Adaptive vs responsive design. Is there really a matter of “better vs worse”? What's the difference anyway?

For the boundaries sure look blurry enough. Especially since both types of web design provide you with a solution to the same challenge. The one you're facing as a web designer:

A design that should cater to all screen sizes.

Now, instead of delving into this confusion even deeper, let's shed some light on:
 

1. Responsive Design: What Is It? 

Using one single layout when designing a web page, that adjusts itself to fit the given screen size.

This would have to be a concise, yet comprehensive definition.

If I am to add a bit more details to it, I would have to say that:

It's a “fluid” layout, a “fluid” grid that we're talking about here, one using CSS, Content (Based Breakpoint) and media queries 

… for setting up different style roles for each device/media type

Long story short: the responsive design approach enables your site's pages to (more or less seamlessly) adapt to various screen resolutions.

Note: implementing a responsive design does call for a website conceptualization phase and a deep understanding of the end user's needs and expectations!
 

2. Adaptive Design: A Concise Definition

Or “progressive enhancement of a website” if you prefer:

This approach to web design is centered around “multiple fixed layout sizes”. Basically, you'll need to create different layouts, one for each screen size. Once the website “identifies” the type of device the user's accessing it from, it just triggers the appropriate pre-set layout.

A layout that you/your team will need to prepare in advance, needless to add (so, you'll need to plan your time and budget accordingly).

Who's leveraging this approach? Apple, About.com, Amazon are just some of the big names.

It's an alternative to the “one-size-stretches-to-all” option in modern web design.

Note: since we can't be talking about a unique layout being re-sized over and over again, there's no impact on the overall design; no more over-stretching or other inconveniences of the sort.
 

3. Responsive Design: Why Would You Use It? And What Could Discourage You?

Why and when would/should you be “tempted” to go with this approach to modern web design

Let's go through some of this type of web design's most “irresistible” strong points, shall we?
 

  • it's easier to set up and less time-consuming to implement
  • since the same design is being used, seamlessly, on all devices, a certain feeling of familiarity is being instilled, enhancing the overall user experience
  • … we can talk about a unified visual (and operational) end-user experience 
  • the collection of affordable templates at hand, suitable for most CMSs, is ideally rich and particularly “tempting” if it's a brand new website that you need to design
  • a “one size fits all” type of flexibility
  • it's SEO-friendly; since we can't be talking about distinct design versions, there's no negative impact on the SEO strategy either
  • lower maintenance costs
  • no redirection needed for establishing the connection between mobile and desktop sites
     

And yet, this approach does come packed with certain disadvantages, as well. Limitations that you need to note and ponder on before you make your adaptive vs responsive design decision:
 

  • you'll have less control over the screen size design
  • expect longer mobile download times
  • no possibility to fine tune the advertisements showing up on your website
  • expect to have certain elements scattered, moving around the screen once the design readjusts itself to the given screen's width
     

4. Adaptive Design: Main Advantages & Drawbacks

Your “adaptive vs responsive design” dilemma becomes even acuter when you realize that you need to choose between:

A seamless design, plus a certain sense of familiarity and a suite of tailor-made design solutions catering to users' specific needs.

And how do you choose, since both familiarity and customization have a huge impact on the user experience?

Now, let's have a look at some of the adaptive design's strong points:
 

  • as mentioned: it enables you to deliver custom-made web design; different layouts created for various screen resolutions (instead of one layout “stretched/shrunk to all of them”)
  • it complies with the requirements of modern user experience: personalization-focused UX and user-centric approach to web design 
  • … meaning you're not creating the best UX, but the best UX for each one of the devices that your users will be accessing your website from
  • by “tailor-made” I do mean “tailor-made advertisements”, perfectly optimized to your relevant user interface and tailored to the user data collected from smart devices
  • in an adaptive vs responsive design debate, the first one will always win when it comes to performance: sites using an adaptive design are just faster
  • … and speed will always be a differentiating factor in Google's eyes
  • coding an adaptive design is more time-efficient
  • implementing it is more cost-effective
  • managing it tends to be easier since you only need to consider few states
  • testing it is much easier (with more accurate results, as well)
     

And now, are you ready for a list of drawbacks to balance adaptive design's advantages with? Just so you can gain a more objective understanding, evaluating all the pros and cons in full:
 

  • it usually requires more work, and therefore it's used mostly for overhauling existing websites, rather than with new websites (considering that “more work” stands for “more time-consuming”)
  • the site configuration being either desktop or smartphone-focused, tablets and notebooks users are... left in the middle
  • it impacts your SEO strategy, since search engines will detect and penalize identical content showing up on different websites (“.com” and “m.com” sites)
     

5. Adaptive vs Responsive Design: Key Differences to Take Away

The most notable differences for you to keep in mind from this comparative analysis of the 2 popular options at hand are the following:
 

  1. a responsive design is a consistent one: what you get on desktop, you get on a smaller screen size, as well
  2. a responsive design might turn out to be easier to maintain on the long run: with every new screen size emerging, it will adapt to it, by default
  3. … by comparison, with an adaptive design you'll need to create a brand new layout for every new possible device, with a specific screen width, that might get released
  4. on a long-term, we could say that maintaining a site using adaptive design gets more challenging: it's several fixed layouts that you'll need to manage (instead of just one)
  5. the adaptive screen size (you'll be using static breakpoint for building adaptive design) is less flexible than the responsive screen design: you'll need to design (from scratch) for every display that you target
     

The END! Are all these strengths and limitations of the two popular approaches to modern web design of any help to you? For solving your “adaptive vs responsive design” dilemma?

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