Adaptive Web Design

Adaptive web design is an approach to developing websites that uses a separate page layout adapted to the screen proportions of each type of device it will be viewed on. The approach is used to optimize the site’s overall performance and user experience.

What is adaptive web design?

From large desktop monitors to the smallest mobile phones, multiple screen sizes create challenges for website designers.

Icon represents adaptive web design.
Adaptive design delivers a better web experience regardless of screen dimensions. Source: IconFinder

Adaptive web design involves developing a website layout for a specific screen size. Each different screen size, whether on desktop or mobile, will use a separate, custom-designed website layout. As a result, websites are designed to adapt to different devices. For example, one layout might be created for viewing via a desktop browser and another for a mobile browser. The result is an improved browsing experience for the user, regardless of the device they choose to use.

Adaptive web design’s importance

First, the adaptive approach enables developers to create highly customized experiences for each device. For example, they’re able to design specific elements for mobile devices that make websites easier to use on a smaller screen. This is especially important as more and more consumers use their phones to complete everyday tasks such as placing grocery orders and paying bills.

Adaptive design also impacts website performance. For example, adaptive websites often load faster as elements such as images and banners are designed for each specific device. Elements don’t have to completely reconfigure and rescale like they do when designed using methods such as responsive web design.

How does it work?

Through adaptive design, a unique website layout is developed for each device used to access a website. Developers often choose which devices to create website layouts for based on user data analytics

For example, if more users are browsing via mobile, they will prioritize devices with a smaller screen size. Or, if they notice an increase in usage of a larger screen size they haven’t yet created a layout for, they will develop a one to fit.

The most common sizes for screen widths include 320, 480, 760, 960, 1200, and 1600 pixels. Once a user visits a website, the design is made to detect screen size based on factors such as the device’s operating system. The website then adapts and loads the layout developed for the device.

Where is adaptive web design used?

Adaptive web design is often used to take existing websites and turn them into mobile-friendly websites, which is often easier than overhauling an existing website for the sake of mobile. For example, a developer may choose to create a mobile website that’s lighter and faster than a desktop version for easy use on the go.

Adaptive web design is also used to enhance the user experience. Items such as images, text, and elements you can interact with can be designed for specific groups of users based on their preferences, expectations, needs, and even device connectivity.

The difference between adaptive and responsive web design

Adaptive web design and responsive web design are similar. Yet, there is a key difference in development. Through adaptive web design, different website layouts are created for each specific device. In responsive web design, one website layout is created that will then respond and change based on a range of display sizes.

A responsive website will feature images and other elements that shift and change based on screen size. An adaptive website will feature images and other elements specific to screen size. While a responsive website will look mostly the same on a desktop browser versus a mobile browser, an adaptive website could look completely different.

Adaptive vs Responsive Web Design.
The key difference between adaptive and responsive web design. Image Source: Passionate, accessed 4/14/22

Adaptive vs. responsive web design: Which is better?

Which design method is better? It depends. Developers should consider the advantages and disadvantages of each method and other factors such as website goals and budget before making their choice.

Many websites out there are now responsive. This is partly due to Google listing mobile-friendliness as a key ranking factor. However, other benefits such as simplified development and an improved user experience regardless of user device make responsive web design a top choice for developers.

Adaptive web design has just as many benefits. Not only does this method enable mobile-friendliness, but it also enables developers to truly customize websites to fit specific customer segments.

Of course, both adaptive and responsive web design have their cons too. For example, responsive web design often results in slower page speeds due to the resizing of on-page elements such as images and other content. This is especially prominent on mobile. Adaptive websites can be difficult to create and maintain as additional layouts lead to more code and each layout must be updated separately.

Brenna Miles
Brenna Miles
Brenna Miles is a contributing writer for Webopedia and TechRepublic.com, where she covers CRM, PLM, security, and IT automation. Since 2013, she's written everything from blog posts to industry white papers about everything from SaaS to network security and back again.

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