Having a responsive web design has been pretty much mandatory for over a year now, ever since Google’s massive update led to mobile-friendly sites being ranked higher by its indexing algorithm.
However, the update didn’t specify that responsive design must be used. Instead, it said that sites needed to be accessible on mobile and offer good performance and high-quality UX.
With all of this in mind, we thought it would be a good idea to consult our associates from a successful web design company in Chicago and examine the advantages and disadvantages of both adaptive and responsive design regarding UX and performance. We will not consider standalone mobile sites in this post, as this seems to be the least favorite solution for businesses and web designers.
Before we can talk about each approach’s pros and cons, we should establish their primary differences.
In simple terms, a responsive website adapts to the size of the screen that is used to browse it. It changes styles using CSS media queries and is affected by factors such as display type, height, width, etc.
Adaptive design, on the other hand, uses a selection of static layouts based on breakpoints. It detects the size of the screen and loads the appropriate configuration. Most adaptive websites are made using six of the most common screen widths:
On a surface level, it may appear that adaptive design requires more work, as you must design different layouts for several potential screen widths. However, this isn’t necessarily the case as responsive design can lead to a lot of unforeseen problems, such as display and performance issues caused by improper use of media queries.
If you want to take an existing site and retrofit it to make it more mobile-friendly, adaptive design is perhaps the most efficient approach. It enables you to take control of the design by developing specific layouts for the multiple potential viewports.
Another advantage is that you can choose the number of layouts you wish to create, depending on your target audience, goals, and, ultimately, your budget. This is a level of control you wouldn’t necessarily have if you chose to use responsive design instead.
When it comes to the process of designing an adaptive website, it is generally considered best practice to develop the low-resolution layout first, working your way up from there. This ensures that the design of the site remains consistent regardless of the size of the viewport.
As we mentioned above, there are six standard resolutions that most web design companies opt for. That said, it is always a good idea to take a look at your web analytics and consider the devices your audience most commonly uses to access your site. This way, you can prioritize certain viewports or customize your layout to target your ideal customer.
There’s nothing wrong with building an adaptive site from the ground up, either. The best approach, again, is to start with the lowest resolution layout. Then, you can use media queries and expand the design for higher resolutions.
Most new sites are now made using responsive design. This approach has been made easier thanks to CMS software suites such as Joomla, WordPress, Shopify, etc. These systems offer various themes and plugins, helping even inexperienced designers develop a website for their company or passion project.
The most significant advantage of responsive compared to adaptive design is that it takes much less work to build and maintain. On the other hand, it doesn’t offer nearly the same amount of control. It is impossible to predict user behavior with absolute accuracy, so the site can often “jump” as the window is resized.
The most significant difficulty when it comes to responsive design is that you have to consider all of the potential layouts and window sizes, which can make the process infinitely more complex. The best way to avoid confusion is to start with a medium-sized viewport and use media queries to adjust the layout for both high and low resolutions.
One thing to note is that responsive sites can display problems when it comes to loading times if they are not properly optimized. This is because some sites load the full desktop version of the site in the background, even if you can’t see it on your mobile device, significantly affecting performance.
Also, if you want to make sure that your responsive website will fit every screen that tries to access it, you’ll have to do quite a bit of coding. However, since adaptive design hinges on developing and maintaining separate HTML and CSS code for each layout, it is debatable which approach requires more effort.
Making modifications is also more labor-intensive on adaptive sites, as you’ll have to make the changes on each layout separately and make sure things are still flowing properly in terms of links, content, and SEO.
Ultimately, the one thing you must always consider, no matter what type of website you’re building, is user experience. Since responsive websites shuffle the content around the page to fluidly fit the viewport, you’ll need to pay close attention to visual hierarchy and ensure that the site always presents the optimal set of elements.
Responsive design can therefore turn into a bit of a puzzle as you try to reorganize elements, initially designed for wide pages, to fit narrower but longer viewports, and vice versa. But simply ensuring that elements fit within a page may not be enough. For a responsive website to be considered a success, it must provide a similar user experience on all screens.
With all this in mind, we can conclude that neither of the approaches offers shortcuts or necessarily an easy way forward. Both ask you to do the work, and if you want to create a genuine one-size-fits-all website, you’ll have to use a little elbow grease.
When push comes to shove, as always, you’ll have to consider your audience and goals. Once you know exactly who your target prospects are and what devices they tend to use, it will be easier to build or rebuild your webpage with them in mind.
This applies not only to the adaptive vs. responsive debate but also to your content, SEO practices, UX design, customer contact channels, and everything else that goes into making a successful website.
Another thing your decision will depend on is whether you already have a website or you’re starting from scratch. Adaptive may be a better choice if the former is true, while responsive is probably the way to go if you’re building your site from the ground up.
Travis Dillard is a business consultant and an organizational psychologist based in Arlington, Texas. Passionate about marketing, social networks, and business in general. In his spare time, he writes a lot about new business strategies and digital marketing for DigitalStrategyOne.