What is adaptive web design (AWD / RWD) and when should you use it?

Responsive Web Design
Responsive Web Design

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh:
In many ways, adaptive is not dissimilar to a mobile specific site, in that the server delivers different content to different devices. Where it differs is in the logic used to determine which devices get which content.

On an m dot site, the URL tells the server that the client is on a mobile site; on an adaptive site the URL is consistent but the server uses device information sent along with the request to determine the page delivered.

Every time you view a webpage on the internet you send information about the device and browser you are connecting from, it looks something like this:

User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (iPhone; U; CPU iPhone OS 4_0 like Mac OS X; en-us) AppleWebKit/532.9 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/4.0.5 Mobile/8A293 Safari/6531.22.7

In this instance, I am using an iPhone and my browser is Safari. So, much like an m dot site, the web server knows I am using a mobile, and sends the mobile content.

This ability to switch content (templates) based on server-side device detection is the heart of adaptive design.

James Gurd, Owner & Lead Consultant at Digital Juggler:
I like the clear distinction of defining AWD as using server side techniques to customise the assets/contents served based on device/browser and RWD as using client-side, or browser-based, techniques.

RESS effectively straddles the two. You’re using a responsive code base and RWD principles but using server side techniques as well (I’ll defer to the more technically versed to explain the details).

Justin Taylor, MD at Graphitas:
Adaptive web design will typically use a completely different set of designs and templates for each platform being targeted.

As a result, designers will create a desktop version of a website and will then design a separate mobile version (and possibly a separate tablet version also).

Responsive web design on the other hand comprises of a single design with a fluid layout that adjusts to screen width of the device, meaning that only one set of page templates need to be created and maintained.

The two routes are often confused as both are essentially methods of targeting mobile devices, therefore perform a very similar role from a users perspective.

The easiest way to determine if a layout is responsive is to view the site on a desktop computer and re-size the browser window, if the layout re-flows and changes relevant to the width of the browser window, you can be fairly sure the site you are looking at is responsive.

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