Mobile, Adaptive, or Responsive – How to Choose

Tim Marshall

Across the web, not all websites are built in the same way and users are still likely to encounter all of the following types of site when browsing the web:

  • Mobile sites – designed for mobile phones
  • Adaptive sites – designed for specific devices or fixed screen widths
  • Responsive sites – designed for a multitude of devices with different screen sizes; they automatically adjust their layout to the available screen dimensions
  • Desktop sites – designed solely for the desktop and aren’t mobile optimised.

So, what do these options mean and what is right for your business?

Mobile Sites

A mobile website is a dedicated additional site that is designed, optimised and built for the smaller screens, processing power and connectivity of a mobile or tablet device. This means that quite often a mobile site will have a completely different design & information architecture, functionality and user journey to the main website, based on the sort of activities its users are going to want to carry out on their mobile device.


  • User experience can be tailored to the mobile format without compromise
  • Loading times can be reduced with a leaner, optimised codebase and smaller image file sizes


  • Maintaining two sites duplicates work, there’s no way around that
  • Url’s will need handling to redirect to a mobile version of the website
  • Cost with maintaining multiple versions could present an issue

Adaptive Sites

An adaptive site has static width designs for mobile, tablet and desktop. These are fixed width, designed to fit a custom width that works for each display type and will have the structure and content optimised.


  • User experience can be tailored to each chosen width much in the same manner as a responsive site without compromise or elements moving
  • Loading times can be again be reduced with a leaner, optimised codebase and smaller image file sizes tailored to each chosen width


  • Requires decisions to be made as to which width to work to and therefore which devices to support
  • Cost with maintaining multiple versions could present an issue

Responsive Sites

Responsive and adaptive are web-design approaches; instead of creating multiple websites for specific devices, responsive and adaptive websites work by serving the same HTML code on the same URL regardless of the users’ device (desktop, tablet or mobile), adjusting the design and content according to a device’s screen size by optimising and reordering the layout accordingly.


  • Responsive sites can support a variety of devices and screen widths with a single implementation
  • Consistency in content and experience across devices
  • Great for SEO with url’s being consistent across all devices


  • More time consuming to build properly, especially when optimising for speed
  • Responsive sites tend to be more expensive to develop
  • It can be difficult to integrate with third party services through iframes or similar although most providers recognise the need now to cater for responsive design
  • Even though the same content is being served, the usability cross device can be affected if the implementation is poor. This can be particularly prevalent for desktop users where a “mobile first” approach has been adopted.

Desktop Sites

The opposite to the mobile site, the desktop site is a dedicated site that is designed and optimised for larger screens, generally at a fixed width. The layout and structure is optimised for the larger real estate available on such screens and the user journey tailored to it also.


  • Quick and easy to design and develop, experience can be tailored to what is ultimately a fixed width design.
  • Cost effective if budget is a major consideration


  • Poor user experience on mobile with users required to pinch/zoom (if their device supports it) to view elements with any clarity
  • Due to the way, the screen is shrunk to fit the device’s screen, important messaging can be easy for the user to miss
  • Search engine rankings will suffer because of a desktop only website, especially in the eyes of Google.

So, which approach should you choose?

Every site has different requirements and what you develop your website to work under should be determined by your analytics data. There are pros and cons to all the approaches mentioned and whilst we wouldn’t want to push you in the direction of one specific approach over another, the rise of responsive design over the last 3 years is a pretty solid indicator of the popular way forward in 2016.

In saying that, there are a number of high street retailers that have separate mobile and desktop sites that enjoy success with their approach (John Lewis, Evans Cycles).

Ultimately there is no right or wrong answer to the question of which approach is best, it is down to which approach best fits your business needs and objectives and importantly your audience behaviour.