As mobile devices have become the primary way people experience the web, responsive site designs are now the norm.
The good news is you no longer need extensive knowledge of HTML, CSS, or other complicated coding languages to build a responsive website. You're good to go as long as you have a savvy visual web development platform to build with.
Whether you’re running a responsive redesign project or starting from scratch, these tips will help you build a site that works seamlessly on various screen sizes and different devices. But first, let’s understand what a responsive website is and how it works.
What is a responsive website?
We consider a website design responsive when there’s a consistent desktop to mobile experience. A responsive website will modify its appearance and interactive elements depending on the device and screen size used to view it. At the core of these sites is a modern design methodology known as responsive web design (RWD) that adapts pages to the user’s screen dimensions.
RWD uses CSS to offer varied style attributes — like font, images, and menus — based on the device, screen size, orientation, colors, and other features of the viewing device. CSS also facilitates optimal use of a device's viewport (the visible area available on a screen) and media queries, allowing web pages to modify depending on the viewport width and website layout.
10 best practices for responsive web design
Let’s jump into the 10 best practices you can incorporate to optimize your website’s responsive design.
1. Pay attention to your navigation
Adopting responsive web design has a huge impact on site navigation. Let’s take a look at Microsoft’s website from 2007:
All of the website’s pages fit into the navigation on the right-side navigation, the font in the bottom right corner is low-contrast and tough to read, and the graphics are clunky.
Now, consider Microsoft’s website in 2022:
And since you're designing for smaller mobile screens, your design needs to work within these new limitations.
When Microsoft’s site transfers to a mobile device, the ad is optimized for the screen size and the navigation turns into a hamburger menu for ease of use.
You’ll generally only have room for 4-5 core links in your navigation which affects your site’s entire content strategy and information architecture. Be sure those links represent the places people are most likely to look for, then offer opportunities to dig deeper.
Try to simplify your navigational choices and use icons paired with text, in-page links, collapsible menus, and dropdowns to get people where they need to go. You can also improve your navigation by making the core pages easy to navigate. Use alt text for images, pick fonts that are widely available and easy to read, and use inclusive language.
But what about sidebars? Well, those can be tricky. Desktops give us a ton of horizontal space to work with, making it relatively easy to throw extra links in a sidebar. But responsive design requires designers to create the simplest path for someone to take without distractions. Eliminating sidebars is one way to accomplish this.
Don’t make your site’s visitors scroll too much. Remember that long-scrolling pages make getting back to the navigation bar a pain. Instead, use a simple sticky navigation bar fixed to the bottom or top of the screen or include a back-to-top button. For one-hand friendliness, go with bottom navigation on mobile.
2. Plan your content organization before you design
Designing a website without a strong sense of its content structures is like picking out a frame before you’ve created a painting. You need to know how you’ll organize the content to see the bigger picture.
Content and design flourish when developed in tandem. Both elements give each other meaning, so it’s important to organize your content clearly. Let’s look at an example from Arobase Creative.
As you can see, the designers at Arobase Creative have blended content and design together in a well-organized infographic. They could have used bullet points or paragraphs for the text but chose to enhance the content with complementary colors and sans serif text. This is a great example of organizing content in a way that’s comprehensible, attractive, and easy on the eyes. Plus, the creativity of the design shows they know what they’re doing.
Content organization is more than just copying and pasting blocks of text to see where they’ll fit on a page. Instead, view your content as the story you’re trying to tell your audience. That’s precisely what Arobase Creative has done.
Make a list prioritizing the messages you want to convey, and figure out how these ideas flow from one to the next. Use responsive infographics — bonus points if they’re interactive — to make large pieces of information easy to digest, or take inspiration from high-quality templates when designing. You can create your navigation bar to lead your audience through the website so that the overall user experience is seamless and enjoyable for the visitor.
3. Start your design with mobile in mind
More than half of the internet’s global traffic comes from mobile phones. These devices are leading the market, regardless of their brand or operating system.
They’re also becoming more powerful and can handle responsive web designs quite well. It’s easier to whip your phone out of the pocket and scroll through a few web pages than open your laptop, sign in, and open a browser.
Keeping this in mind, ensure you design your website with a person using a mobile phone at the forefront of your user demographic. This means making your website mobile-first and prioritizing the use of the max width of space available, making navigation simple and easy to use with breakpoints, and uploading pictures with high resolution that still allow fast loading speeds.
The mobile version of your website doesn’t need to be a fixed width, either. A mobile-friendly website can use adaptable CSS media queries, multiple templates, and frameworks that usually require code. Webflow does all the heavy lifting for you so that you don’t have to break a sweat over mobile optimization.
4. Add call-to-action buttons
A call-to-action (CTA) is a crucial component of any webpage. Links and buttons with a call to action serve as waypoints, instructing users where to go next. People could find it difficult to understand how and where they must make a purchase or join a program without clear CTAs.
