Bootstrap Responsibly

Bootstrap is the most popular front-end framework used for websites. An estimate by meanpath several months ago sat it firmly behind 1% of the web – for good reason: Bootstrap makes it relatively painless to puzzle together a pretty awesome plug-and-play, component-rich site. Its modularity is its key feature, developed so Twitter could rapidly spin-up internal microsites and dashboards.

Oh, and it’s responsive. This is kind of a thing. There’s not a library conference today that doesn’t showcase at least one talk about responsive web design. There’s a book, countless webinars, courses, whole blogs dedicated to it (ahem), and more. The pressure for libraries to have responsive, usable websites can seem to come more from the likes of us than from the patronbase itself, but don’t let that discredit it. The trend is clear and it is only a matter of time before our libraries have their mobile moment.

Library websites that aren’t responsive feel dated, and more importantly they are missing an opportunity to reach a bevy of mobile-only users that in 2012 already made up more than a quarter of all web traffic. Library redesigns are often quickly pulled together in a rush to meet the growing demand from stakeholders, pressure from the library community, and users. The sprint makes the allure of frameworks like Bootstrap that much more appealing, but Bootstrapped library websites often suffer the cruelest of responsive ironies:

They’re not mobile-friendly at all.

Assumptions that Frameworks Make

Let’s take a step back and consider whether using a framework is the right choice at all. A front-end framework like Bootstrap is a Lego set with all the pieces conveniently packed. It comes with a series of templates, a blown-out stylesheet, scripts tuned to the environment that let users essentially copy-and-paste fairly complex web-machinery into being. Carousels, tabs, responsive dropdown menus, all sorts of buttons, alerts for every occasion, gorgeous galleries, and very smart decisions made by a robust team of far-more capable developers than we.

Except for the specific layout and the content, every Bootstrapped site is essentially a complete organism years in the making. This is also the reason that designers sometimes scoff, joking that these sites look the same. Decked-out frameworks are ideal for rapid prototyping with a limited timescale and budget because the design decisions have by and large already been made. They assume you plan to use the framework as-is, and they don’t make customization easy.

In fact, Bootstrap’s guide points out that any customization is better suited to be cosmetic than a complete overhaul. The trade-off is that Bootstrap is otherwise complete. It is tried, true, usable, accessible out of the box, and only waiting for your content.

Not all Responsive Design is Created Equal

It is still common to hear the selling point for a swanky new site is that it is “responsive down to mobile.” The phrase probably rings a bell. It describes a website that collapses its grid as the width of the browser shrinks until its layout is appropriate for whatever screen users are carrying around. This is kind of the point – and cool, as any of us with a browser-resizing obsession could tell you.

Today, “responsive down to mobile” has a lot of baggage. Let me explain: it represents a telling and harrowing ideology that for these projects mobile is the afterthought when mobile optimization should be the most important part. Library design committees don’t actually say aloud or conceive of this stuff when researching options, but it should be implicit. When mobile is an afterthought, the committee presumes users are more likely to visit from a laptop or desktop than a phone (or refrigerator). This is not true.

See, a website, responsive or not, originally laid out for a 1366×768 desktop monitor in the designer’s office, wistfully depends on visitors with that same browsing context. If it looks good in-office and loads fast, then looking good and loading fast must be the default. “Responsive down to mobile” is divorced from the reality that a similarly wide screen is not the common denominator. As such, responsive down to mobile sites have a superficial layout optimized for the developers, not the user.

In a recent talk at An Event Apart–a conference–in Atlanta, Georgia, Mat Marquis stated that 72% of responsive websites send the same assets to mobile sites as they do desktop sites, and this is largely contributing to the web feeling slower. While setting img { width: 100%; } will scale media to fit snugly to the container, it is still sending the same high-resolution image to a 320px-wide phone as a 720px-wide tablet. A 1.6mb page loads differently on a phone than the machine it was designed on. The digital divide with which librarians are so familiar is certainly nowhere near closed, but while internet access is increasingly available its ubiquity doesn’t translate to speed:

  1. 50% of users ages 12-29 are “mostly mobile” users, and you know what wireless connections are like,
  2. even so, the weight of the average website ( currently 1.6mb) is increasing.

Last December, analysis of data from pagespeed quantiles during an HTTP Archive crawl tried to determine how fast the web was getting slower. The fastest sites are slowing at a greater rate than the big bloated sites, likely because the assets we send–like increasingly high resolution images to compensate for increasing pixel density in our devices–are getting bigger.

