Responsive Vs. Adaptive Web Design: What’s the Difference?

responsive vs. adaptive web design

At the beginning of the internet, a vast majority of websites were static pages only. They were made of texts and images, and blue links. Craigslist is one of the few websites that retained such style—which operates with the same look as it did decades ago.

In the modern era, many websites are either responsive or adaptive. Some have both qualities. But what is a responsive design, and what is an adaptive design? Is there a difference at all?

Today, I will help you explore the difference between the two. By the end of this responsive vs. adaptive web design tutorial, you will be able to decide what approach best fits your website.

What is responsive web design?

A responsive web design is one that automatically adjusts according to the screen of the user. If the website is not responsive, it is going to show some gaps.

Back in the early 2000s, many web design themes and templates were not responsive. If the device used to access the website is a phone, the website will still show on a browser, and the phone will look like a mini-monitor.

Today, websites no longer work that way. They will shrink or increase in size according to what device is being used. This includes everything from the text size, the menu’s position, the width, the height, the video player, and everything else.

What is an adaptive web design?

Adaptive web design depends on static layouts. The layout of an adaptive web design has breakpoints. A breakpoint is a layout. The website will determine the size of the screen being used, and then it will show the web content with the appropriate breakpoint layout.

There are six main categories for layouts according to screen size. These are:

  • 320 px
  • 480 px
  • 760 px
  • 900 px
  • 1200 px
  • 1600 px

If you want an adaptive design, you have to design the website template or layout six times—once for each breakpoint. If you use adaptive design, your website will present a layout the fits a user’s device.

Responsive vs adaptive web design: what is the difference, really?

The keyword here is the layout. Both responsive and adaptive designs have one goal—to present the website dynamically according to their device. This is the best thing that a business owner can do to provide a consumer with the best experience, especially in mobile devices like phones and tablets.

The layout is the key difference.

In responsive design, the website will detect the screen size and then rearrange the website’s content for easy viewing. All the content of the site is still there—they are just presented in a different order.

But remember this: all content is there.

In an adaptive design, not all content is on the website. The website determines the size of the screen and then proceeds to present itself according to a layout.

Let us talk a little about layout.

Let us say that you decided to put a slider banner at the top o the page on your widescreen layout. However, on your 760 px layout, you decided to remove it.

Once your website detects that the user’s design is a 760 px layout, it will not show the banner anymore.

Why? Because that is how you designed your website to show on a device that has a 760 px monitor.

It “adapts” the specific layout for specific devices according to screen size.

This is why if you view Amazon on your mobile device, the content of the same page is different between the two devices.

Here is a screenshot of Amazon’s bottom page viewed from a desktop browser:

amazon footer.png

And here a screenshot of Amazon’s bottom page viewed from a mobile browser:

amazon footer - mobile.png

See the difference?

The desktop browser gives the user more options, whereas the mobile browser has removed many of its components.

Do not confuse responsive and adaptive designs with apps. Apps are different. They draw information from the same servers as the website, but they do not operate on browsers. They are specifically designed applications for various operating systems.

Responsive vs adaptive web design: what should you use?

Today, almost all website templates and themes are responsive. Many are free, and more complicated ones are sold between $30 and $60. The best ones are sold for hundreds of dollars.

What should you choose? It really depends on several factors, which I will discuss below.

Ease of build – responsive designs does not require building a website from scratch. You can pick a theme and use it right away.

But if you want to build your own, it is easier to build a responsive website than an adaptive one. There are no free adaptive design website templates. You will have to build this from the ground up.

Presentation of the site – a responsive design uses one template and will automatically adjust according to the user or viewer’s screen size.

This makes the consumer happy, especially those that come back to your website with different devices. They can expect that your site’s content is the same no matter what device they are on.

Adaptive design cannot do this. You will choose your web content chunks in adaptive design and not show them according to your plan.

Flexibility and speed – in responsive design, some of the things on your site may not show correctly. One example is advertising frames. Responsive designs also take time to load on a smaller screen because it is loading everything.

In adaptive design, this is not a problem. You can choose not to show something on mobile if you know that it eats up a lot of bandwidth.

Theoretically, the adaptive design could potentially deliver the best experience. It can happen because you are removing many website elements that a user on a small screen does not need. It basically allows you to practice minimalism according to the user’s screen size.

Adaptive design is also geared towards user experience. Responsive design, however, is leaning towards transferring desktop experience in mobile. The thing with responsive design is that it can cause a lot of clutter, which is heavily frowned upon in web design these days.

Lastly, the adaptive design gives you the flexibility to choose what users see. Responsive design is nothing more than the shifting of the web contents’ arrangement. It makes or a great experience, but not as great as adaptive design websites.  

Summary: Responsive Vs. Adaptive Web Design

My take is that you should use responsive design if you are operating a small business, like a blog or a small dropshipping store. It is easy to build, and your site users will have the same content experience on any device.

If you are operating a massive website, like Amazon or eBay, it is best to use adaptive design.


Because sites like this do not just offer products—they have subdomains for their affiliates and sellers. The website design must show stuff to the buyers, but the sellers and affiliates must access the full website to be able to do business.

Use responsive design if you are a solopreneur. An adaptive design is not a wise choice because it entails a lot of work and expenses.

John Kilmerstone

I'm an Aussie living in Japan who enjoys traveling, photography, and blogging. Please visit this website and explore the wonderful world of blogging. Discover how to turn your passions and pastimes into an online business.

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