Responsive vs. Adaptive Web Design: Which is Better?

By Kate Salkin, Digital Art Director

February 02, 2015

As a web designer, I will be the first to admit that keeping up with the evolution of web design is, indeed, a full time job. Elements of that were once considered forward thinking are seen as passé and dated a mere year later. Still, the only thing evolving faster than web design itself are the devices we use to consume web-based content. For example, that trendy, oversized iPhone6 that came out eight months ago is already old news. Public praise has now moved on to the novel, teeny-tiny Apple Watch. With these never-ending changes in user experience and user interface, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that existing web design trends are now sharing the stage with a new way to design and implement a website: adaptive design.


What is adaptive web design?

Adaptive design delivers a website tailored to both the user and the device. More specifically, adaptive design makes sure that users consume a website in the most digestible or informative manner possible based on who the user is and what device they are viewing the site on. For example, if a user is visiting a website for the first time, they may see a different homepage than someone who visits that same website every single day. This is because someone who has visited a website every single day may not need the same information as someone who is being introduced to a website for the first time. Additionally, if a user is visiting a website on a mobile device, they may see information prioritized completely differently than when they look at that same website on their laptop. This is because someone who is viewing a website on their mobile device doesn’t want the same long-form content that may be more appropriate when viewed on a desktop.

While the capabilities of adaptive web design have evolved and grown greatly in the past year, it is worth noting that the concept of adaptive web design is far from new. In fact, one could argue that building a desktop site and a separate mobile site can be seen as an older, simpler iteration of adaptive design.


How does adaptive web design differ from responsive web design?

Before we talk about how adaptive and responsive web design are different, let’s point out how these two approaches are the same. The single biggest similarity between these two methods is that they each adjust a website’s content in different devices to provide a richer user experience. The difference comes with how this content is adjusted.

Responsive design works off the principle of flexibility. With a responsive website, a single design is created and content adjusts in a logical manner to fit different devices and screen sizes.

Adaptive design, on the other hand, doesn’t just adjust the same information to fit different browser sizes. Adaptive web design gives consideration to who the user is and how the user absorbs this information in different devices. It then displays different designs accordingly. Therefore, adaptive design cannot use just one flexible design. Instead, a designer and developer create any number of static layouts for a single page in adaptive design. Each design is developed but only one design will load when a particular user loads a page on a particular device.


Which is better?

When considering whether your next website should be responsive or adaptive, there is no obvious choice. When making this decision, what largely needs to be considered is how one of these two solutions can help meet the greater objectives of your website. Here are some adaptive design pros and cons to consider:


  • Adaptive websites provides a richer user experience. Design and information is organized based on the user and/or device, which allows for a greater consideration of how information can be organized to influence, help or guide the user.
  • Adaptive websites often (though not always) load faster than responsive websites. Since elements in adaptive design are optimized for specific screen resolutions, it allows for faster load times without sacrificing quality.


  • Adaptive websites are often more expensive. This is because it takes more time and consideration to provide an optimized user experience for multiple types of users and devices.
  • It is more difficult for search engines to index adaptive websites. Since responsive websites use the same HTML code regardless of device, search engines are able to index responsive sites faster and easier.


Admittedly, responsive sites are the trendier, more popular method of web design today, but there is no doubt that adaptive design has the potential to open up a world of personalized user experience that responsive design simply cannot accommodate. Still, the key take away for those of you looking to create a new website is that you have a choice, and each method is uniquely different and capable of fulfilling a multitude of website goals. With that being said, now is the time for responsive design to scoot over. Adaptive design is here and ready to share the spotlight.


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A website overhaul and updated branding connected this all-natural brand to a new audience.

A website overhaul and updated branding connected this all-natural brand to a new audience.

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