What is Responsive Web Design?

The core concept behind "responsive web design" is to implement a single website that is optimized for easy viewing and use regardless of the device and its display size.

In the last few years, there has been tremendous growth in users accessing websites from mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. These devices generally have much smaller displays than desktops or laptops, and so traditional websites required lots of scrolling and zooming in/out to view. This lead to new techniques to make websites mobile friendly, and ultimately the concept of "responsive web design."Responsive website graphic

The primary goal of a responsive website is to enhance the user experience by providing content in a way that automatically adjusts to screen dimensions.

Responsive websites seek to:

  • Provide easy access to menu items - making key navigation obvious and easy to click on.
  • On very small devices - menus may collapse into a button (usually indicated with 3 bars) that expands when clicked on to view the entire menu.
  • Minimize or eliminate zooming in/out to view the majority of content.
  • Minimize or eliminate horizontal scrolling.
  • Text should be a legible without having to zoom in.
  • Pictures automatically resize so that they don't exceed the width of display.
  • When appropriate, lower resolution photos maybe used to reduce bandwidth and speed up display time.
  • Content blocks are repositioned to fit browser display dimensions.
  • Key content maybe positioned higher, and less important content may even be hidden on smaller devices.

Most often CSS "media queries" are used to determine a browser's display characteristics, and then serve up slightly different versions of the website based on those characteristics.

The most important element to look at is usually the display width -- how many pixels of content can be displayed horizontally? To eliminate horizontal scrolling and zooming, content should not exceed the width of the browser display.

Apple's iPhones are extremely popular, and despite "pixel doubling" screens on later models - the effective width on an iPhone held in "portrait" mode is only 320 pixels. In a responsive design,  any content that would exceed 320 pixels would be repositioned or resized not to exceed that width. Thus, if you had 4 blocks of 300 pixel content positioned horizontally in a desktop design (that was say 1280 pixels wide), you might instead stack those 4 blocks of content vertically on an iPhone display.

Most responsive designs essentially use grids, or blocks of content that can be rearranged in different ways to fit different displays.

Important points to understand about websites that use "responsive web design" -

  • The design will display differently based on the screen width.
  • The smallest version may not look exactly like the largest version - the smaller the screen size the more content has to be repositioned.
  • While horizontal scrolling maybe eliminated, vertical scrolling increases as more content is stacked vertically.
  • Realize that the "largest" desktop version may look better than the "smallest" version.
  • Responsive design generally eliminate the scrolling and zooming in/out that is required when viewing a non-responsive website.
  • Text may wrap differently as content boxes reposition and resize - text should always be kept at a legible size.
  • Generally graphics with text should be avoided, and they may not be legible when resized down for a smaller display.
  • It takes extra time, knowledge, and experience to build a responsive website.

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