What’s the Difference between Adaptive and Responsive Design?

So first up, what are the key differences between responsive and adaptive design?

Put simply, responsive is fluid and adapts to the size of the screen no matter what the target device. Responsive uses CSS media queries to change styles based on the target device such as display type, width, height, etc., and only one of these is necessary for the site to adapt to different screens.

Adaptive design, on the other hand, uses static layouts based on breakpoints that don’t respond once they’re initially loaded.
Adaptive works to detect the screen size and load the appropriate layout for it – generally you would design an adaptive site for six common screen widths:

On the surface, it appears that adaptive requires more work as you have to design layouts for a minimum of six widths. However, responsiveness can be more complex as improper use of media queries (or indeed not using them at all) can make for display and performance issues.

Editor’s note: In UXPin, you can use the various breakpoints. If you want to play around with them, start a free trial.

The latter in particular has created a lot of discussion over the past few years as it’s been the case that many sites deliver the full desktop model which, even if it’s not loading on the mobile device, slows sites down considerably. To get around this, you can use media queries–but there will be a few tradeoffs since a responsive site is never going to be as quick as a dedicated mobile site.
Adaptive is useful for retrofitting an existing site in order to make it more mobile-friendly. This allows you to take control of the design and develop for specific, multiple viewports. The number of viewports that you choose to design for is entirely up to you, your company, and your overall budget. It does, however, afford you a certain amount of control (for example over content and layout) that you won’t necessarily have using responsive design.

Generally, you would begin by designing for a low-resolution viewport and work your way up to ensure that the design doesn’t become constrained by the content.
The majority of new sites now use responsive, which has been made easier for less experienced designers and developers, thanks to the availability of themes accessible through CMS systems such as WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal.

Responsive doesn’t offer as much control as adaptive, but takes much less work to both build and maintain. Responsive layouts are also fluid and whilst adaptive can and do use percentages to give a more fluid feel when scaling, these can again cause a jump when a window is resized. For example, in the image below, which shows a fluid layout, the designer is using percentage widths so that the view will be adjusted for each user.