGAN: We’ve heard a lot about responsive Web design recently. Can you discuss the design technique and why the organization chose to incorporate this approach?
LESSWING: NAR put its "toes into the water" with iPhone, iPad and Android "apps" beginning in 2010. For an organization of our size, the cost of producing and maintaining these "apps" is not as much a burden as smaller companies would experience. As you can appreciate, NAR is a member-driven organization and the thought was to pilot technologies that made sense for our members while still doing something for NAR.
The problem was "how to support many form factors" (phone, tablet and desktop) without "system lock-in," at a price point that the community could take advantage of. Chad Curry came up with the solution: responsive design.
CURRY: The truly exciting thing about this direction is that we’re growing with it. This is a relatively new way of thinking. Ethan Marcotte first wrote about it in May 2010 and since then it has gathered steam. Using this design technique allows us to be nimble and remain viable no matter what devices come out in the future.
If we’d chosen the app route, we’d have more code bases to maintain and have to consider which platforms we’d build for. That’s simply not sustainable when you have 1 million-plus members who need the information now.
FLANAGAN: How does the new design add value to your audience and NAR members?
LESSWING: The original Realtor.org attempted to store everything. It was the place to go for news, historical governance documents and even access to member information. We were challenged by the "I can’t find anything" complaint.
We first took a (deconstruction) step and broke the site down into an archive site (archive.Realtors.org, managed by professional librarians), apps.Realtors.org (the everyday operational forms), and mini-sites dedicated to special events. Once this was accomplished, we went about dedicating my.Realtor.org with only current information, hopefully only 1 year old or less.
The final step was to allow members to choose which information they wanted "instant" access to. In essence, they design their own Web page.
Taking this path allowed us to take advantage of responsive design to deliver what members want, where they want it, regardless of platform.
CURRY: We are definitely (deconstructing) the site. Aside from shifting content and apps to other appropriate channels, we needed to deconstruct the site layout. On our current home page, we have nearly 110-plus links. The question becomes, "How can you find what you need when you have so many decisions to make? What’s important?"
Pursuing the responsive design path makes you look at "What’s important to a mobile user?" By pursuing a course of action that adapts to your screen, they have fewer decisions to make and can focus on getting what they need. Rather than having to zoom left, right, up, down, (the users) only need to scroll up or down on a mobile device.
The other value with what we are doing is that we, as a team, are also being responsive. We are open to feedback and validated learning. We are going to do some things that work and some that don’t. We definitely want feedback from our members. So, try it out and let us know how it works.
FLANAGAN: What are the advantages and disadvantages of a responsive Web design? Do you see this as a growing trend and could other industry websites benefit from this design method?
LESSWING: I have already addressed advantages; so let me talk about disadvantages. We are on the cusp of HTML5. Some of the futuristic thinking relies on HTML5 as well as CSS3. If the various browsers supported standards more uniformly, it would make our job easier.
Also, not everyone in our audience can fully appreciate my.Realtor.org due to their use of older browsers. To summarize, the disadvantage of the approach is that we cannot speed up time.
CURRY: I would agree with Mark wholeheartedly about browsers. The other thing I would say is that there is a trade-off in cost you have to weigh, but not a disadvantage.
Depending on how many device widths you have, you will have to create more CSS (files) and that’s fine. In my opinion, it is much easier to maintain a few more CSS files than multiple apps. We are working with three widths: desktop, tablet and mobile.
FLANAGAN: At Real Estate Connect, we had a spirited discussion regarding mobile strategies and Web apps vs. native apps. Native apps and Web apps seem to share a symbiotic relationship. Are developers getting tired of creating for multiple platforms, and do you have a preference?
LESSWING: Who wouldn’t get tired? The first time you get it to work on iPhone, you feel great. Then you hit the maintenance cycle that is "pinched" by a port to Android. Meanwhile, you feel pressure to get the iPad version rolling.
Coding in a "Web app" manner allows me to keep fresher mentally, dreading the maintenance cycle less than I would otherwise.
CURRY: I do want to say as far as the native vs. Web debate, it really depends on what your users need and what functionality you need. Items like geolocation are included as part of HTML5 but are still evolving.
I don’t think developers are getting tired of building native apps. I think they are getting much better at honing in on the question of "What’s the right tool for what I’m trying to do here?"
FLANAGAN: Everyone wants to leverage mobile. What are your thoughts on the growth of the mobile Web, and what should real estate professionals be focusing on?
LESSWING: The focus should be where the traditional Web impacted consumers the most — (providing a) timely and insightful real estate perspective. The responsive design approach still has the Web server as its heart, and as HTML5 matures many of the environmental advantages that apps have (location, orientation, sensors, etc.) will be supported.
When I reference maturation, I do it in technology terms, measured by quarters. Even though HTML5 (as an official standard) is still years away, vendors are driven by users and users will put pressure on the "slothlike" pace of standards.
CURRY: I think one of the biggest things is location-aware/geolocation development. Look at what Foursquare’s Explore feature update is doing. Long story short: It … allows you to drag around on the map and get recommendations in areas you’ve never been before.
I think what Corcoran Group is doing with Foursquare tips and recommendations (demonstrates that Foursquare) can be an effective marketing and communications tool in this space.
FLANAGAN: The new beta site states that it is a "work in progress." What can users and members expect in the coming months?
LESSWING: NAR is fortunate to have a cross-departmental team leading my.Realtor.org as it rolls out. I’ll let Chad speak for Jane Edrosa and Joshua Hunt.
CURRY: This is a cross-departmental effort led by Jane Edrosa from marketing and user research, Joshua Hunt from communications, and myself. Working in this fashion allows us to innovate and deliver a stronger experience.
Our team is working really hard to refine and create great content. We are working on personalizing content so it better aligns with a user’s experience. (That means) you can pick out topics that speak to what you are interested in at NAR and beyond.
Our goals for this include bringing localized content to the end user, serving up content that speaks to specific designations and roles, and providing the means for you to add content you feel is important.
We will be adding more images and visuals as time goes on. We are moving toward a visual consumption of information through infographics.
This is not a project as much as it is an iterative process; a new way to address our members’ needs more effectively. It will grow and evolve over time with user feedback, our findings through site metrics, and user testing and technological developments.