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Mar 09, 2017

Responsive (RWD) vs Adaptive Website Design (AWD)

Article brought to you by Nilead, a website builder platform with fully-managed design, development, and management services.

Responsive vs Adaptive Website Design


Table of contents

Today’s users can access online information in diverse ways, from a giant corporate monitor to a smartwatch. With this amount of different devices, website designers must provide solutions in their designs that fit the variety of screen sizes. This is one of the most challenging tasks that every web and app designer currently faces. To be able to bridge the gap between devices, designers have two options: adaptive design or responsive design.

While both methods share the ultimate goal of changing the appearance of the website based on the browser environment that is being viewed (the most common aspect will be: the browser’s width), they have several differences.

Responsive website design (RWD)

A responsive website reacts and shows the content of the site based on the available browser/viewport space at any given point. To check if a website is designed and developed responsively, you can open the site on the desktop browser and then change the size (usually width) of the browser window, the content will move dynamically to arrange itself in the most optimal way.

Responsive website design doesn’t offer as much control over the design on each screen size because the responsive layout is usually changed based on stylesheets and javascript but still uses the same HTML structure for all devices. For this reason, responsive website design takes less work to build and maintain but suffers from certain limitations. Due to its affordable approach, responsive website design is currently the most preferred method for creating new cross devices websites at this moment. There is also a large number of affordable templates available on the market that support this style of design, and at the same time, these templates can be applied to the majority of the mainstream CMS (Content Management System) platforms.


  • Same Experience in all devices: Mobile users will see a slightly different layout from desktop users, however, everyone viewing your site will get the same experience.

  • Less Maintenance: Multiple designs take more time to update. By using a single responsive design, you can reduce the time you spend updating your designs.

  • Everything in a single URL: Desktop, tablet, and smartphone users will all view a page using the same URL. This is better for social media sharing and optimizing search engine rankings.


  • Website Performance: Loading times are the biggest concern of responsive designs. When someone loads a web page with a responsive design, they load the information for all devices, not just the one they are viewing your website on.

  • Integrating Advertisements: It is more difficult to integrate advertising effectively into a responsive design, as ads have to fit nicely into all resolutions.

  • Sacrificing Functionality: A lot of sacrifices have to be made when using one single design for all devices. For example, you will have to compromise your reader’s desktop experience to ensure that the experience for mobile users is not hindered (and vice-versa).

Responsive design is straightforward. Because of its fluid nature, it means that users can access your website and enjoy as much of it on their handheld device as they would on a huge monitor. For this to be true, responsive design requires a very good conceptualization of the site and a deep knowledge of the needs and wants of the end-users.Responsive vs Adaptive Website Design

Adaptive website design (AWD)

On the other hand, an adaptive website will adjust to the width of the browser at a specific point. When the site detects the available space, it selects the layout most appropriate for the screen. So, when you open a browser on a desktop computer, the site chooses the best layout for that desktop screen; resizing the browser has no impact on the design. Usually, in adaptive websites, the layout displayed on the mobile version is different from the desktop version. However, this is because the designers have picked a different layout for the phone’s screen rather than leaving the design to try to rearrange itself.

The adaptive design will (at least in theory) ensure the best user experience according to whichever device the user is using to interface. Unlike responsive design, where a screen “flows” from desktop design into smaller devices, the adaptive design offers tailor-made solutions. As the name suggests, they adapt to the user’s situational needs and capabilities. With this, you can show users that you’re in tune with their needs on a mobile device by making the design touch-friendly. Meanwhile, you can do the same for desktop users.


  • Best Experience for Everyone: When you optimize the experience for all devices individually, you can ensure that each user gets the best experience.

  • Fast Loading: Users will only load the version of the website that they are viewing. Smartphone users will really notice the difference in speed as mobile designs tend to be simplified versions of their desktop equivalents with few images and basic navigation.

  • Advertising Monetization: More and more designers are working towards optimizing advertising options in responsive designs, such as replacing 728×90 banners with 468×90 banners in smaller resolutions. If a website owner wants to monetize his website in the most profitable way, the designer needs to use an adaptive design that is catered for the device it is being viewed on.


  • Bad for Search Engines: Two different designs may mean that each article/section has two separate URLs. Search engines do not like identical articles being on different URL’s, therefore your traffic may be reduced as a result of this.

  • Cross-Linking: Linking internally becomes difficult when you have more than one version of your website. You may have to set up redirects so that someone who clicks a button in the website from the mobile design is redirected to the mobile version of this part of the website.

  • Stuck in the Middle: Mobile users usually find the mobile-optimized version of a design to be easier to navigate, however, tablet users may not. It really depends on the device. Tablets generally range from 5″ to “11 in size. Those with smaller screens may prefer the mobile version of your website whilst others will prefer viewing the full version of your design.

  • Costly: adaptive website design usually takes more time and thus money to design, develop and maintain.

A simpler way to think about the difference between responsive and adaptive website design will be the difference between smooth and snap design. Responsive design is smooth because the layout fluidly adjusts regardless of what device it is viewed on. Adaptive design, on the other hand, snaps into place because the page is serving something different because of the browser or device it is viewed on.

While Adaptive Website Design (AWD) will more than likely be more expensive than Responsive Website Design (RWD), as you can see both have pros and cons. The key is to consider your audience first and foremost no matter what design technique you decide to use. Once you know exactly who they are, what they want to see, and what devices they tend to access the site on, you will find which method will provide you with more benefits.


About the author


Ivan Lamothe

Ivan Lamothe is a website and graphic designer, coming from a film making and visual arts background from the Fine Arts Academy “San Alejandro”, takes great pride in the work he delivers and always strives to create great experiences and real connections through the filter of design. As NILEAD´s Art Director and Project Manager Ivan is involved in the entire process of creating a website, from the first meeting with the customers and incubating the initial concepts to the entire design process, development and launch.

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