Is Your Website Responsive or Adaptive? (Yes, there is a difference!)

Guarantee – Warranty, Jealous – Envious, Effect – Affect. What comes to your mind when you think of these words?

Most of us use them interchangeably, but very few notice the subtle yet impactful differences between the words.

Often, the terms responsive and adaptive have been used synonymously upon convenience while describing one-size-fits-all websites. Let’s break this myth today by explaining how and why Responsive website designs (RWD) and Adaptive website designs (AWD) differ from each other. We’ll also tell you which one might be the best option for your website.

Have you seen websites that look great on desktops but on a mobile device it makes you squint, pinch and zoom the screen?

Although majority of the websites have moved on from fixed design websites to more fluid designs, we can still find some ignorant ones every now and then. With the increasing number and variety of devices ranging from smart-watches to tablets, businesses now need to ensure their websites offer compelling user experience irrespective of the device.

What’s Common?

With the increasing number of gadgets and decreasing tolerance for un-friendly websites, serving only desktop users is now a thing of the past. Websites now need to constantly enhance and optimize user experiences across devices.

Both Responsive and Adaptive designs aim to provide users with unaltered, smooth, and flawless user experiences irrespective of the devices being used. They optimize the website by recognizing the screen sizes of the device and set the best-fitted layout.

Since 2015, Google has emphasized enough on how it loves mobile-friendly websites and declared to rank you higher when you’re multi-device friendly.

Google’s algorithms do not care if the design was built responsive or adaptive. As long as your website offers an optimal user experience to the viewer’s device, your website has a good chance at ranking higher.

What’s Different?

Although Responsive and Adaptive website designs have the same aim of optimizing the viewer’s experience regardless of the device used, they differ in their approaches they take to get there.

  1. Detecting the Device

In Adaptive designs, the website designer requires to design the site for fixed common screen width sizes (320, 480, 760, 960, 1200, and 1600). When the website loads, it detects the screen size using the HTTP GET request and delivers the layout designed for that screen size.

Responsive websites work by using media queries to detect the screen size. Media queries are CSS techniques that determine the properties (screen size, device type, screen resolution, browser width, etc.) of the device used.

RWD implements fluid grids, images and content that automatically adjust to fit themselves within the device screen size. Unlike Adaptive designs, responsive website designers create and work on only one copy of the site design.

  1. Ease of Designing

This point is highly debatable. Some designers find it easier to design Adaptive websites because the initial challenge of enabling it to function on all possible devices. Creating the CSS and media queries needs a lot of attention and care to build a design that works well on all screen widths and resolutions.

Other set of designers like to design for Responsive websites as they don’t have to build multiple designs to fit multiple screen sizes. Also, nowadays most CMS frameworks like WordPress and Drupal, offer responsive layouts and themes right out-of-the-box! So instead of re-inventing the wheel, designers can focus their attention to customizing the wheel to meet the nitty-gritties.

  1. Resizing the window

Although it isn’t a common practice for one to resize the window just to check compatibility (unless used for testing), it is still a possibility that cannot be ignored. Also bear in mind that resizing cannot be performed on mobile screens.

Adaptive designs are fluid designs as they use percentages to help in scaling the design as opposed to fixed designs that use only fixed widths. However, owing to the fact that different design layouts are called on for different screen sizes, you will notice a jump in the screen when it is resized.

Responsive designs are based on fluid grid layouts, which means that all the content is placed in grids and will automatically rearrange itself based on the screen size. Thus, it does not cause any jump in the screen on resizing the window.

  1. Performance

Adaptive designs are a clear winner here. Since the design layout is loaded for one particular screen size, it only downloads content, images and other information that is needed for that screen size.

In Responsive designs, all the content and information for all layouts are loaded for every device irrespective if it is used or not. This considerably affects the page load time and speed. However, there are some media query workarounds on this issue.

  1. SEO

Because of the identical designs and layouts, search engines find it harder to index content from Adaptive designs.

Responsive websites have a better chance in ranking higher on search engines. We have a clear winner here.

The final verdict

Both design techniques have their pros and cons. Clearly, there isn’t a winner here, but the answer lies in the business requirement. Some businesses would prefer Adaptive designs –

  • for its ability to load faster.
  • for better and granular design control.
  • customize designs based on screen size popularity.
  • if there’s a need for an existing website to become mobile-friendly without creating a mobile version of the entire website. In other words, it is an ideal choice for retrofitting an already existing site.
  • because they have analyzed their target audience’s most preferred devices and would want to serve only that set of audience.
  • because it is easy to retrofit into an existing website

While other businesses would like to opt for Responsive designs –

  • for its ability to be future proof without being confined to only a set of devices/screen sizes.
  • because it offers a seamless and uniform user experience regardless of the device
  • because of its ease of implementation especially with CMSes offering tons of flexible responsive themes and layouts.
  • because the easy availability of ready-made responsive themes has opened doors to lesser experienced designers as well.
  • because it is more SEO-friendly.
  • because it is a better option for starting-from-scratch website.


To go the Responsive or Adaptive way completely depends on the business requirements for the website and the kind of audience it serves. Personally, my pick would be a Responsive website design because it is more future-proof and does not restrict my content and UX to a few screen sizes.

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Shefali Shetty
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