How Responsive Web Design Works

Websites are designed to command attention and to get visitors to complete the desired action. In many cases, this is making a purchase or engaging with the content.

But nowadays, a user’s journey across the internet is far more complex than it used to be. More and more people use mobile devices, such as smartphones or laptops, to browse the internet. Plus, they regularly like to jump from one device to another.

In fact, in 2023, over 54% of web traffic comes from mobile devices, surpassing desktops which command 43% of internet traffic.

Because of this, creating an engaging and inspiring website design is no longer enough. You also need to have a responsive website that enables visitors to interact with your brand no matter what device they’re using.

So what is responsive web design, and how does it work?

Read on to find out.

What is responsive web design?

The term was first coined by Ethan Marcotte in his book on the same subject and in the simplest terms, a responsive web design makes it possible for visitors to access your website and content across multiple devices. This makes device swapping possible.

For example, a user might visit your website via a desktop and want to pick back up on their mobile as they commute to or from work. A responsive design makes this possible and allows you to keep up with new technologies and meet the changing needs of today’s internet users.

How does a responsive design work?

The concept behind responsive web designs is pretty straightforward, but how does it actually work?

Well, in order to be successful, the content and layout must flow and adapt based on the size of the screen and the browser width. The content must dynamically rearrange itself to fit the available space and to show the ideal arrangement.

This is made possible by using HTML and CSS to create a website that automatically resizes, shrinks, enlarges or rearranges the pages and content accordingly.

For this to work, the designer must use a mixture of flexible grid layouts, images and CSS media queries. These are the key principles of responsive web design.

The key principles of responsive web design

There are three main principles that make up responsive web design, as we mentioned above. These are fluid grid systems, fluid images and media queries. These three principles must bind together for a successful design.

Fluid grid systems

In traditional web design, all elements and images are defined in pixels. These numbers refer to the heights and dimensions and are set as absolute size.

But in order for a website to be responsive, the widths of the page elements in the grid must be fluid. These must be set proportionally to the width of the screen and are defined using relative values, typically as a percentage of the total pixel width.

Fluid images

Similarly, all images must be fluid too. Using a percentage of the overall dimension, you can include just a single image and instruct the browser to scale this accordingly depending on the device and size of the screen it is being displayed on.

Media queries

A media query is essentially an instruction that is set to alter the layout of a webpage depending on the size of the screen.

For example, while a website on a desktop might have three columns per page, this won’t work on a smartphone screen. Therefore, a media query will instruct the browser to rearrange the content into just one column, so it fits on the smaller screen.

Creating a responsive design using these three principles forgoes the need to build multiple versions of a website to fit different devices. Using multiple sites is referred to as a dual-version website.

More on this next.

Responsive Vs. dual-version websites

To understand responsive designs and how they work, let’s now look at the difference between responsive and dual websites. In a dual-version, there are at least two websites, one for desktop and one for mobile.

This means having to manage and update two separate sites, which can be costly and time-consuming. Whereas a responsive web design only requires one website, and it is the code that enables the content to adjust to the size and shape of the device.

A responsive design can be far easier to manage, as well as more cost-effective.

Why should you invest in responsive design?

In case you’re wondering whether you should invest in responsive mobile design for your site or business, the simple answer is yes, you should. And there are several reasons for this.

Your website must be accessible

Firstly, we live in a multi-screen society where the average person has more than one device and uses them on a regular basis. Not to mention people are increasingly jumping from device to device depending on whether they are at home, work or out in public.

Therefore, your website needs to be accessible across as many devices as possible, as you never know which your target audience will be using.

It’s important for search engine optimisation

A few years back, as mobile devices began to overtake desktops, Google announced that responsiveness and mobile-friendliness would impact a site’s SEO and how well these pages ranked on the search engine.

So in order to offer the best possible user experience and to get your pages in front of as many people as possible, your site must be responsive.

It’s more cost-effective

As we mentioned earlier, having a responsive website is far more cost-effective than having to create and manage multiple sites. It is also far easier to manage and will require less time and resources.

You’ll offer a better user experience

Finally, by making your content responsive, you offer a far better experience to your visitors. It means they can seamlessly move between their devices and pick up where they left off.

It also means they won’t have to zoom in or hide content when trying to engage with your web pages, as these will automatically adapt to fit the screen.