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What Is Responsive Design?

January 03, 2022   /   by  Roger West

Designing a great webpage used to be easy. Back in the day, you only had to account for somebody opening your site on a desktop computer or laptop, all of which had broadly similar screen dimensions to account for as you arranged content.

That world is long gone.

Today, your website needs to be able to display content on a variety of screen sizes, many of which are vastly different. Just think about the difference between the dimensions of a mobile screen (smaller and vertically oriented) and a desktop screen (larger and horizontally oriented), not to mention tablets, vertically oriented monitors, curved screens, and even smart watches.

The days of a one-size-fits-all solution may be long gone, but thanks to responsive design techniques, you can create a website that’s able to seamlessly accommodate almost any screen dimensions to create a consistently outstanding viewing and user experience.

What Is Responsive Design?

Responsive design is an approach to web development that ensures a website will be able to adapt its layout to multiple devices with different screen dimensions. Whether you're viewing a website on a desktop computer, a laptop, a phone, or a tablet, the website's layout should change accordingly so that everything is easy to read and use. As the display dimensions change, the placement and size of various design elements (images, text, navigation bars, and so on) are adjusted to fit within the existing space rather than simply zooming in or out.

Although responsive design methods have evolved significantly over the last decade, today’s developers typically use a combination of HTML and CSS to create dynamic websites that automatically account for the dimensions of the user’s screen. The HTML defines the content and the structure of the page, while the CSS portion determines how it will be displayed on the screen.

Developers can provide CSS instructions for how to arrange and scale page elements based on the display size, which will dynamically affect the way the HTML code is rendered by the browser. Since there are so many different screens in use today, they don’t try to create rules for every device imaginable. Instead, they use a loose set of standards to establish break points that indicate when new display rules are necessary. These break points are usually based on pixel width, so at different screen sizes the page elements will be arranged to fit within the available dimensions.

When a visitor opens a webpage, the page immediately makes a media query to identify the features, dimensions, and orientation of the display device, typically a mobile phone, tablet, or computer monitor. It then serves up the HTML content based on the CSS instructions provided for those characteristics, which ensures that images, columns, and text will fit the screen and be easy to view and navigate.

Responsive Design vs Adaptive Design vs Mobile-Only Design

Although media queries prompt the webpage to display content in different ways, there is still only one version of the website itself. The CSS instructions determine how content is presented at different break points, but the site isn’t drawing upon a different set of HTML code when that happens. This is what makes the site responsive; it takes the existing content and displays it differently based on specified conditions.

Another approach to accommodating differences in display dimensions is to build a variety of fixed layouts for multiple screen sizes. When a media query identifies the dimensions of the user’s device, the site loads the predefined layout associated with those parameters. This approach is called adaptive design, which is a bit confusing given the similarity between the terms “adaptive” and “responsive.” The big thing to remember here is that an adaptive site can serve up multiple versions of the site rather than leaving it up to the design to rearrange itself based on a set of instructions.

Adaptive design tends to be more labor and resource intensive since it requires developers to build and host multiple versions of the same site. There are no universal standards for screen dimensions since new devices are released every year, but websites using adaptive design frequently include designs for up to six common screen widths (320, 480, 760, 960, 1200, and 1600 pixels). Every one of those designs needs to be built and hosted somewhere, which can drag out development timelines and increase storage costs. It also means that devices with slightly different screen sizes may not display the content as intended.

Another approach that has largely fallen out of favor is standalone mobile design. When people started using smartphones to visit webpages, many companies built a separate website purely for mobile devices. When someone visited the site on a mobile device, they would be connected to a page designed specifically for mobile screens and interfaces. Building a separate site, however, obviously required a lot more maintenance and management. Not only did the site need to be maintained from a technical standpoint, but it had to be updated in parallel with the main desktop site to maintain feature and content parity. With the proliferation of tablets and larger desktop screens, this standalone approach is a far less appealing solution.

Why Responsive Design Matters

The big advantage of responsive design is that it ensures visitors to your website will always have a pleasant experience. In the past, a website designed with specific dimensions in mind would appear broken or be difficult to navigate on different screen sizes. But we no longer live in a desktop-first world, and we haven’t for quite some time. Mobile devices have accounted for about half of global internet traffic since 2017, so the imperative to build websites that can accommodate various display dimensions is hardly a fad or a new trend.

If you’re not incorporating responsive elements into your web designs, your site is going to feel dated and clunky to visitors. A landmark study conducted nearly a decade ago found that people form an impression about a website in just 50 milliseconds (0.05 seconds). If your site doesn’t display content on the screen properly or if it’s difficult to navigate, chances are good that the visitor is going to move on to the next site. That missed opportunity doesn’t just mean losing out on that customer, but also on the potential for return business and recommendations.

5 Benefits of Responsive Design

If you’re not already using responsive design on your website, here are a few reasons why you should start implementing it sooner rather than later.

1. Ease of Use
With a responsive design, users can easily navigate your website regardless of what device they are using. All content will be displayed in an easily readable format, and all buttons and links will be easy to click. This reduces frustration and allows you to cultivate a streamlined customer journey for website visitors.

2. One Design for All Devices
Unlike traditional website design, responsive design allows you to only have one version of a website that will automatically adjust to fit various screen sizes. This saves on development time, allowing you to spend more time on building a great user experience that works for all devices rather than creating multiple versions of the same site.

3. Compatibility
Your site will be optimized for the most popular devices, including smartphones and tablets. Since responsive design is focused on display size and is not device specific, you don’t have to worry as much about how new devices view your content (unless there’s a big change in screen dimensions).

4. Improved Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
When your website is viewed by a large number of people on different devices, it has the added benefit of improving SEO results. This is because websites that are viewed frequently are assumed to be more relevant than sites that are not as popular. More frequent views also help improve how high your site appears in organic search results.

5. User Engagement
A responsive design will keep users engaged with your website longer because they will not have to constantly scroll and zoom to read text or see images. This ultimately leads to a better user experience and a higher chance that the user will return to your website in the future.

Prepare for Anything with Responsive Design

With the mass adoption of smartphones and tablets as the primary method for accessing the internet, responsive design has become an essential part of web design. By using a responsive design, you can ensure that your website looks great on any device and provides the best user experience possible.

The web development team at Roger West Creative & Code has worked hard to stay at the forefront of responsive design techniques so we can build beautiful websites that stay nice and pretty and easy to use no matter how you’re viewing them. For a closer look at what we can do, just take a quick look at how our website offers a great user experience on mobile devices and desktop (and everything in between). Give us a call to find out how we can do the same for your website!
Roger West Creative + Code

Roger West Creative & Code is a full-service digital marketing agency that helps companies build brands, generate leads, and keep customers inspired and engaged. The agency provides a dynamic environment for marketing pros to innovate and team up with clients to drive traffic to vibrant places and send messages that pack a punch.