Adaptive vs responsive design: which is better?

A look at the differences between adaptive vs responsive design.

Tomas Laurinavicius
August 13, 2019
Web design

What are the major differences between responsive and adaptive design? And can you improve your user experience by choosing the right web design style for your site? In this post, we’ll explore both of these questions and more.

The ubiquity and variety of mobile devices has driven web and app designers to build for an array of screen sizes. From a huge desktop monitor to a tiny smartwatch screen, we can access information in several ways.

This can be challenging. How do you make sure your site scales on any device? Both adaptive and responsive design can address this challenge, but while they might seem similar, each has benefits and drawbacks. Which one is the perfect choice for you? Which will best meet your needs? And is one better than the other?

Let’s take a look.

Responsive design explained

In its simplest definition, responsive design uses just one layout for a web page and “responsively” adjusts to better fit the user's screen, whether it’s a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, or a mobile phone. 

Ethan Marcotte coined the term responsive web design in 2010. It’s the responsiveness of web pages to adjust the placement of web design elements to fit in the available device’s space.


Technically speaking, responsive websites use media queries to target breakpoints that scale images, wrap text, and adjust the layout so the site can fit any screen size. It can be done with HTML and CSS or HTML5 and CSS3.

Starbucks is a great example of a responsive design. It uses a single layout, but the placement of web elements changes from desktop to mobile. 


With a responsive website, you’ll only need one site. Everything should seamlessly respond and adapt to any user’s device or browser – the design, content, and user interface.

Learn more with Webflow’s Intro to Responsive Design.

Adaptive design explained

In layman's terms, adaptive design creates different fixed layouts that adapt to specific screen sizes. In short, you have multiple versions of a web page to fit someone’s device, as opposed to a single, static page which looks the same (and reorders or resizes content) across all devices.

Introduced in 2011 by web designer Aaron Gustafson, adaptive design uses distinct layouts for multiple screen sizes. In adaptive design, it’s normal to develop six designs for the six most common screen widths; 320, 480, 760, 960, 1200, and 1600 pixels.


In a more technical definition, websites built with adaptive design include the CSS media queries of responsive design, but they also add JavaScript-based enhancements to change the site’s HTML markup based on the device’s capabilities. This process is known as “progressive enhancement.”

Amazon is a perfect example of an adaptive website. Customers can use the full site functionality of the desktop version.


Adaptive doesn't mean you need two separate sites. It still allows you to maintain all your content in a single place and share the same content with all site visitors. Adaptive sites use a template primed for each device.

How do responsive and adaptive design compare?

For people without web design experience, the difference between responsive and adaptive design is so subtle, it’s not likely noticeable. 

To make our comparisons easier to digest, let’s look at their major components. 

Layout 

With responsive design, the layout is decided by the site visitor’s browser window.

In comparison, an adaptive layout is determined on the server-side, not by the client or browser. The design produces templates unique to every device class. The server detects factors like device type and operating system to send the correct layout. 

Load time

No one likes a slow website. People get impatient and bounce if a site doesn’t load in 2 seconds or less. Adaptive designs generally load faster than responsive ones. This is because adaptive design only transfers necessary assets specific to each device. For example, if an adaptive site detects a high-density retina display, high-resolution images are used and transferred as an alternative to slower-loading, high-definition images. 

But this isn’t always the case — Webflow developed a feature for responsive images that pushes all inline images (both static and dynamic) to automatically scale to fit every device size and resolution. 

The responsive images feature from Webflow builds variants of images you upload to ensure they look great and load quickly on any device. This can speed your mobile pages up to 10 times faster. 

Difficulty

This can be a touchy topic for some. People argue that adaptive designs are more difficult to build because you’ll need different layouts for different devices. Whereas responsive designs only require a single layout that some argue is easier to implement.

But, while responsive designs only have one layout across all devices, they require more effort and time up front. Responsive design involves extra attention to your site’s CSS and organization to ensure it’s fully functional on all screen sizes. 

You don’t have to start from scratch with responsive web design. There are many great template options like the Oxy – UI Kit Website Template. Start with a responsive template you love and customize it for your business, portfolio, or blog.

Flexibility

Adaptive design is considered less flexible because a new device with a screen size you didn’t plan for could break your layout. Which means you’ll need to edit an old layout or add a new one. Screen sizes are constantly changing and highly variable.

In the long run, a responsive layout will require less maintenance. Responsive sites are flexible enough to work well on their own by default, even if there’s a new device or screen size in the market. But adaptive websites will need occasional maintenance.

SEO friendliness

Google recommends and rewards sites that use responsive design. A mobile-friendly website ranks higher on search engine results pages. Adaptive design can be challenging to SEO.

Advantages and disadvantages of responsive design

Let’s look at the pros and cons of responsive design. 

Advantages of responsive design

Responsive web design has some obvious advantages:

Seamless experience

Regardless of the device type — desktop, mobile, etc. — visitors will get the same, seamless experience. This instills a feeling of familiarity and trust, even as they transition from one device to another. 

Fewer maintenance tasks

Because the site uses the same content across all devices, it won’t require much engineering or maintenance time. A responsive design will cut down on the time and effort you spend updating your site. You’ll have more time for essential tasks like A/B testing, marketing, customer service, and content development. 

