The basic design principles highlight the term ‘Responsive vs Adaptive design’ for websites and every UI/UX designer has to deal with them at some point or the other. In a mobile dominant era, where users are widely accessing mobile platforms for surfing or other uses, design architects are continuously facing challenges in providing better user experience and fitting in the website layout to every screen size. This is where the concepts of responsive design and adaptive design come in. While both look distinctly similar at the front, they have some obvious functional differences when observed closely which makes each of them unique.

Responsive vs Adaptive Web Design: A Basic Difference

Responsive vs Adaptive Web Design
Illustration Showing Key Difference Between Responsive and Adaptive Design

Adaptive and responsive websites are quite similar. They fit in the user interface (UI) of a website according to the width of the browser window. But, the way with which they do it makes the difference.

As depicted clearly in the above illustration, 

  • Response web design easily fits any screen size of the target device. This fluid layout grid enables the page to resize its height and width to adapt to different screen sizes and appear visibly the same.
  • Adaptive web design employs distinct layouts for each screen size. Thus, for each of these sizes, a layout has to be designed as it largely depends on the screen sizes used.

Now, that was Responsive vs Adaptive design at a glance. For a detailed insight, let’s dive deep into it!

What is Responsive Design: One Built Fits All

Responsive Design One Codebase Fitting in All Screen Sizes
Illustration Depicting One Codebase Fitting in All Screen Sizes

Ethan Marcotte introduced the term ‘responsive design’ to the world. It is a fluid design and the users can explore the website in a handheld device such as mobile, tablet the same way they would experience on the desktop. It optimises the content as per the available browser space even if the size of the browser window is changed. In a responsive design, the interior page elements reshuffle as the viewport grows or shrinks.

A responsive website incorporates percentage-based CSS rules and is created using HTML. It uses CSS media queries to target breakpoints to scale images, wrap text, and fits the layout to any screen size. The page elements adjust proportionately irrespective of the size of the browser window be it 300px to 35000px wide.

A responsive design requires good website conceptualisation and sound knowledge of the end-user needs.

On the whole, the responsive design employs one layout per webpage and ‘responsively’ adjusts it to the user’s screen, whether a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

What is Adaptive Design: One Built Fits One

Adaptive Design One Codebase Fitting in All Screen Sizes
Illustration Depicting Multiple Codebases For Multiple Screen Sizes

Aaron Gustafson introduced ‘Adaptive design’ to the world. He describes the adaptive design as the one that uses distinct layouts for multiple screen sizes.

An adaptive website adjusts the page layout as per the browser width. It requires multiple interpretations of the same design – one for each size. Hence, a UX designer needs to design a different layout for each of the six viewport widths which are the panel widths of mobile devices and desktop of 320px, 480px, 760px, 960px, 1200px, and 1600px.

As the name suggests, an adaptive web design adapts to the screen size once the width is confirmed and a static layout is utilised. It ‘adapts’ to the users’ needs situationally.

For an adaptive design, a UX designer is required to design the same page for six or more times and the corresponding number of layouts for each web page. Although the design is complex there are still many websites built with an adaptive design depending on specific applications, budgets, and resources.

Altogether, an adaptive design requires the creation of different fixed layouts that can adapt to specified screen sizes. Technically, you have to design multiple versions of a web page as compared to a single static page that looks identical across all devices.

Functional Comparison Between Adaptive and Responsive Design

There are several parameters on which the responsive and adaptive designs can be compared with the following distinguishing points:

