Adaptive vs Responsive

A much scribed topic, you might argue that this discussion has been somewhat over-laboured, (and you’d be right!) yet it’s still very much a relevant topic. Despite what appear to be endless articles, videos, webinars and content around the debate, brands are still none the wiser as to the best way to approach the challenge. They know they need to act, but are simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information on the topic.

On almost a daily basis we are asked to design a responsive site, create a mobile site, or give a recommendation as to how we can best deliver a digital brand experience that takes today’s multi-device-using consumer’s needs into account. And often our clients are surprised when we explain that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to the burning question – should my brand get an adaptive or a responsive website?

What is adaptive design? And what is responsive?

For the end user, the two achieve largely the same result. They ensure a brand’s website is navigable regardless of device being used to browse the site. An article featured on TechRepublic gives us a nice distilled definition of both approaches:

Adaptive = will change to fit a predetermined set of screen and device sizes.

Responsive = will fluidly change and respond to fit any screen or device size.

If implemented using analytics insights and audience research, both will achieve virtually the same outcome for a brand, with the main difference being the suitability of approach in relation to the application. The more complex, the more likely an adaptive solution will deliver a better result.

What of mobile?

To add yet another facet to the debate, there is also the option of a separate mobile website to consider. Would a standalone mobile site function better for your brand than a responsive or adaptive site? For some, the combination of a mobile site for smartphones and a responsive site for tablets, desktops and laptops presents the optimum solution. But again, there is no single answer. All brands are unique, and whilst they may share similarities with others, a definitive answer can only be determined by examining your brand and audience in order to truly add value.

What now?

If you are currently on a quest to find the answer to the million dollar question, stop now. It’s like looking for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! Start by interrogating your analytics data, understanding how your audience engages digitally, establish your digital objectives and analyse what functionality and content you have and need.

It’s also important to consider your motivation for making the change to your site. Is it because your analytics data shows that your current site is causing a massive bounce rate for mobile browsers? Or do you feel under pressure to keep one step ahead of competing brands?


I haven’t mentioned costs up until this point, but there is a difference between adaptive and responsive, both in initial build and ongoing maintenance costs.

An adaptive website involves the creation of versions of the site in predetermined sizes. This means that in some cases you are creating the same part of the site and its content several times, for the initial build, and on an ongoing basis, indicating a higher time and financial cost. However, as adaptive sites serve up the largest version of the website that will fit onto a browsing device, you can be certain that the versions you create will always work, giving you complete control over the appearance and user experience.

A responsive website involves the creation of a single set of code and content that delivers the site to all browsing devices. Whilst on the face of it this appears to be a more cost effective option, the complexity of a one-code-for-all solution will increase the time and cost of testing the initial build, and subsequent technical updates. So whilst your site is guaranteed to work on any device, you have a little less control over appearance.


The decision between responsive and adaptive technology is not one to be taken lightly, but also one to consider not taking alone. An experienced consultant or digital agency could provide you with the expertise, insights and strategic approach necessary to make the right, informed decision from the outset.

Faced with the fact that (a Google guy told me recently) there are now more mobile phones than toothbrushes on the planet, brands can no longer afford to shy away from the compelling case for mobile and tablet compatibility.

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