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Responsive vs. Adaptive Design: What’s The Big Difference?

WRITTEN BY
Jao Gavino
UPDATED
May 25, 2024

 

In today’s hyper-connected, digital age, mobile phones reign supreme. Online, mobile users have eclipsed the number of PC users, with 58.43% of all website traffic coming from mobile devices.

 

Given this, you should build your website to accommodate both PCs and phones, maximizing your potential user base. However, site layouts vary greatly between these two, especially given the difference in screen sizes.

 

This is where adaptive and responsive designs come in: both ensure that your pages work and look nice across a variety of devices, ensuring the best user experience (UX) for your site.

 

However, there’s a lot of confusion between these two, especially when it comes to which one you should use for your site.

 

Lucky for you, this article helps clear up all of this confusion, helping you make an informed decision about which design is right for you and enabling you to make the most of the massive mobile market!

 

 

What Is Responsive Design?

 

github 1440

This is what GitHub—a site that uses responsive design—looks like when viewed on a 2560×1440 desktop screen. (Source: GitHub)

 

Basically, responsive design is a technique used to make websites appear and function optimally across a wide range of devices, from mobile phones to desktop computer monitors. All of this is done automatically via CSS media queries, which then change your site’s style and appearance to fit a user’s device, regardless of its display type, size, width, height, and so on.

 

An example of responsive design: GitHub

 

In simpler terms, responsive design ensures that your website “fits” a user’s screen, regardless of what device they’re using. Let’s take a look at a site that uses responsive design, GitHub:

 

github 1440 zoomed

This is what GitHub looks like on the same screen, albeit zoomed in a bunch. (Source: GitHub)

 

Let’s try an experiment: browse this page on Chrome desktop, and try slowly zooming in (press “Ctrl” and + or “Ctrl” and scroll up on your mouse). You can see the page slowly adapt its text and buttons to “fit” your screen, eventually transforming into a mobile-friendly layout, complete with a hamburger menu!

 

github iphonexr

Finally, this is what GitHub looks like on an iPhone XR screen. (Source: GitHub)

 

You can also check GitHub’s page out on your phone or tablet—just to check out how responsive design works and adapts to different devices. Quite simply, responsive design is a “one-size-fits-all” approach to designing a website.

 

 

What Is Adaptive Design?

 

On the other hand, adaptive design is the opposite of responsive design. Instead of creating a single page that fluidly changes based on what display is being used to view it, adaptive design uses a more static approach: it has preset website layouts for different devices, which are then loaded based on a user’s device’s resolution.

 

For example, a website that uses an adaptive design may have layouts for the following most common screen widths:

 

  • 320 pixels (px)
  • 480 px
  • 760 px
  • 960 px
  • 1200 px
  • 1600 px

 

Your website checks visitors’ devices and then displays the appropriate layout based on their screen resolution, ensuring that they get the best experience that they can in terms of their device’s display.

 

An example of adaptive design: Amazon

 

amazon 1440

This is how Amazon’s home page appears when viewed on a 2560×1440 desktop screen. (Source: Amazon)

 

Now let’s take a look at a website that uses adaptive design — Amazon. Remember that experiment that you did with GitHub? How about you try it on Amazon’s desktop site? Try zooming in, and let’s see if Amazon’s site changes on the fly to adapt to your screen.

 

amazon 1440 zoomed

I… I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to look. (Source: Amazon)

 

As you can see, Amazon’s home page doesn’t change in any way to “fit” your screen. Now, go ahead and check it out on your phone.

 

amazon iphonexr

That’s more like it. (Source: Amazon)

 

Unlike simply zooming in on a desktop browser, Amazon still adapts to fit onto your phone’s screen, but it does so in a way that’s dissimilar to the more flexible approach utilized by responsive design.

 

 

Responsive vs. Adaptive Design: Which Is Better?