The havoc this wreaks on the load times of “mobile friendly” responsive websites is detrimental. Why? Well, we know that

  • users expect a mobile website to load as fast on their phone as it does on a desktop,
  • three-quarters of users will give up on a website if it takes longer than 4 seconds to load,
  • the optimistic average load time for just a 700kb website on 3G is more like 10-12 seconds

eep O_o.

A Better Responsive Design

So there was a big change to Bootstrap in August 2013 when it was restructured from a “responsive down to mobile” framework to “mobile-first.” It has also been given a simpler, flat design, which has 100% faster paint time – but I digress. “Mobile-first” is key. Emblazon this over the door of the library web committee. Strike “responsive down to mobile.” Suppress the record.

Technically, “mobile-first” describes the structure of the stylesheet using CSS3 Media Queries, which determine when certain styles are rendered by the browser.

.example {
  styles: these load first;

@media screen and (min-width: 48em) {

  .example {

    styles: these load once the screen is 48 ems wide;



The most basic styles are loaded first. As more space becomes available, designers can assume (sort of) that the user’s device has a little extra juice, that their connection may be better, so they start adding pizzazz. One might make the decision that, hey, most of the devices less than 48em (720px approximately with a base font size of 16px) are probably touch only, so let’s not load any hover effects until the screen is wider.


In a literal sense, mobile-first is asset management. More than that, mobile-first is this philosophical undercurrent, an implicit zen of user-centric thinking that aligns with libraries’ missions to be accessible to all patrons. Designing mobile-first means designing to the lowest common denominator: functional and fast on a cracked Blackberry at peak time; functional and fast on a ten year old machine in the bayou, a browser with fourteen malware toolbars trudging through the mire of a dial-up connection; functional and fast [and beautiful?] on a 23″ iMac. Thinking about the mobile layout first makes design committees more selective of the content squeezed on to the front page, which makes committees more concerned with the quality of that content.

The Point

This is the important statement that Bootstrap now makes. It expects the design committee to think mobile-first. It comes with all the components you could want, but they want you to trim the fat.

Future Friendly Bootstrapping

This is what you get in the stock Bootstrap:

  • buttons, tables, forms, icons, etc. (97kb)
  • a theme (20kb)
  • javascripts (30kb)
  • oh, and jQuery (94kb)

That’s almost 250kb of website. This is like a browser eating a brick of Mackinac Island Fudge – and this high calorie bloat doesn’t include images. Consider that if the median load time for a 700kb page is 10-12 seconds on a phone, half that time with out-of-the-box Bootstrap is spent loading just the assets.

While it’s not totally deal-breaking, 100kb is 5x as much CSS as an average site should have, as well as 15%-20% of what all the assets on an average page should weigh. Josh Broton

To put this in context, I like to fall back on Ilya Girgorik’s example comparing load time to user reaction in his talk “Breaking the 1000ms Time to Glass Mobile Barrier.” If the site loads in just 0-100 milliseconds, this feels instant to the user. By 100-300ms, the site already begins to feel sluggish. At 300-1000ms, uh – is the machine working? After 1 second there is a mental context switch, which means that the user is impatient, distracted, or consciously aware of the load-time. After 10 seconds, the user gives up.

By choosing not to pair down, your Bootstrapped Library starts off on the wrong foot.

The Temptation to Widgetize

Even though Bootstrap provides modals, tabs, carousels, autocomplete, and other modules, this doesn’t mean a website needs to use them. Bootstrap lets you tailor which jQuery plugins are included in the final script. The hardest part of any redesign is to let quality content determine the tools, not the ability to tabularize or scrollspy be an excuse to implement them. Oh, don’t Google those. I’ll touch on tabs and scrollspy in a few minutes.

I am going to be super presumptuous now and walk through the total Bootstrap package, then make recommendations for lightening the load.


Transitions.js is a fairly lightweight CSS transition polyfill. What this means is that the script checks to see if your user’s browser supports CSS Transitions, and if it doesn’t then it simulates those transitions with javascript. For instance, CSS transitions often handle the smooth, uh, transition between colors when you hover over a button. They are also a little more than just pizzazz. In a recent article, Rachel Nabors shows how transition and animation increase the usability of the site by guiding the eye.

With that said, CSS Transitions have pretty good browser support and they probably aren’t crucial to the functionality of the library website on IE9.

Recommendation: Don’t Include.


“Modals” are popup windows. There are plenty of neat things you can do with them. Additionally, modals are a pain to design consistently for every browser. Let Bootstrap do that heavy lifting for you.