Your CTA button should pop out from the page in color, style, size, and shape. Generally, circular, square, and rectangular elements are the most recognizable. Getting too creative with the shape of your buttons can confuse someone on the site, so stick with familiar forms. Your button size also affects how people can recognize or click it, so make sure it’s finger-friendly for touchscreen devices. Add generous space around important buttons and text links to limit misclicks.
When it comes to color, try not to use too many to avoid overwhelming your visitors. Choose 2-3 from your brand’s color palette for the site, and use something bright to draw attention to your CTA. Drop shadows, gradients, and other dimension-lending stylistic additions can also guide people toward clicking the buttons you want them to click.
5. Use only the words you need
Desktops allow for more text, but that isn't always a good thing. With mobile devices, you must work within the confines of smaller screens. This means writing economically, ensuring that every word helps move your story forward.
Use crisp copy that conveys your website’s purpose, and use typography wisely. Keep fonts cohesive with your brand identity and limit font combinations to avoid overwhelming anyone trying to read the site.
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6. Typography matters even more on smaller screens
Most people are pressed for time and don't have the mental capacity or patience to learn everything about your company. This is why website readability is essential. Use typography in a way that lets visitors consume as much information as they can in the shortest time possible. If you’re looking for fonts we recommend these 10 Google fonts.
Use a highly legible font, especially for vital bits of text like navigation labels. Tiny type on any screen is hard to read, so use larger font sizes to improve readability. Something in the range of 16px for body copy should be easy to read on desktop and mobile. Increase or decrease size depending on the font’s design (though we’d recommend using the em unit of measurement instead, starting at 1 to 1.25em).
Spacing is also an important factor on smaller screens. Too much will leave your text floating in space, and too little will stack your words like pancakes. Ensure your line height is set to an appropriate amount. Usually, something in the 1.25 to 1.5 range will work well, but individual typefaces vary, so it’s better to experiment first.
Throughout the design process, check your text on different devices to see how your line height affects the text’s presentation.
When designing with mobile in mind, remember that a larger font may push the essential content you want someone to read further down on a page. Consider all the other design methods in your toolkit to add drama: vary font weights, use all caps or all lowercase, or add color to differentiate content sections from other elements on the page.
7. Embrace negative space
Negative space, often known as white space, is essentially the section of a website's layout that is left vacant. All the elements on a screen need some breathing room, which is what negative space provides. A full screen of loud graphics and large text might overwhelm someone trying to find simple information and drive them away from your content.
You walk a fine line when creating a responsive design using negative space. Yes, you want to take a minimalistic approach to content and navigation — but negative space should enhance the website’s visuals while increasing the readability and user experience for a visitor.
You also don’t want to omit anything vital. Use negative space to create breaks in your design and highlight those areas of content you don’t want anyone to miss.
8. Create and test a responsive prototype
Knowing how your designs translate to different screens is essential. It's also crucial to understand how it functions during real-world use.
Static prototypes will take you part of the way, but eventually, you’ll need a functional prototype to help you understand how the site will work and feel. Test your prototype on the actual devices to ensure the website works without any problems.
This will save you time and hassle — and spare you snarky tweets reporting that your site’s “broken” on mobile. Using a visual web development platform can help streamline this process.
9. Stick to the fast lane with responsive images
Keep your website moving with images that load quickly on every device. To do this, you'll need responsive images that help you increase your web pages' loading speeds. A website's capacity to load quickly is becoming an increasingly important component of SEO, user experiences, and bounce rate. If it’s taking too long, someone might leave the site to find their information somewhere that loads quicker.
A common problem with responsive design is that while images visually scale on smaller devices, they’re still 3MB in size and slow load times to a crawl. Responsive images are a powerful and effective way to work around this.
10. Power your layouts with flexbox
Flexbox is a CSS3 layout module that ensures your layout’s responsiveness translates fluidly to different devices. This is important because Flexbox helps create responsive websites without having to resort to complex code and attributes in CSS. It takes the pain out of building creative layouts like split screens, sidebars, and hero covers and lets you create popular design patterns like equal-height modules and Z-pattern feature lists in a snap.
To use flexbox, simply give a parent container the display setting of “flex,” then select how the children within that container distribute themselves. It’s relatively simple in principle but allows for robust flexibility.
Responsive design has changed the web for the better
The vast space allotted to desktop designs often used to lead to unnecessary graphics and content detracting from a site’s core message. Now, the popularity of mobile devices and tablets overhauled how we design and navigate websites.
Ultimately, how we design and interact with a website depends on the device we view it on. Responsive design lets us strip away what we don’t need so everyone finds what they need faster.
Designing a website doesn’t have to be difficult, and you don’t have to know code, either — all you need is a tutorial and some inspiration. Once you’ve conquered the learning curve, you’ll be making tons of beautiful websites in no time.