 

responsive design vs adaptive

Responsive and adaptive designs have advantages and disadvantages that you must carefully consider. (Source: Twitter)

 

Now that you have a rough outline of what adaptive and responsive designs are, you may be wondering as to which one will serve your website the best.

 

Generally speaking, a responsive design would be a good choice if you want to maximize your audience but have limited resources, as you’ll (generally) only have to worry about designing a single layout that will “fit” any screen.

 

On the other hand, you can pick an adaptive design if you’re looking to provide the best experience that you can for your users and have the time and resources to make individual layouts that fit the most common resolutions (you won’t exactly be able to make layouts for all resolutions, after all).

 

If you’re looking for more information about the pros and cons of each design, then read on!

 

Responsive design: The pros and cons

 

search engine optimization

Better SEO is one advantage that responsive design brings to your website.

 

First off, let’s list the pros of using a responsive design:

 

Pros

  • Takes less work than adaptive design
  • Generally easier to maintain
  • More cost-effective
  • Works on all devices, regardless of how new or old they are
  • Better SEO as a responsive site is immediately considered “mobile-friendly”

 

Now, let’s take a look at the cons of a site that uses a responsive design:

 

Cons

  • Requires a lot of coding
  • Requires a lot of testing across various devices and platforms
  • Impossible to ensure that the layout works perfectly across all devices
  • May hinder your website’s performance (dynamic, responsive content takes more work to load)

 

Adaptive design: The pros and cons

 

adaptive design

Adaptive design ensures that your website looks and works perfectly on different devices and resolutions—provided you make the web pages for those specific resolutions.

 

Next, let’s check out the pros of a website with an adaptive design:

 

Pros

  • Ensures that a website works perfectly for specific devices and resolutions
  • Generally easier to code than responsive sites
  • Better-performing than websites that use a responsive design (no dynamic content to load; just a simple, static page)
  • Easier to test (there are specific pages that adapt to specific resolutions, instead of flexible pages that change on the fly based on the resolution or screen)
  • Could be easier to make for UX designers (less coding, mostly just involves adapting pages to specific resolutions)
  • More control over the content that is displayed (e.g., specific images for specific resolutions)

 

And finally, here are the cons of adaptive design:

 

Cons

  • Can still take a long time for UX designers to make individual pages that fit individual displays (e.g., there are 6 common screen widths, so each page may require 6 copies, depending on your audience)
  • Can negatively affect your site’s SEO (inconsistency across different devices may cause your site to slide down the search engine rankings ladder)

 

Responsive vs. adaptive design: Making a choice

 

responsive vs adaptive

Before making a choice, you should consider not only your site’s needs but also your audience’s. (Source: Clicky Blog)

 

Simply put, if you want your site to reach as wide of an audience as possible, and are a tad bit short on people and other resources to maintain your site, you should go for a responsive design.

 

Although it may require a lot of coding and may not show up perfectly across all devices, a website with a responsive design is generally cheaper and easier to maintain.

 

On the other hand, if you want to craft a website UX that is as close to perfect as possible for specific displays and devices, there’s no better option than using an adaptive design.

 

Adaptive designs can also come in handy if you have some site analytics that tells you, for example, that most of your site’s audience uses phones that have 320-px displays. You can save up on a lot of unnecessary coding and just make a site that looks and works perfectly on a 320-px display.

 

However, if you have a large site with hundreds of pages and a user base that uses a highly diverse collection of devices and resolutions, you may have a way harder time coding and designing six different copies of each page.

 

As such, weigh these pros and cons carefully, and balance them out with your audience’s needs when choosing between an adaptive or a responsive design for your website. After all, a nice-looking website doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t work on your users’ devices!

 

 

Be Adaptive, Be Responsive

 

So, which design is better? As we’ve stated, the answer depends on you, your site, and your audience. Responsive designs are a “one-size-fits-all” approach that generally works well enough; however, if you want the absolute best for specific resolutions, it’s pretty hard to beat a tailor-made adaptive design.

 

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