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What is adaptive design in UX?

Last updated

19 May 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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Modern websites have a specific design approach to ensure optimization for all devices.

An adaptive design approach makes a website usable on any size screen and across all device types, such as mobiles, tablets, desktops, and laptops.

In addition, it can make adjustments depending on the user’s circumstances.

That might sound a lot like responsive design (which also finds the best-fit). Still, the two frameworks deliver two distinct experiences. This article explores adaptive design, how it differs from responsive design, and how to know if it’s right for you.

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What is adaptive design?

Adaptive design is a design model that creates several versions of a website to fit different devices and screen sizes, but also considers the context and usability.

These multiple layouts help adjust the website's user interface (UI) for different devices, making it easier for users to navigate a site. 

It offers multiple graphical user interfaces (GUIs) based on defined viewport sizes (the visible area of a webpage).

These fixed designs are typically set for the six most common screen widths, including 320px, 480px, 760px, 960px, 1200px, and 1600px.

Design that adapts to the user's needs at those different sizes rather than just reducing or condensing the design is called adaptive design.

Adaptive design vs. responsive design

Adaptive and responsive design work similarly. Both approaches adjust to the device's screen size.

A responsive design will serve the same content to every device and dynamically shift elements around, optimizing, resizing, and adjusting them depending on screen size. It always uses the same components. The design also fits seamlessly in any orientation, whether in landscape or portrait mode. It’s a consistent user experience on any device.

With adaptive design, one of several predetermined layouts will load with consideration for a user’s needs according to device size. This design type might make buttons bigger and easier to read. It may remove access text, or omit more complex features suited to larger screens. An adaptive design can add or subtract elements to give you a better experience based on your device.

The objective is to deliver the optimal experience possible by tailoring the design elements, not just resizing them. Simplification, particularly on a mobile device, intends to create a frictionless (low-frustration) user experience.

Advantages of adaptive design

From a UX perspective, the advantages of using an adaptive design are enormous, especially because users will have an easier time using these designs regardless of the device.

Here are some of the advantages of using an adaptive design approach:

  • A  perfect layout for any device or screen size is customized for it and ready to go

  • The design improves user experience by creating distinct website versions for each device

  • Since UIs can be specified, designers have enhanced control of layouts and design elements at each viewport or size and dimension

  • Loading speeds are faster than with their responsive counterparts because they only render the content deemed necessary for the specific device

  • More personalization features that adapt to a specific smart device

  • An adaptive design is a preferred option for small websites that need a refresh since you only have to create smaller sizes

Disadvantages of adaptive design

Using an adaptive design approach also has its challenges. Here are some of the disadvantages of this approach:

  • Prone to issues in less common devices, like tablets, because of configuration errors

  • Design is labor intensive, more costly, and requires extended development

  • Less search-engine friendly

  • Adaptive designs come with multiple designs for each page, making them more complex to build on the development side as well as design

  • Adaptive websites are harder to maintain (since each layout version is updated and maintained separately)

Is adaptive design right for you?

When considering a website design approach, it is essential to consider the UX it creates and the devices you want to support. Here are some of the ways to determine if an adaptive design is right for you:

Consider your website build

Suppose you are retrofitting your website down to smaller devices. You can apply an adaptive design to each viewport or screen size you want to support. The approach allows you to provide the content to a few devices without investing in a complete website framework.

In contrast, if you’re redesigning your site (as a whole) with limited time and resources, a responsive design approach may be your most realistic approach.

Look at your recent traffic

A website is a prime candidate for an adaptive design if its traffic has user visits from a few specific screen resolutions or devices. The approach will allow you to focus on particular screen sizes and refine the UX.

Think about your hardware

An adaptive design is the best solution when designing a website for a specific set of hardware, like POS systems, mobile e-commerce, or flight kiosks. A fixed hardware set eliminates the requirements for multiple-device support; hence you can create an optimized design for the hardware.

Think about your target audience’s needs

If your audience has a challenging context in which they’d typically use your product—such as in low light, with limited internet access, or while driving—crafting specific UIs for their device is critical. Such audiences may never consider using the technology unless it can adjust to the given challenges and provide benefit rather than additional pain (or even danger).

Evaluate your content

An adaptive design is excellent for large websites with much content, such as videos, infographics, and image galleries. Additionally, more complicated actions that would be too difficult to do on a smaller device may need to be removed and offered only on larger viewports. Finally, adaptive design allows you to create optimized and tailored user experiences for each device.

Designing for different devices

Designing websites for multiple devices is more than just resizing the layout on different screens. Designers must determine how the content will change on the screen and which elements get resized or reoriented. To achieve this, designers must follow an effective strategy to improve user experience on these devices. 

The design strategy typically includes the following: 

  • Understanding the user's context of use to craft experiences that suit them

  • Identifying the different user experiences for the different devices

  • Defining device groups based on capabilities and tasks users focus on

  • Identifying the users' goals while on various devices

  • Designing for mobile first because it has more constraints than other devices

Considerations for cross-platform design

Adaptive design should create experiences that the users understand and intuitively interact with on any device. Here are some essential considerations for cross-platform design:

Gestures

Websites not only scale to smaller screens, but also trade using a mouse for gestures such as tapping or swiping. For a cross-platform design, adaptive design should consider touch interaction on the applicable devices. You must understand each device's behaviors to incorporate gestures into your design.

Hierarchy

With elements adjusting so much, it is essential to maintain the site’s intended hierarchy. For example, if we’re stacking paragraph columns, they should still shift underneath their intended title. Additionally, flows or processes shouldn’t lose their linear order simply because more complicated steps are removed or viewed on a smaller screen.

When it comes to adaptive design, navigation is a crucial consideration. How users interact with the different platforms, mainly iOS vs. Android patterns and libraries, can dictate an overhaul of a desktop’s navigation system when viewed on specific devices. Learn and follow platform guidelines to maintain accessibility and easy navigation in your designs and enhance user engagement.

Best practices

Adaptive design is a powerful tool for building unique and effective websites and adhering to certain best practices is essential.

These include:

Using adaptive design to refine a website, not as a replacement

When using an adaptive design, ensure it supplements your existing website framework rather than replacing it entirely. Use the design to enhance the user experience on specific devices, not to redesign the current website fully. Think about what users on different devices and in scenarios might do differently from one another.

Being aware of device capabilities

An adaptive design should cater to the different devices' capabilities and limitations. For example, layovers and dropdowns (or other instances when your design shows multiple panels or screens at once) don’t translate well to smaller viewports. The design should optimize down to the user experience for that device.

Testing for bugs

Testing your adaptive design across each device type ensures that all website elements work correctly. In addition, it ensures your website is providing users with the best experience possible.

FAQs

Is Amazon responsive or adaptive?

Amazon uses an adaptive web design that allows users to view the whole website on a mobile device. As a result, it helps to decrease page load times while delivering customized user experiences.

Is Bootstrap adaptive or responsive?

Bootstrap uses a responsive, mobile-friendly design that scales columns as the device screen size increases. It uses an easy layout option that delivers reasonable control.

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