Whether you’re building a new website or realize it’s time to do a proper redesign for a website you already have, one of the first concepts you’re likely to encounter in your research to get started is responsive web design.

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What Is Responsive Web Design?

Responsive web design is a relatively new way of approaching website design that ensures that a website looks good on all devices. On responsive websites, the same information and page elements appear no matter what device you’re on, but the way they’re sized and organized will change based on your screen size.  

The website adapts (or responds) to the smaller screen size of smartphones and tablets  to provide an intuitive experience, regardless of your device. An adaptive design and flexible layout provides a better user experience for your visitors and also helps to boost your search engine optimization value.

responsive web design

With the growing use of mobile devices to access websites of all types—mobile use now surpasses desktop—website owners have to prioritize the mobile experience. In the early days of mobile, designers would often create a separate mobile website for smartphone visitors than the one that would load for desktop visitors.

But as the number of device types and screen sizes available grows, that’s not a practical solution. In addition to the variety of screen sizes, you also have to deal with people’s ability to change the direction of how they hold their devices (landscape versus portrait) and the fact that people have varied preferences for how they size their web browser windows.

In short, you could design a dozen completely unique websites to accommodate different screen sizes and still be missing out on a number of common use cases. Or you can design one responsive website that works on just about every device, screen, and web browser window—no matter the size.

The Main Elements of Responsive Web Design

You’ve likely encountered many examples of responsive web design without thinking about how it all works. In order to design a website that’s responsive, designers employ a few main tricks and techniques.

Flexible grids

Designers have always used grids to build websites, but for responsive websites they have to make sure the grid is flexible and can load differently based on the screen size. Flexible grids are therefore a core part of responsive website design.

Breakpoints

Related to flexible grids, breakpoints are the spots on the page you identify where the page can be cut off and the information to the side moved downward. Every website should have at least three breakpoints for the three main devices types people use, but most websites will have more than that.

responsive web design breakpoints

Flexible images and responsive media queries

Text is pretty easy to move around based on screen size, but images and media features can be potentially trickier. There are a number of different options designers can employ to ensure images show up in the right size for the screen, without causing slow load times or looking strangely squashed.

In most cases, it’s a matter of coding to determine how large the image will show up. In others, it could be changing the image itself (cutting unnecessary parts out, for instance) and telling the site which version to load based on the screen size.

There are also coding commands designers can use to ensure any media included on a page loads in the right size. Responsive media queries allow you to set the maximum and minimum width for the media, as well as setting orientation for media on iPads.

Visual hierarchy

A big part of website design with a responsive layout is always considering which parts of a page are the highest priority. The images and messages it’s most important for your visitors to see should go higher up on the page, with any elements that are less important going further down. Visual hierarchy is a good web design practice in general, but it’s especially important in responsive design since visitors on smaller devices will be seeing less on the page at a time. You want to keep them on the page, so make sure the most valuable parts of the page are accessible higher up.

Touchscreen and mouse friendly elements

Another important consideration in mobile design is making sure everything on the page is just as intuitive and usable on a touchscreen as it is with a mouse. That means links that are big and obvious enough to select on a small screen and easy scrolling on all device types. Good responsive design includes user testing to make sure all elements of a page work just as well using a mouse as doing it all by touch.  

5 Reasons You Should Use Responsive Web Design

As a website owner, you know web design trends sometimes come and go. If you already have a website, committing to a professional website makeover  or redesign is a big deal, so even knowing what responsive website design is and how big of a buzzword it is, you may wonder if it really is important to build a responsive website. And for someone starting a new website, you may worry making it responsive could be more difficult or expensive.

In either case, responsive web design really is the best choice for a few good reasons.

1. A majority of web users browse on mobile.

Recent estimates put the number of people with mobile devices at over five billion. And as we already mentioned, more internet use now happens on mobile devices than on desktops. Mobile is clearly a trend that’s here to stay, and website owners need to adapt. You don’t want to alienate over half of your website visitors by delivering them a crummy user experience.

For your website to work for everyone, you need to prioritize your mobile and desktop visitors equally. And responsive websites are the best way to make sure everyone that visits your website gets the experience you’re aiming for.

