HOWTO: A Responsive Design Approach for Complex, Multicolumn Data Tables

From the blog:

A Responsive Design Approach for Complex, Multicolumn Data Tables | Filament Group, Inc., Boston, MA

In responsive web design, one of the toughest design problems to solve is how format complex tabular data for display on smaller screens. In this post, we’ll explore an experimental approach to rendering a complex table, using progressive enhancement and responsive design methods, that displays comfortably at a wide range of screen sizes, provides quick access to the data, and preserves the table structure so that data can still be compared across columns.

We’ve been batting around the idea of making tables responsive for awhile.

Our initial attempts to make table data palatable on small screens include showing a thumbnail image that links to the data or a canvas-based chart; others have developed responsive CSS workarounds that display a definition list, using either list or table markup. Which approach to take depends on the type of data. For example, structured data where each row is a unique object or entity—say, business contacts, or favorite Netflix movies—are well-suited to a definition list style on small screens, because header and cell data can be displayed as simple label and value pairs (i.e., Name: Maggie Wachs, Company: Filament Group…). The switch to a chart or other visualization on smaller screens works well for a simple numeric comparison of a single value. And snapping down to a thumbnail image that launched a full table to pan and zoom was an okay fallback in lieu of no data at all.

But we encountered a scenario that didn’t quite work with any of the above solutions: a table of complex of financial data with 6-8 related data points, where comparisons and trends among columns are important to see. Visual relationships between headings and cells, and between neighboring columns, are crucial to understanding the data and would be lost on smaller screens if we displayed a list or chart.

We needed a happy medium: a way to keep the basic table structure in place—with headings above, and whole columns that sit side-by-side—and simultaneously display a manageable amount of data at a size that’s comfortably readable.
A table for every screen

The approach we devised starts with a full data set, and uses a simple priority-based class designation to display a manageable subset of data columns for common target screen sizes, and also gives the user control to change column visibility easily.

It’s probably easier to explain with a concrete example: we’ll use a table that lists technology companies and their stock prices and several stock performance metrics. Each row displays data for a single company; columns organize data points by type for comparison. View the demo.

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~ by WPA Staff on May 15, 2012.

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