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Responsive web design vs adaptive web design: which UI design makes for the best user experience and conversion rates? Find out here!

Responsive web design vs adaptive web design: which UI design makes for the best user experience and conversion rates? Find out here!

In a multi-device, multifaceted-user society, UX designers face increasing pressure to keep users happy and connected 24/7. Luckily, there are loads of web design tools at our disposal to keep on top of this. In fact, with so much variation, it can sometimes get a bit overwhelming. Responsive web design, adaptive web design, flat, material etc.

The UI design principles behind responsive web design and adaptive web design are quite different, so how do you know what’s best for your interface? Which you choose totally depends on you and your web or mobile product. Getting informed, with our post below, is a great start. But the most important thing is how you apply what you’ve learned.

Our advice is to design your solution through prototyping, with a tool like Justinmind, so you can test out both concepts early on. Justinmind responsive prototypes are here to save the day! But first, let’s get you informed.

Looking for a guide to responsive design? Try our Introduction to Responsive.

The origins of responsive web design

Responsive web design (RWD), accredited to Ethan Marcote, describes a website’s content and layout appropriately designed to fit the screen of given devices. Responsive web design is achieved by using CSS media queries and HTML to resize, hide, shrink, enlarge, and/or move the content to make it look good on any screen. RWD’a features include fluid grids, flexible media, and breakpoints with a fluid layout between them.


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We’re living in the days of mobile-first, and we can’t always anticipate which device our users are going to use. As a result, a staggering number of today’s newer sites use responsive web design in order to cater to the multitude of users of today. But why should you use responsive?

  • Readability: Responsive design delivers a single design that has slight variances from device to device. The intention is to offer an overall universal look and feel without users having to zoom in and out of differently sized screens on their various devices.
  • Fluidity: in Responsive web design, all components buttons, menus bars, images etc. are automatically scaled downed in order to respond suitably to the design features of each device. This feature makes for an unchanging experience no matter which device you’re viewing a design on.
  • Consistent and complete experience: we know that it’s no longer enough to simply make sure your web content fits on a small screen—’mobile first’ is the way forward, so let’s keep it classy. With Responsive web design, the content, like the layout, remains consistent through all devices. Users are lazy, so we need to bring the information to them. When users can access all the information, across all mediums if and when possible, they get the bigger picture: a consistent and complete user experience. Additionally, as users are able to share their web content more easily from any of their devices, shared expectations will increase.
  • And with that consistent approach, let’s talk about a really cool feature of RWD: the singular URL. Responsive design means that you only need to have one URL that can be used on all devices, which means that Search Engine Optimization (SEO) only needs to be managed once because content will not be changed from device to device. So what does this mean for users? Well, imagine if your information was consistent from device to device and easy to read! Lower bounce rate anyone?
  • Responsive web design is cost effective, in comparison with Adaptive: RWD has a long life span, does not require constant rework and it’s easier to set up for rebuilds.

Bonus: RWD is super easy to implement in your interactive prototypes with Justinmind! To learn how to design responsive prototypes with Justinmind, click here.

Responsive web design: what’s the catch?

According to Amy Schade: “Responsive design often turns into solving a puzzle — how to reorganize elements on larger pages to fit skinnier, longer pages or vice versa. However, ensuring that elements fit within a page is not enough. For a responsive web design to be successful, the design must also be usable at all screen resolutions and sizes.”

Here’s the thing: Responsive requires more work. To make sure that the webpage fits each screen that users access, you will need a substantial amount of programming and coding. And then there’s the effects on the user and their experience. RWD mixes up content in each screen so that it can fluidly fit everything to the size and shape of the device’s window. Taking special care of the visual hierarchy of the design, this is also true for Adaptive, as it is shuffled around, as well as whether all that content is suitable for mobile devices is key. Oh, and be prepared for longer page load times and incompatibility with older browsers.

Design thinking with adaptive web design

Adaptive web design (AWD), the term coined by Aaron Gustafson, describes content authored and layout designed for distribution across multiple channels, media, products and interfaces. This design is achieved through progressive enhancement, detecting the device, and static layouts.


As explained on VenturePact: “AWD works to detect the screen size and load the appropriate layout for it—generally you would design an adaptive site for six common screen widths: 320, 480, 760, 960, 1200, and 1600”. The article goes on to add that Adaptive can be a useful way of making an existing website mobile-friendly, as it gives the designer more control and freedom over how to place elements in each device. Let’s take a look at how this design type could work for you:

  • Adaptive web design makes room for a tailored UX, with individual devices treated as unique mediums, and unique designs: ‘device-first’. As Carrie Cousins points out: “The ‘magic’ is in that the device and device-specific features are detected and a website’s original layout and content are served to the user based on that information. The result is a website custom-made for the user’s device.”
  • Fast page loads are common in AWD because only the essential elements are loaded on mobile devices.
  • Existing sites don’t need alteration, the layout is already set up!

Bonus: Adapative web design can also be worked in to your Justinmind prototypes! To learn how to design adaptive prototypes with Justinmind, click here.

In both responsive web design and adaptive web design, the layout of the UI is reworked to accommodate the size of the screen. But whilst responsive web design responds to the size of the browser interface by fluidly adjusting the placement of elements on a web page to best fit the available space, adaptive web design adapts to the width of the browser interface at specific points, based on the size and capabilities of each device.

Download Justinmind today and create awesome adaptive prototypes

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The downside of adaptive web design

As Adaptive web design requires advanced knowledge of web development for implementation, preparing multiple page-layout templates and testing across target, can can be a rather costly and time consuming concept to work with, as well as resource demanding. Making enhancements and modifications to multiple layout templates can be uneconomical, and the structure can be difficult to manage when it comes to multiple views. Due to the need to manually prep each design on each device, Adaptive web design “can sometimes result in a less consistent cross-device experience, than say with Responsive design.”

Nevertheless, however complex and expensive Adaptive can be, it’s a much more effective way to reach the broadest mobile audience.

Adaptive web design v responsive web design: the takeaway

Whichever web design works for you, there are no shortcuts to effective UX design. No UI designed with responsive web design or adaptive web design is going to be one-size-fits-all. Starting your design process with a low-fidelity wireframe or prototype is the best way to fail forward and ensure you end up with the best possible UI design. So what are you waiting for? The Justinmind responsive and adaptive features will help you achieve this quickly and easily. Download Justinmind now and see what we mean!

Emily is Marketing Content Editor at Justinmind

1 comment

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  • Nice post Emily. I think responsive sites and adaptive sites are the same in that they both change appearance based on the browser environment they are being viewed on (the most common thing: the browser’s width).