2. A mobile-friendly website is required for SEO.

For several years now, Google has been telling SEO professionals that how well a website works on mobile is a factor in how they determine rankings. They’ve even gone so far as to develop a free tool to see how mobile friendly your website is. If you want people to find your website through the search engine, then making it mobile friendly is crucial.

google mobile friendly test tool

Not only has Google been upfront about mobile friendliness being an SEO ranking factor, but they’ve also said outright that they prefer responsive design. While expressing a preference isn’t quite the same thing as saying it will boost your SEO, if you care about where your website shows up in the rankings, following Google’s recommendations is just smart.

3.  It saves you time.

Obviously you need a website that works on mobile, there’s no longer a debate on that point. But there are other options for making your website mobile friendly than going with responsive design. You can create a separate mobile version of your website, for instance.

But having two websites comes with certain issues. Top of the list is that it takes more time to build two independent websites than it does to build a single responsive website. You’ll be doubling your efforts both when it comes to creating the websites and when it comes to updating them over time. And you’ll have to actively stay on top of the performance of each. There are more opportunities for broken links or pages that don’t load right when you have double the websites to monitor.

4. It provides consistent information across devices.

The thinking behind building a unique mobile website is that you can figure out what people are looking for when they come to your website on a mobile device and build a site that answers those mobile-specific needs. Then, when building out your desktop website, you can build a fuller version of the site that includes everything you want to include, since you have more space to work with.

The problem is that means your mobile visitors are missing out on some of the information your desktop visitors get to see. Either you’re padding your desktop website with information your visitors don’t really need, or you’re depriving your mobile visitors of stuff they might be interested in. Either way, you’re creating an unequal experience for your visitors based on the device they use.

And you may be surprised by the way mobile behavior resembles desktop. An analysis found that people are willing to scroll on mobile devices almost as much as they do on desktop, and are, if anything, more engaged on mobile devices and more likely to click on links. If you kept all your longer pages and content to the desktop-only version of your website, you’re keeping them from mobile users who may well be more likely to read and engage with them.

website visitors scroll more on mobile vs desktop

5. It makes tracking analytics easier.

This is just one more way having double the websites means having to do more work. You have to keep up with the analytics for both versions of your website, and analyze the results separately. In contrast, with responsive websites you can still see how your analytics differ based on the device people are using, but you’re able to make deductions about what’s working for your audience based on a consistent big picture view of your website.

It’s just easier to track your analytics all in one place and make sense out of them when you’re dealing with a relatively consistent experience across devices.

How to Create a Responsive Website

As responsive web design has increasingly become the norm, website owners now have easier options for creating a responsive website. When trying to decide how to make your website responsive, you have two main choices.

Option #1: Use a responsive template.

Building a website today is much easier than it was in the early years of the internet. Even people with zero coding or design skills can pull together a good looking website in a matter of hours with the help of the right website builder. And because of how important responsive web design has become, the best website builders will include responsive templates you can use to make designing a mobile-friendly responsive website simple.

If your priority is getting your website up in a way that’s quick, easy, and affordable, a website builder with mobile-friendly templates is the best tool for responsive web design. When trying to find the right website builder for your needs, make sure that it offers a number of well designed templates to choose from and that they’re all responsive. You won’t have to do any extra work to make sure your website works just as well for your mobile users as it does for your desktop visitors.

Option #2: Hire a skilled designer.

Your second option is more expensive, but it gives you more power to realize the specific vision you have of a website. While website builders with responsive templates make things a lot easier, you’re working from a design that already exists and that other websites start from as well. A good web designer can build you a website from scratch that directly matches what you have in mind.

At this point, most professional web designers have the skill to build responsive websites, but do make sure to ask any designer you consider about their experience and make it clear from the outset that you want your website to be responsive. Ask to see other examples of websites that are responsive to make sure you like their work and trust them to create the website you want.

One Last Step: Perform User Testing.

Whichever option you choose for building your responsive website, in order to truly know that it works well on all types of devices, you need to test it out. Or more accurately, you need people in your target audience to test it out. User testing ensures you spot issues with your website’s usability in advance of when you release it. It’s better to know that your checkout process is difficult on a mobile device before you start losing sales because of it, and user testing provides you with that kind of valuable head’s up.

User testing is a good idea for any website, but it can especially be useful with responsive websites so you can make sure your website looks the way you want it to on as many device types as possible.