As a person who exists in the 21st century, there’s a good chance you’ve done some internet browsing in your lifetime. Heck, if you’re reading this piece, you’re browsing the internet. Congratulations, you’re part of a global community 4.5 billion people strong — and growing rapidly.
It’s not just the number of people who use the internet that’s constantly on the uptick, either: internet use via a mobile device is replacing desktop browsing as the preferred method of accessing the world wide web. In 2018, mobile internet traffic accounted for 52.2% of all internet traffic generated globally. The number of cell phone users is on the rise worldwide, and with the advent of 5G, the increasing popularity of smartphones, and the steady rise of the amount of time people spend on their phones every day, it looks like mobile internet browsing will continue to dominate.
What does this mean for web developers and business owners with a web presence? In the past, the “mobile web” version of a website might not have received much attention — it’s just a lower-quality version of the desktop site, right? But now, with a growing number of internet users browsing exclusively on their smartphones or tablets, it’s time for mobile web design to put aside its second-fiddle status and take center stage.
Responsive vs. adaptive web design
If you haven’t brought your site up to speed in a while, it’s probably stuck in the dark ages of fixed-width design. That means a lot of zooming in and out for your readers as they struggle to read tiny text and view giant images. You’re probably losing traffic as people decide your content isn’t worth the effort, and your placement on search engine results pages is definitely suffering as algorithms now favor sites with mobile-friendly design.
There are two options for web design that transform the mobile browsing experience from a massive headache into a walk in the park. The first is responsive design, which uses fluid grids and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to enable the creation of websites that “render (or display) on all devices and screen sizes by automatically adapting to the screen, whether it’s a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.”  Responsive design optimizes the viewing experience, no matter how you resize the screen or what device you choose to browse on.
Adaptive design entails building different versions of your site for different browser sizes. You might create a desktop layout, a tablet layout, and a mobile layout. This approach is easier than responsive web design because of the limited number of design versions, as opposed to a design that accounts for a much wider range of browser sizes. If you don’t currently have a mobile-specific version of your site, adaptive design lets you keep your desktop version and add a mobile one rather than overhauling all of your existing design and starting from scratch. And with a mobile design, you can leave out assets that suck up bandwidth and slow down loading times for a faster cut to the chase.
What’s your best bet?
There are advantages and drawbacks for both responsive and adaptive web design. Google recommends responsive design for best search engine results, but it might not be the best choice for smaller businesses as these websites are more expensive to build and switching from a fixed-width design to a responsive design would require a ground-up redesign. If you already have a desktop site design that you’re happy with, and you don’t have an unlimited website development budget, adaptive might be the way to go. You can also design your mobile site specifically for mobile devices, rather than trying to create a website that flexes to display optimally across all devices.
The downside to adaptive web designs is that any time you want to make a change to your site, you have to do it across all of your site versions. This means more maintenance, which might actually cost you more in the long run if you need to update your site frequently. If your business is newer and your site isn’t generating much traffic yet, though, adaptive is probably a good way to get your mobile site up and running. But if your site’s already well established, responsive design will carry you into the future by automatically optimizing your site for a range of screen sizes.
The moral of the story? You need a mobile site, ASAP. Failing to optimize for internet users on mobile devices can raise your bounce rate, hurt your search results rankings, and lower your business’ perceived trustworthiness. And if you’re just starting out in the world of web design, you probably want to design your mobile site first because there’s a good chance that’s where most of your traffic will be coming from. A mobile-first approach, that prioritizes an optimized mobile experience instead of starting with a fancy desktop design and “degrading” it for compatibility with mobile devices, generally produces better results because it places the emphasis on the content of your site, which is what your visitors are there for in the first place.
Smartphone sales have exceeded PC sales since 2012, and this trend shows no signs of slowing down. Designing a site that’s optimized for mobile — be it responsive or adaptive — will put you and your business in an agile, future-facing position.