Responsive design allows your website to adapt to the device your users are viewing it on. It provides you with the capability to write once publish everywhere, meaning less work for you.

Responsive web design (RWD) is a web development approach that creates dynamic changes to the appearance of a website, depending on the screen size and orientation of the device being used to view it. RWD is one approach to the problem of designing for the multitude of devices available to customers, ranging from tiny phones to huge desktop monitors.

RWD uses so-called breakpoints to determine how the layout of a site will appear: one design is used above a breakpoint and another design is applied below that breakpoint. The breakpoints are commonly based on the width of the browser.

The purpose of responsive design is to have one site, but with different elements that respond differently when viewed on devices of different sizes.

Let’s take a traditional “fixed” website.  When viewed on a desktop computer, for instance, the website might show  three columns. But when you view that same layout on a smaller tablet, it might force you to scroll horizontally, something users don’t like. Or elements might be hidden from view or look distorted.  The impact is also complicated by the fact that many tablets can be viewed either in portrait orientation, or turned sideways for landscape view.

On a tiny smartphone screen, websites can be even more challenging to see. Large images may “break” the layout. Sites can be slow to load on smartphones if they are graphics heavy.

However, if a site uses responsive design, the tablet version might automatically adjust to display just two columns. That way, the content is readable and easy to navigate. On a smartphone, the content might appear as a single column, perhaps stacked vertically.  Or possibly the  user would have the ability to swipe over to view other columns.  Images will resize instead of distorting the layout or getting cut off.

The point is: with responsive design, the website automatically adjusts based on the device the viewer sees it in.

How Does Responsive Web Design Work?

Responsive sites use fluid grids. All page elements are sized by proportion, rather than pixels. So if you have three columns, you wouldn’t say exactly how wide each should be, but rather how wide they should be in relation to the other columns. Column 1 should take up half the page, column 2 should take up 30%, and column 3 should take up 20%, for instance.

Media such as images is also resized relatively. That way an image can stay within its column or relative design element.

Related Issues

Mouse v. touch: Designing for mobile devices also brings up the issue of mouse versus touch.  On desktop computers the user normally has a mouse to navigate and select items.  On a smartphone or tablet, the user mostly is using fingers and touching the screen.  What may seem easy to select with a mouse, may be hard to select with a finger on a tiny spot on a screen. The Web designer must take “touch” into consideration.

Graphics and download speed: Also, there’s the issue of graphics, ads and download speed. On mobile devices, it may be wise to display fewer graphics than for desktop views so that a site doesn’t take forever to load on a smartphone.  Larger ad sizes may need to be exchanged for smaller ads.

Apps and “mobile versions”:  In the past, you might have thought about creating an app for your website — say an iPad app or an Android app.  Or you would have a mobile version specifically for BlackBerry.

But with so many  different devices today, it’s getting harder to create apps and versions for every device and operating platform. As Smashing Magazine wrote, “When will the madness stop? It won’t, of course.”  A responsive design that is flexible enough to be viewed on multiple devices just makes sense.

Why Small Businesses Need to Switch to Responsive Web Design

Check your traffic and you might just be shocked at how many visitors are getting to your website  through mobile devices.  (In your Google Analytics, select “Audience” on the left side, then “Mobile” to see what proportion of traffic is from mobile devices. You can even drill down to see which devices are sending the traffic.)

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