More budget-friendly

Responsive design is easier to set up and faster to implement because you don’t need an additional mobile site. You can save on development, support, and maintenance costs associated with creating stand-alone mobile sites. Logistically, you can also organize and control all your content in one centralized location. 

Improve crawling and indexing efficiency

For responsive websites, a single web crawler agent will crawl your page once, rather than multiple times with different crawler agents to retrieve all versions of the content. Responsive sites don’t need to change for mobile-first indexing, which directly improves the crawling efficiency and indirectly helps search engines index more of your site's content, keeping it appropriately fresh.

More search engine friendly

As we’ve mentioned earlier, Google favors responsive web designs. While there are many ranking factors, Google shows mobile-friendly content first. Make sure your web design tool allows you to identify if you have a mobile-friendly site. 

Webflow allows you to preview your site on mobile devices right inside the Editor. This keeps mobile front of mind when crafting your design and content.

Disadvantages of responsive design

While responsive web design is great, it’s not without drawbacks. Here are the things to watch for when deciding which web design format is best for your requirements and goals:

Slower page loading

One of the biggest concerns of responsive web design is load time. Responsive websites load the information for all devices, not just for the device visitors are viewing your site on. 

Difficulty integrating advertisements

Because ads have to accommodate all resolutions, it can be more challenging to integrate them effectively with responsive sites. The website will flow from device to device, so while the site adjust to specific screen sizes, ads may not properly configure.

Advantages and disadvantages of adaptive design

Let's look at the pros and cons of choosing an adaptive web design.

Advantages of adaptive design

When you go with an adaptive website, you can enjoy the following benefits:

Highly targeted for each user

By optimizing the experience for individual devices, you ensure each visitor receives a personalized experience. You can deliver and adjust your content by targeting things like the person’s location and connection speed.

Faster load times

Only the version of the website visitors need will be loaded, which makes page load a little faster. This is especially true for smartphone users — the mobile layout is a more simplified version of its desktop counterpart, using fewer images and easier navigation.

Optimized for advertising 

There's an increasing number of designers who are optimizing advertising options in responsive designs. For example, they’re switching 728x90 banners for 468×90 banners to cater to smaller resolutions. But with adaptive sites, designers can optimize advertisements based on user data from smaller screens.

Reusable existing website

Adaptive means your designers won’t need to return to the drawing board and re-code your existing website from the ground up. This is an essential consideration — many complex websites are built with legacy code over time. Starting from scratch isn’t an option. 

Disadvantages of adaptive design

Here are some disadvantages to be aware of when it comes to adaptive web design: 

Labor-intensive to create

Adaptive design is much more work-intensive because of the number of technical aspects to consider. Normally, it requires several versions of the site to (almost always) be built from scratch. This means each page version is constructed separately. 

Harder to maintain

Because you have multiple versions of the website, each version has to be updated individually. Generally, you need to design for the 6 most common screen widths; 320, 480, 760, 960, 1200, and 1600 pixels. And that number keeps growing, making a designer’s job harder and more time consuming when it comes to site maintenance. 

As of June 2019, there are more than 20 screen resolutions. Image source: Stat Counter.


Expensive

Aside from being time-consuming, adaptive web design requires a large team of developers. You’ll incur more expenses to handle the complexity of developing, maintaining, and supporting an adaptive website.

Challenging to optimize for SEO

While adaptive design is a good approach, identical content on different sites can hurt you. Search engines don’t like identical content on multiple sites and they could penalize you by downgrading your ranking. 

When to use responsive design

If you’re still in doubt, here’s the final consideration when deciding to go for responsive design: 

  • Responsive design is perfect for small to medium-sized companies that need to update their existing sites 
  • Responsive design is ideal for new businesses that need to build a brand-new site
  • Responsive design is recommended for service-based industries because they’re primarily made up of text and images
  • Responsive design is budget-friendly so you can have a beautiful, fully functional site for a reasonable price
Webflow Ecommerce can help you build a responsive website for your online store — all without writing a single line of code.

When to use adaptive design

When considering adaptive design, here are some final points to keep in mind:

  • Adaptive design is best for existing complex websites that require a mobile version
  • Adaptive design is recommended for speed-dependent sites 
  • Adaptive design is great for a highly targeted experience you can adapt to someone’s location, connection speed, and more
  • Adaptive design is perfect for those who need more control over how their site is delivered to different users across different devices 

The decision is yours

As more and more devices are introduced to the market, people around the globe are quick to adapt. This makes choosing between responsive and adaptive design more complex. 

Responsive web design seems like the safest bet if you’re looking for a cost-effective, convenient way to build a highly functional, seamless user experience. And, in the long run, responsive sites require less upkeep and maintenance. But this is merely a generalization. Adaptive design also comes with great benefits like a more personalized and target user experience. 

The key is understanding and planning for your needs, goals, and budget — now and in the future.

Tomas Laurinavicius

I’m a lifestyle entrepreneur and blogger from Lithuania helping aspiring entrepreneurs build businesses and live better. Follow me @tomaslau.

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