What Is Responsive Web Design?

Understanding flexible website development

There are millions of devices used worldwide, from tablets to phones to large desktop computers. Device users want to be able to view the same websites on any of these devices seamlessly. Responsive website design is an approach used to ensure websites are able to be viewed on all screen sizes, regardless of device.

What Is Responsive Website Design?

Responsive web design is a method that enables the website content and overall design to move and change based on the device you use to view it. In other words, a responsive website responds to the device and renders the website accordingly.

For example, if you resize this window right now, the Lifewire website will move and shift to fit the new window size. If you bring the website up on your mobile device, you'll notice our content resize to one column to fit your device.

A Brief History

Although other terms such as fluid and flexible were thrown around as early as 2004, responsive web design was first coined and introduced in 2010 by Ethan Marcotte. He believed that websites should be designed for the "ebb and flow of things" versus remaining static.

After his published his article titled "Responsive Web Design", the term took off and began inspiring web developers across the globe.

How Does a Responsive Website Work?

Responsive websites are built to adjust and resize at specific sizes, also known as breakpoints. These breakpoints are browser widths that have a specific CSS media query that changes the layout of the browser once it's in a specific range.

Most websites will have two standard breakpoints for both mobile devices and tablets.

Two women viewing a website on laptop and large screen
Maskot/Getty Images

To put it simply, when you change the width of your browser whether from resizing it or viewing it on a mobile device, the code in the back responds and changes the layout automatically.

Why Does Responsive Design Matter?

Woman holding smartphone and looking at web design ideas on whiteboard
Westend61/Getty Images

Due to its flexibility, responsive web design is now the gold standard when it comes to any website. But, why does it matter so much?

  • On-site experience: Responsive web design ensures websites offer a seamless and high-quality on-site experience for any internet user, regardless of the device they're using.
  • Content focus: For mobile users, responsive design ensures they're seeing only the most important content and information first, instead of just a small snippet due to size restrictions.
  • Google-approved: Responsive design makes it easier for Google to assign indexing properties to the page, instead of needing to index multiple separate pages for separate devices. This improves your search engine rank, of course, because Google smiles upon websites that are mobile-first.
  • Productivity saver: In the past, developers had to create completely different websites for desktop and mobile devices. Now, responsive web design makes it possible to update content on one website versus many, saving critical amounts of time.
  • Better conversion rates: For businesses trying to reach their audience online, responsive web design is proven to increase conversion rates, helping them grow their business.
  • Enhanced page speed: How fast the website loads will directly affect the user experience and search engine rank. Responsive web design ensures pages load equally fast on all devices, impacting rank and experience in a positive way.

Responsive Design in the Real-World

How does responsive design effect internet users in the real-world? Consider an act we're all familiar with: online shopping.

Figure using laptop to shop online while taking notes next to mobile device
Westend61/Getty Images 

The user might begin their product search on their desktop during their lunch break. After finding a product they consider purchasing, they add it to their cart and get back to work.

Most users prefer to read reviews before they make a purchase. So, the user visits the website again, this time on a tablet at home, to read the product's reviews. They then must abandon the website again to carry on with their evening.

Before they turn the light off that night, they pick up their mobile device and visit the website again. This time, they're ready to make their final purchase.

Responsive web design ensures that the user can search for products on a desktop, read reviews on a tablet, and make the final purchase via mobile seamlessly.

Other Real-World Scenarios

Online shopping is only one scenario where responsive design is crucial to the online experience. Other real-world scenarios include:

  • Planning travel
  • Looking for a new home to purchase
  • Researching family vacation ideas
  • Looking up recipes
  • Catching up on the news or social media

Each of these scenarios is likely to span a wide range of devices over time. This underlines the importance of having a responsive website design.