[Sugar-devel] Web activities and responsive design: the dark side

Lionel Laské lionel at olpc-france.org
Fri Oct 24 11:21:10 EDT 2014

Hi all,

As I've worked on Sugarizer v0.5, I was faced to the need to adapt web
activities to a responsive design.  Shortly, it means that activities could
be usable with different screen resolution from smartphone to PC. I would
like to share with you some lessons I've learnt.

1) Think to multiple screen

"old" activities was conceived for the XO resolution (1200x900) or at best
for a PC screen size. With possibility to run activities on any device, you
have to support lower screens too. I've choose to support 480x320 (small
smartphone), 1024x768 (small tablet), 960x540 (medium smartphone). It could
be interesting to support greater resolution too like 1920x1200 (HD
Tablets). More on current screen sizes here [1].

Note also that smartphone screens are used in portrait mode but to avoid
complexity I've choose to force landscape in Sugarizer. So you could
consider that the width is bigger than height.

Note that Firefox include a very nice tool to test multiple resolution [2].

2) Use percent instead of pixel

To set size of objects, you should replace in your CSS file pixel size by
percent. Instead of pixel, percent is size independent. Do the same for
positioning too. For example, in one of my activity I've replaced:

.game-popup {

left: 400px;

top: 460px;

width: 250px;



.game-popup {

left: 25%;

top: 55%;

width: 40%;


Note however that it don't work for height because height is computed
during page rendering.

In that case or when you really need to use pixel size, you could use
max-height and max-width like in:

height: 300px;

max-height: 30%;

Finally, note that as specified on 1), screen resolution are not only
different but has different width/height ratio. For example ratio is 1.5
for 480x320 and 1.7 for 960x540. You should take that into account when you
compute size of page elements.

3) Adapt content

Using percent is not sufficient. You will have to change your page
depending of the screen resolution. The better place to do that is in the
CSS file. More precisely, you could use media queries to adapt dynamically
items size to the current screen size.

Let's take an example from one of my activity. As you could see: width,
font and border are specified for each resolution.

@media screen and (max-width: 480px) {

.shadowbutton-image {

width: 60px;


.card {

border-width: 3px;

box-shadow: 3px -2px 2px 1px black;


.cardText {

font-size: 12px;


.home {

top: 24%;



@media screen and (min-width: 481px) and (max-width: 640px) {

.shadowbutton-image {

width: 80px;


.card {

border-width: 4px;

box-shadow: 4px -3px 3px 2px black;


.cardText {

font-size: 14px;



Sometimes, playing with size will not be sufficient. In that case, you
could think to hide or shorten some items in your UI.

For example Gears activity automatically hide help button if the screen is
too small.

@media screen and (max-width: 567px) {

#main-toolbar #help-button {

visibility: hidden;



Or GridPaint activity compute in JavaScript a canvas zoom to adapt drawing
to the screen size.

var wsize = document.body.clientWidth;

if (wsize <= 480) {

zoom = 0.353;

} else if (wsize <= 640) {

zoom = 0.501;

} else if (wsize <= 854) {

zoom = 0.565;

} else if (wsize <= 960) {

zoom = 0.645;

} else if (wsize <= 1024) {

zoom = 0.95;

} else {

zoom = 1.10;


document.getElementById("canvas").style.zoom = zoom;

4) Set viewport in your HTML pages

Since emergence of smartphone and thanks to the first iPhone, smartphones
automatic zoom pages to ensure that it could fit into a small screen. This
feature is great when you want to display a HTML page adapted to a PC
screen but it's not at all practical when you write a responsive design
interface where you try to adapt yourself the content to the screen size.

A specific tag on your HTML allow you to tell to the mobile browser that
you don't want an automatic zoom. It's:

<meta name="viewport" content="user-scalable=no, initial-scale=1,
maximum-scale=1, minimum-scale=1, width=device-width,

Shortly it means to use device width and height and to ignore zoom. Always
think to include this tag in your HTML header. More on the viewport tag
here [3]

5) Take care to DPI

Managing screen width and height is not sufficient. Rendering on smartphone
and tablet screens depend of pixel density or DPI (i.e. Dot Per Inch). The
more the density is the more it impact the real width and height size.
Recent smartphones and tablets use high DPI as a marketing argument to sell
devices (think to "Retina"). Shortly, on high density screens 1 pixel width
could be represented by 2 (or more) real pixels width. So of course,
testing on a PC screen (where 1 pixel = 1 pixel) will not give the same
result than on the real device. Only testing on real device with different
DPI size will guaranty that your activity will fit correctly.

A good explanation of DPI could be read here [4].

Hope that all these explanations will help you to write adaptive activities.

Do not hesitate to have a look on activities include into Sugarizer to a
better understanding of how responsive design work. Do not hesitate too to
ask me for help.

Best regards from France.



[2] https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Tools/Responsive_Design_View

[3] https://developer.mozilla.org/docs/Mozilla/Mobile/Balise_meta_viewport

[4] http://developer.android.com/guide/practices/screens_support.html
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