Recommendation: Include


It’s hard to conclude a library website design committee without a lot of links in your menu bar. Dropdown menus are kind of tricky to code, and Bootstrap does a really nice job keeping it a consistent and responsive experience.

Recommendation: Include


If you have a fixed sidebar or menu that follows the user as they read, scrollspy.js can highlight the section of that menu you are currently viewing. This is useful if your site has a lot of long-form articles, or if it is a one-page app that scrolls forever. I’m not sure this describes many library websites, but even if it does, you probably want more functionality than Scrollspy offers. I recommend jQuery-Waypoints – but only if you are going to do something really cool with it.

Recommendation: Don’t Include


Tabs are a good way to break-up a lot of content without actually putting it on another page. A lot of libraries use some kind of tab widget to handle the different search options. If you are writing guides or tutorials, tabs could be a nice way to display the text.

Recommendation: Include


Tooltips are often descriptive popup bubbles of a section, option, or icon requiring more explanation. Tooltips.js helps handle the predictable positioning of the tooltip across browsers. With that said, I don’t think tooltips are that engaging; they’re sometimes appropriate, but you definitely use to see more of them in the past. Your library’s time is better spent de-jargoning any content that would warrant a tooltip. Need a tooltip? Why not just make whatever needs the tooltip more obvious O_o?

Recommendation: Don’t Include


Even fancier tooltips.

Recommendation: Don’t Include


Alerts.js lets your users dismiss alerts that you might put in the header of your website. It’s always a good idea to give users some kind of control over these things. Better they read and dismiss than get frustrated from the clutter.

Recommendation: Include


The collapse plugin allows for accordion-style sections for content similarly distributed as you might use with tabs. The ease-in-ease-out animation triggers motion-sickness and other aaarrghs among users with vestibular disorders. You could just use tabs.

Recommendation: Don’t Include


Button.js gives a little extra jolt to Bootstrap’s buttons, allowing them to communicate an action or state. By that, imagine you fill out a reference form and you click “submit.” Button.js will put a little loader icon in the button itself and change the text to “sending ….” This way, users are told that the process is running, and maybe they won’t feel compelled to click and click and click until the page refreshes. This is a good thing.

Recommendation: Include


Carousels are the most popular design element on the web. It lets a website slideshow content like upcoming events or new material. Carousels exist because design committees must be appeased. There are all sorts of reasons why you probably shouldn’t put a carousel on your website: they are largely inaccessible, have low engagement, are slooooow, and kind of imply that libraries hate their patrons.

Recommendation: Don’t Include.


I’m not exactly sure what this does. I think it’s a fixed-menu thing. You probably don’t need this. You can use CSS.

Recommendation: Don’t Include

Now, Don’t You Feel Better?

Just comparing the bootstrap.js and bootstrap.min.js files between out-of-the-box Bootstrap and one tailored to the specs above, which of course doesn’t consider the differences in the CSS, the weight of the images not included in a carousel (not to mention the unquantifiable amount of pain you would have inflicted), the numbers are telling:

File Before After
bootstrap.js 54kb 19kb
bootstrap.min.js 29kb 10kb

So, Bootstrap Responsibly

There is more to say. When bouncing this topic around twitter awhile ago, Jeremy Prevost pointed out that Bootstrap’s minified assets can be GZipped down to about 20kb total. This is the right way to serve assets from any framework. It requires an Apache config or .htaccess rule. Here is the .htaccess file used in HTML5 Boilerplate. You’ll find it well commented and modular: go ahead and just copy and paste the parts you need. You can eke out even more performance by “lazy loading” scripts at a given time, but these are a little out of the scope of this post.

Here’s the thing: when we talk about having good library websites we’re mostly talking about the look. This is the wrong discussion. Web designs driven by anything but the content they already have make grasping assumptions about how slick it would look to have this killer carousel, these accordions, nifty tooltips, and of course a squishy responsive design. Subsequently, these responsive sites miss the point: if anything, they’re mobile unfriendly.

Much of the time, a responsive library website is used as a marker that such-and-such site is credible and not irrelevant, but as such the website reflects a lack of purpose (e.g., “this website needs to increase library-card registration). A superficial understanding of responsive webdesign and easy-to-grab frameworks entail that the patron is the least priority.


About Our Guest Author :

Michael Schofield is a front-end librarian in south Florida, where it is hot and rainy – always. He tries to do neat things there. You can hear him talk design and user experience for libraries on LibUX.

Author: Michael Schofield

A happily tangential front-ender doing his best to eliminate worldsuck.