  • Construction
    Responsive design requires making one layout to optimise in any screen size creating attractive websites. Thus in terms of creation, it is harder to be executed as it needs extra attention and effort to ensure the website’s CSS and organisation works well at any size. Whereas, in an adaptive design that requires making multiple page layouts, the designer has the ease to work on several screen sizes and is comparatively easier to be built.
  • Flexibility
    A responsive design layout works on its own to fit into any screen size. In this case, adaptive design faces a drawback as the final result doesn’t always display the way it is intended for multiple screen sizes. If a new device or a new screen size is released, it may happen that none of the adaptive layouts fit well in it. Thus, adaptive sites need occasional maintenance of editing an old layout or replacing it with a new one.
  • Loading Speed
    An adaptive website needs to load all the page layouts while responsive websites need to load only the one that works across all platforms. Thus, adaptive sites will load a bit slower than their responsive counterparts as multiple layouts take extra time and resources to load.
  • Cost
    In addition to time-consuming, adaptive web design requires a large pool of developers to handle the complexity of developing, maintaining and supporting an adaptive website. Thus, an adaptive design is suggested for large scale projects. The responsive design which is budget-friendly is preferred for small businesses and startups where you can save a lot on development, support, and maintenance costs as well as control your content from one centralised location.
  • SEO Friendliness
    Websites that are mobile-friendly rank higher on search engine results page, thus Google favours a responsive design as they are mobile optimised and directly improve the crawling efficiency and indirectly help search engines to index your site content. In this context, an adaptive design can face a setback as they can’t easily optimise to mobile screen and most search engines don’t rank identical content over multiple URLs at the same ranking position.

Applications of Adaptive and Responsive Design

Depending on the business requirements, designers decide upon Responsive vs Adaptive design as to which one would suffice the requirements. In a responsive design, a screen layout adjusts from a desktop into a smaller device whereas an adaptive design offers tailor-made solutions. Here, we have penned down some use cases where Responsive or Adaptive website designs are incorporated depending on the user requirements.

  • Adaptive design is suitable for retail businesses or e-commerce websites where the users can access websites for purchasing or browsing products as it offers limited but targeted options. One such example is Amazon.
  • If you are looking for a website with ad monetisation, a responsive design may not show all the ads properly on some devices. An adaptive design must be preferred in this case as the ad sizes can be optimally defined for mobile devices.
  • If a client requires recognisably distinct user intent and behaviour on desktop and mobile devices, then opting for an adaptive design is a go-to choice because it can accurately capture the user’s goals. For example, 

A large service company whose team of field technicians are given the same model of smartphone or mobile and are instructed to use the same output device to receive dispatch instructions, access product manuals, fulfil orders or fill out online service forms and reports in a company’s secure portal. Here, the adaptive design will work.

  • Websites with heavier content such as images, videos, and others must implement responsive design. One such responsive website design example is the New York Times. 
  • With a responsive website, you can offer access to the users to all the pages whereas you can restrict some page access with an adaptive design.

Should You Use Adaptive or Responsive Design?

Responsive design is desired to create an optimised experience for any screen. The responsive design flows within the environment whereas the adaptive design snaps into one place in a defined environment with no fluidity or flexibility.

Responsive Web Design is an approach at creating sites with fluid grids to provide a seamless viewing experience such as easy reading and navigation with minimum resizing and scrolling across several devices. Thus the same layout will ‘respond’ to any screen dimension. This invokes trust in the users as they can have the same experience when transitioning from one device to another.

When it comes to single out between responsive vs Adaptive design, responsive design appears to be the ideal choice. However, despite all the benefits of responsive design, there are rare occasions that exist when you are exacted to use adaptive design.

A web designer may want to design and develop adaptive web pages for the desired resolution and screen size of all the uniform target devices. The adaptive design is preferred to ensure in some projects that forms, tables, and other content display consistently.

The prevalence and ever-growing variety of mobile devices have enforced designers to create designs for an array of screen sizes ranging from a huge desktop monitor to a tiny smartwatch screen to access the information. This poses a great challenge to the designers to scale the sites to any device. While both adaptive and responsive design seems similar, each has its own pros and cons.

Springboard’s Take on Responsive and Adaptive Web Design

Springboard has crafted an online UI/UX Design Career Track where the learner will gain extensive knowledge pertaining to what is responsive design and what is adaptive design.

This program will cover entire UI and UX design concepts ranging from design foundation to Wireframing and Prototyping. By the end of the course, you will be job-ready with the requisite skills.

Some of the course takeaways,

  • Design thinking stages
  • Brainstorming and Gamestorming
  • Visual and UI principles
  • Designing animations and interactions
  • Understanding design psychology

Picking one between responsive or adaptive web design needs careful consideration to decide which one will be perfect for your needs. While it seems obvious to opt for a responsive design for saving cost, improving SEO, and providing seamless user experience, adaptive design can accommodate varying user needs and target specific users. Thus, the final choice made between the two drastically impacts the overall usability of the website.