Ultimate guide: Adaptive vs responsive design

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Mobile is quickly moving from being the “second screen” to the “first screen” for many consumers. Altimeter reports that in November 2014 mobile devices accounted for one in four of all online purchases. A 2014 study from Acquity Group, touching on the growing importance of mobile devices in purchase planning, showed that 44 percent of B2B buyers have conducted research on an item using a mobile device.

And yet, many B2B businesses still aren’t treating their mobile sites as holistic customer experiences. Many mobile sites offer incomplete or subpar experiences, which can negatively impact the customer journey. The Altimeter report noted that 51 percent of consumers abandon their mobile cart as soon as they struggle with it, stressing the lost opportunities for sales and conversions that arises from poor mobile experiences.

This trend towards the “Internet of Me” is setting high expectations for businesses to offer relevant, customizable and consistent web experiences for their customers. As stated in a report about customer engagement strategies from the CMO Council in partnership with SAP (registration required): “Gone are the days of lengthy cycles of building loyalty. Advocacy is being built and traded in a matter of seconds.”

Nowhere is this advocacy being built (or destroyed) quicker than on the web. Customers expect a consistent experience across all touch points, from offline to online, desktop to mobile. To best deliver on these expectations, two options exist for developing websites that will rock any device or screen size: responsive web design (RWD) and adaptive web design (AWD). Both of these options can help ensure your site is mobile-friendly, but the best option will be determined by your budget, your business goals, and what you want your customers to get out of visiting your site.

What is Responsive Web Design?

RWD is one single fluid design for your site that provides an optimal viewing experience across any device a customer may be using. The goal is to minimize resizing, panning and scrolling, making your website easy to read and navigate. RWD uses media queries, grids and responsive images to create a flexible website that will respond consistently, no matter what size the screen is.

PROs:

  • Flexibility: The flexible design of a responsive site scales itself to work on any screen size, including new devices as they come out.
  • Less maintenance: With a responsive design, you’re not managing the content more than one version of your website. You’ll still reap the benefits of your desktop SEO on mobile devices without having to create specific content for mobile devices.

 CONs:

  • Complexity: Responsive design is more complicated than adaptive, especially when converting an existing site. But the extra attention to the site’s CSS required for RWD should manageable for any skilled web developer.
  • Slower load times: Since responsive sites use one flexible design that is automatically scaled to fit each screen size, the load times for content-heavy websites can be slower than those with adaptive site design.

Here is a great guide to B2B responsive web design from Design & Function that includes some interactive examples.

What is Adaptive Web Design?

Instead of one flexible design, AWD involves creating several distinct layouts for multiple screen sizes and devices. Then, when someone visits the site, it serves up the pre-set layout best suited for the device being used. It adapts itself to needs of the visitor, based on a predefined set of viewport sizes and other characteristics.

PROs:

  • Faster and cheaper: Adaptive layouts for your site are, overall, easier to make than one continuous complex responsive design. This also means they are usually less expensive to make. Just remember that the more adaptive layouts you decide to make for different devices and screen sizes, the more work (and cost) you’ll encounter. Then it may be time to look at a responsive site option.
  • Differentiation based on user intent: Because adaptive layouts are tailored per device and screen size, businesses can tailor their site to user intent more specifically. This is where insights into the behaviour of your customers come into play: is there a difference between why they visit your site on desktop or mobile? For example, customers of a computer store could be looking to browse for products when visiting on a desktop, but could more likely be looking to book an appointment or find a location when visiting on mobile.

CONs:

  • More maintenance: Adaptive designs only work on the devices and screen sizes for which a layout has been designed, meaning you may have to continually edit your layouts or create new ones as new devices are released. You will also need to create specific content for each layout.

Have a look at the mobile vs. desktop sites of eBay and Lufthansa for examples of adaptive site design.

Why does it matter?

In the “Mastering Adaptive Customer Engagements” report from the CMO Council and SAP it’s noted that, “what customers want most is for brands to understand that the customer’s time is the most valuable commodity being traded in any transaction.” And according to a Janrain study cited in the same report, three-quarters of online users get frustrated when websites deliver content that has nothing to do with their interests.

Creating a site that is optimized for the best experience possible on desktop, smartphones and tablets (whether it’s through RWD or AWD) conveys the fact that you understand your customer’s needs and value their time.

Which one is right for your B2B business?

Unfortunately, there’s no magic answer to this question (nor is there consensus among web designers). It depends on the size of your business and budget, your product or service offering and your customers and their unique needs. Responsive web design is often touted as the best choice across the board since it functions well on all screen sizes, even as new devices are introduced. But if your customers have different needs on mobile and desktop, or if your business is just starting out, you may benefit from the simplicity of adaptive design.

Regardless, whether you go with RWD or AWD, the mobile presence of your B2B business needs to be top of mind. Business is happening in the palms of our hands, quite literally. Make sure it doesn’t slip through your fingers.

 In case you were curious, the mobile site of B2BNN uses adaptive design.

Flickr photo via Creative Commons

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Sarah Dawley

Sarah Dawley

Sarah is an Ecosystem Copywriter at Hootsuite, where she writes a variety of materials about social media and its impact on business. Prior to joining Hootsuite, she was the Social Marketing Manager for the Music & Entertainment Channels at Bell Media, where she spent nearly four years building the presence of Much, MTV Canada, M3 and E! Canada into social communities of over 2.8 million fans and followers. Find her on Twitter @sarahdawley