Responsive & Adaptive: Two Web Terms You Should Know

The web moves quickly. You start getting used to new terminology, techniques and technology, and before you know it, what you know is so last week.

Two terms you are already hearing a lot about −and can expect to hear even more about− are “responsive” and “adaptive.” Although the terms have some similarities, it is important to understand the differences.

Responsive is being used broadly to reference web applications that adjust to the type of device users employ to access web applications. Although this common usage isn’t incorrect, it needs some clarification to be more accurate. Responsive specifically refers to the design and user interface of a web application adapting to the user’s device.

Ryan Frederick, Partner & VP of Marketing & Sales at AWH.

Responsive changes the way a user will interact with an application, but it does not change the fundamental functionality delivered to the user. A good example of a responsive user interface is a horizontal, top-level menu on a site. The user is still going to receive the menu options on a mobile device. However, the menu options are most likely going to delivered to the user as a vertical, drop-down menu or a vertically scrolling menu to account for the screen size of mobile devices.

Adaptive is a term used less frequently than responsive, but it shouldn’t be. Adaptive is used less because of the misuse of responsive, not because adaptive is less important. In fact, we believe adaptive is just as important as responsive, if not more so.

An adaptive application not only delivers a different design and user interface, but it also delivers different functionality and user workflow based on the user device. Adaptive applications may deliver all the functionality of an application or a small subset of the functionality depending on the user’s device.

Let’s take the example of a learning management system that provides online courses to illustrate adaptive in action. The full web version of the course would provide users with the complete set of functionality available in the learning management system. The tablet version of the course might include 90 percent of the functionality of the full web version, but not give users the ability to upload documents.

The mobile version of the course also might not give users the ability to participate in an online chat or take an assessment that includes an essay component. In the aforementioned example, the course is the same. What changed or adapted to the user’s device was the functionality.

The continued evolution and adoption of HTML5 is helping to drive both responsive design and adaptive functionality. Users are demanding an appropriate experience based on the device they are using every time they access your web application.

Keep in mind, “web application” refers to your site, just as it refers to something more complex like a learning management system. HTML5 standards and the supporting technology are now capable of delivering on the user promise of a real time, device-centric experience.

Adaptive is going to build momentum as a web application strategy and delivery model, as users will want to employ applications in the best way possible, depending on which of their devices they use to access an application. Modifying just the design and user interface isn’t going to be enough to satisfy your web applications’ users. You must also adjust, in real time, the functionality you are delivering.

Web technology and design will continue to evolve to meet the needs of users. Your willingness and ability to keep pace will help separate you from competitors.