Responsive Vs. Adaptive Web Design

What's the difference and is one better than the other?

Responsive web pages for a desktop computer, tablet, and smartphone

Diego Velázquez/Pixabay

The way a website displays on your PC, laptop, tablet, smartphone, and other smart devices depends on the website’s design. Web designers apply either fixed, fluid, adaptive, or responsive design when building a website. Most modern websites use either adaptive web design or responsive web design.

The Different Types of Website Design

Before the introduction of the internet and data-enabled smartphones, websites were designed for desktop and laptop computer screens. These screens were limited in size, and website designers used a fixed or fluid design.

In a fixed page layout, web pages are a specific width, and this width does not change. A fixed design does not adapt to different screen sizes. Web pages that display a horizontal scroll bar along the bottom use fixed website design.

In fluid or liquid design, the width of the web page is a percentage of the screen size. Fluid web pages are scalable, and the content on the page enlarges or shrinks to adjust to the screen size.

As the number and sizes of devices that could access the internet grew, there became a need to design web pages that could scale to fit these different types of devices and sizes. Adaptive web design and responsive web design solves the problem of displaying content in a useable format on different size screen.

When web designers want to adapt a website to a specific device, they apply adaptive design. In adaptive design, a different website is created for each device used to view the site. Adaptive web design detects the screen size and loads the appropriate layout for that device.

A website that uses responsive design adapts to any device, user behavior, and device orientation. Responsive design uses CSS media queries to change the look of the site based on the target device.

Most websites use either an adaptive design or a responsive design because these two website designs display differently depending on the device or screen size used to display the page. In fixed and fluid designs, web page content may adjust so that the content is too small to view comfortably on the screen.

The Difference Between Adaptive and Responsive Website Design

Responsive and adaptive web designs have many advantages over fixed and fluid layouts. The most significant advantage is that responsive design and adaptive design improve a website visitor’s ability to view and navigate a website. Both responsive design and adaptive design change the appearance of a web page to fit the visitor’s device.

The main difference between adaptive and responsive is that responsive design changes the size of the web page to adapt to the visitor’s screen and adaptive design creates different web pages for different devices.

Resize the Site on the Device with Responsive Design

When viewing a responsive website, the site adapts to any web browser on a PC, tablet, or smartphone. When the site opens in a browser, information from the device is used to automatically determine the screen size and adjust the site frame accordingly.

Responsive web design uses breakpoints to determine where content breaks to accommodate different size screens. These breakpoints scale images, wrap text, and adjust the layout, so the website fits in the screen.

Responsive web pages displayed on a PC, tablet, and smartphone
BMN Network/via Flickr [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]

Adapt a Layout that fits the Device with Adaptive Design

Adaptive design makes it possible to control the website design for specific devices. With adaptive design, the experience delivered on a PC may be different than the experience delivered on a mobile device. For example, a travel site may offer information on vacation destinations on the home page of the desktop layout and a booking form on the home screen of the mobile layout.

Adaptive web design is based on six different screen widths that vary from 320 pixels for a smartphone to 1600 pixels for a desktop computer. Web designers don’t always design for all six sizes; they look at their web analytics and design for the most commonly used devices.

When to Use Responsive vs. Adaptive Web Design

Responsive web design is the more popular choice, but adaptive web design is still a favorite of web designers that want more control over their websites. Which design is better? It depends on the purpose of the website and the needs of the website designer.

Use Responsive Design to be Search Engine Friendly

Getting good Google rankings is the goal of many websites. Google gives higher ranking to those websites that use responsive web design.

Responsive web design is accessible to most devices and offers the same content, in a similar format, across devices. This accessibility makes responsive web design mobile-friendly, and Google ranks mobile-friendly sites higher in the search results.

Responsive website design to optimize search engine optimization
Diego Velázquez/Pixabay

Use Responsive Design for Easy Implementation

New webmasters may find it easier to begin by designing responsive web sites. Websites built on popular content platforms (CMS) such as WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal start with a theme. The majority of the free WordPress themes use a responsive design.

Responsive sites take less work to build and maintain. There’s only one layout to design, and this layout automatically resizes to fit any device screen.

In exchange for easy implementation, responsive web pages load slower than adaptive web pages and may not always deliver the optimum user experience depending on how the page elements are arranged. The responsive design must be viewable on all screen sizes and resolutions.

Use Responsive Design to Reach the Most Visitors

Because responsive web design automatically scales to fit any size browser window or screen, it displays web pages on any device. The downside of this is that the site layout must be designed in a way that page elements move around the different screen sizes in a way that is easy for the visitor to follow.

Use Adaptive Design to Target Visitors

Adaptive websites make it easier to track who visits a website and which device they use. When website designers know this information, the adaptive layouts for the most popular devices can be upgraded and targeted to those visitors. This targeted experience results in improved user experiences.

Adaptive website design targeted at mobile devices
Diego Velázquez/Pixabay

Use Adaptive Design for Speed

Website designers that want their sites to load quickly for visitors use adaptive web design. Websites that use adaptive design are two to three times faster than websites that use responsive design. Also, adaptive sites send less data to the visitor’s web browser to deliver content.

Use Adaptive Design for Older Sites That Need an Upgrade

Adaptive design allows for the progressive enhancement of a website. For older sites that need an upgrade, adaptive design starts with the existing page content and progressively enhances the site by adding more features. The benefit of the approach is that every device can view the essential content and devices that fit one of the adaptive layouts view the enhanced site.