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Responsive vs Adaptive Web Design: What’s The Difference


Great variety of digital devices these days leaves no other choice for web designers than to consider the array of screen sizes during their work process. There are miniature smartwatch screens, huge computer monitors, everything in between — and all of them demand their own approach. So, it’s no wonder that designers’ jobs may be really challenging sometimes.

And still, knowing exactly what design to choose can significantly simplify it. The main questions here are: what is the difference between responsive and adaptive designs, and which one is perfect specifically for your project? That’s what we’re going to talk about right in this article.

Responsive web design

One of the most popular choices for modern websites is responsive web design. The reason for its recognition may be briefly explained: it can easily adjust all the content, navigation, and other web page elements to perfectly fit the user’s screen. 

In other words, it utilizes the layout to readjust all ux design components and make them adapt to any screen size. The responsive approach is considered to be fluid — it doesn’t require numerous fixed layouts. However, during the design process, you’ll still have to keep in mind all of them and create a viewport for mid-resolution. Then, you can turn to media queries to alter for low and high resolutions when needed. 

Adaptive web design

With adaptive design, the situation is slightly different since it means you’ll have to build numerous versions of a web page to make it look great on the user’s device. It forces you to create different layouts that are modified right for specific screen sizes, unlike the responsive design with its single page that looks completely the same on various gadgets.

Technically speaking, there are CSS media queries for responsive design on websites created with adaptive design. In addition, JavaScript-based enhancements are applied to help modify the website’s HTML markup depending on the device’s features. 

Regardless, adaptive design doesn’t call for building two websites. You can safely have your content in one place and keep on sharing it with users. 

Responsive vs. adaptive design: how do they compare

Let’s make it clear: the difference between responsive and adaptive design is quite faint. It’s not that easy to notice until you have actual web design experience, so we suggest focusing on the most important principles and comparing them. 

  • Layout

Once again, with responsive design, the layout is modified for any screen size. No matter what gadget your visitor uses, their screen will look the same. 

Adaptive layout is determined on the back-end, which demands new design templates for different kinds of devices. Once the service establishes what exactly the person has, the appropriate layout is chosen automatically. 

  • Complexity

This one may seem tricky. On the one hand, responsive designs need only one layout, while adaptive ones require you to build multiple layouts for different devices, and that’s why people think they are more difficult.

On the other hand, even with a single layout, responsive designs demand more attention and time up front. If you don’t make enough effort while working on them, there is a big chance you’ll mess up with your website’s organization, and some screen sizes won’t display everything as they’re supposed to. 

  • Page loading

Slow loading time is a big issue for any website, which can result in significant traffic reduction. But how is it connected to the design choice? Well, it’s known that responsive designs are generally slower than adaptive ones since they only transmit all the assets to certain devices.

To put it another way, the content of the adaptive website will load faster in case visitors use a high quality display, simply because it can adjust to any screen size.

  • Mobile and SEO friendliness

As we all know, being SEO-friendly is crucial for modern websites in order to get a higher ranking on the search pages and boost traffic. Since most people have mobile phones, websites’ mobile-friendliness is another necessity. And that’s where responsive designs come in handy — unlike adaptive ones, they are recommended by Google and smoothly handle their jobs.

  • Flexibility

Here everything is quite clear. Responsive layouts are considered flexible — they are able to work swimmingly without any interference. They need less maintenance and can effortlessly fit new screen sizes. 

At the same time, adaptive layouts need occasional maintenance since new screen sizes on the market can cause technical difficulties. In other words, there is a possibility you’ll have to edit or create a new layout for adaptive websites. It is no wonder they’re regarded as less flexible. 

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Top 10 examples

The theory sounds good as always, but what about practice? To get a better understanding of what we’ve been talking about before, we’ve gathered a few examples of the websites with both adaptive and responsive designs for you.

Responsive design websites

01 Dropbox

Dropbox has an impressive website with flexible visuals and font colors that change to fit the background once users switch from desktop to their devices. To make the layout more intuitive, Dropbox used to add small details to its design, such as a tiny arrow that guides visitors to scroll down when they’re using non-touchscreen devices.

from dropbox.com

02 GitHub

Next, we have GitHub, which has always provided visitors with the best experience. For instance, they removed the search bar and hidden the menu behind a hamburger button on mobile and other handheld devices. In case you need to shift from the desktop to the mobile version of a website, there will be other changes, like the alteration of a two-column area of a layout into a single-column one.

from github.com

03 Shopify

Shopify is known for providing a consistent user experience. And yes, we’re talking about all types of devices. The only differences that can be found between the desktop and mobile versions of the website are the illustrations and call-to-action buttons; they are placed to the right of the form field on PCs and tablets and beneath it — on mobile devices.

from shopify.ca

04 Slack

Who doesn’t know Slack? We all appreciate its simple and intuitive design, but you might be amazed at how responsive its website really is. One of the best things there is the flexible grid that can efficiently adjust to viewports of any possible size and shape. So, when some area is displayed in a four-column layout on a PC, for example, it’ll still look like a single-column layout on a mobile phone.

from slack.com


Finally, we have WIRED and their powerful website with a very dynamic layout. Just like the previous companies, WIRED made it possible to convert their columns into a single one on mobile devices. Their menu also shrinks to keep the page less cluttered. You can find flexible images that are getting cropped on different platforms in order to look clean and nice.

from wired.com

Adaptive websites

01 Food Sense

This website has a classic adaptive layout. Since the company is quite popular, it requires high loading speed of web pages and consistent UX. Due to adaptive templates, mobile users can quickly switch from app view to full-site view when needed. The menu is also hidden for handheld devices, which grants more free space on the page.

from foodsense.is

02 USA Today

We all know this magazine and its great number of topics, but why choose adaptive design for their website? Well, it’s all about users. To make their experience amazing, it’s important to provide easy navigation and help them efficiently find what they need. Besides, in case of screen shifting, adaptive design is usually a winner, while the responsive one can make the page look overloaded. 

from usatoday.com

03 Apple

Firstly, Apple chose an adaptive design for their website that could change with the device type and function. Even though this decision had been criticized a lot (mobile phones are literally one of the biggest reasons why responsive design exists), they still stuck to their guns for some time, slowly starting to build and add responsive components years after that. Either way, the website is absolutely magnificent and we’re all here for it!

from webdesign.tutsplus.com
from apple.com


Ikea is a world-known company, whose website has an adaptive design that perfectly fits any screen and lets customers make purchases on any type of device quickly and easily. It’s also mobile-oriented, which is vital for this kind of business.

from ikea.com

05 Turkish Airlines

Finally, we have Turkish Airlines with a beautiful adaptive website. Such a layout offers a marvelous user experience and shows customers that they’re valued. There is nothing more to say about it — other than all the components of this design are aimed at providing users with everything they need and allowing the page to adjust to any possible screen.

from turkishairlines.com

On a final note

Both responsive and adaptive approaches remain popular these days, and we’re not surprised at all since each of them has their own benefits. However, with the number of new devices being introduced to the market, choosing the right one can be a tough task.

While responsive design may look like the safest and most convenient option, adaptive websites, with their highly personalized and seamless user experience, often win web designers’ hearts. Which one to pick? The decision is all yours — after all, only you know your long-term goals and budget. Yet, if you have any questions or need some help, feel free to contact us. We’ll answer in no time.

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