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Statistics show the average time spent daily on the phone has increased in recent years, reaching 4 hours and 23 minutes as of April 2021. That number is expected to grow further and reach around 4 hours and 35 minutes by 2023. 

Moreover, more than half of all website traffic comes from mobile devices, which is not surprising considering that in the UK alone, over four-fifths of time spent online is now spent on mobile devices.

If you’re launching a new website, the question isn’t, “Will my visitors access my site using mobile devices and desktop displays?” Instead, it’s, “What do I need to do to make my site accessible to mobile users?”

This question becomes even more important when considering that even search engines like Google focus more on mobile-first indexing when ranking websites. 

To understand how you can best support these mobile users, we’ll break down what it takes to make a site mobile-accessible, discuss why responsive web design is important, and how you can achieve mobile usability on the WordPress platform.

  • What Responsive Web Design Is and Why Responsive Web Design Is Important
  • Mobile Display Approach vs. Responsive Web Design
  • Mobile App vs. Responsive Website Design
  • Is WordPress Responsive?
  • How To Make Your WordPress Website Responsive
  • Performance Considerations To Keep in Mind
  • Final Thoughts: What Responsive Web Design Is and Why It Matters

What responsive web design is and why it’s important

What is responsive web design? Let’s get down to the basics to answer that question.

The term was first coined by Ethan Marcotte way back in 2012. It refers to a website that has been HTML coded to create fluid layouts or fluid grids that can react to any change in the viewport or screen width. 

Designing a responsive website provides the same experience on mobile devices as on desktop devices. Thus, the responsive design approach says that a website should respond to the user according to the device, screen size, and orientation. As a result, websites created with the responsive design method are designed to display optimally at a range of sizes, no matter what device or screen resolution the user is using.

Your visitors shouldn’t struggle to navigate the website, read the content, or interact with different elements just because they’re using a mobile device.

Additionally, responsive web design is also called adaptive design, but the two terms differ.

Adaptive design means websites usually have several responsive layout designs coded with specific breakpoints that work with different screen sizes. That allows the website to adapt to a new situation quickly.

In a world where people frequently switch between a growing array of devices, responsive design allows webmasters to create “flexible” websites that adjust to fit the device and user. This is done through flexible grid layouts, adaptive images, and CSS media queries. Flexible grid layouts use relative units – in essence, percentages – rather than fixed units, like pixels. Media queries analyze the device upon which a site is displayed to determine how best to display the website.

Ethan Marcotte wrote a great introduction to responsive design on the web design blog, A List Apart. In the article, he points out that the approach emerged from the concept of responsive architecture.

In this practice, architects utilize technology to design buildings that “react” to the people using them. 

For example, a combination of robotics and flexible materials allows buildings to expand and retract according to the number of people inside them. Lighting levels and room temperature automatically adjust to accommodate the size of the crowd. Responsive web design works in much the same way.

Another reason why responsive web design is important relates to the mobile-friendliness of websites. Just because a webpage is responsive doesn’t mean it’s also mobile-friendly.

A mobile-friendly website is not only responsive but also ensures the following conditions are met:

  • Buttons are big enough to be easily pressed on smaller screens but don’t extend over the allowable screen size
  • Images scale nicely and don’t appear cut off
  • Form fields trigger the correct input methods
  • Form fields can easily be filled out on smaller screens
  • Email opt-in forms display nicely and don’t block important content
  • Social sharing buttons aren’t taking up the majority of the screen

Meeting these conditions also yields the following benefits:

Advantages of responsive web design

  • Provides website visitors with a better user experience.
  • More and more visitors use their phones to surf the web, so it caters to their needs.
  • Responsive web design and mobile-friendliness are ranking factors in SEO.
  • Allows you to attract a wider audience since visitors will use various devices to access your website.
  • Better user experience can lead to higher conversion rates and lower bounce rates.

Disadvantages of responsive web design

  • Not all website elements display well on all devices. For example, a video that displays well on a computer monitor may look tiny and indecipherable on a cell phone screen.
  • Responsive design websites take users on the same journey–although the users tend to behave differently on different devices. For example, an eCommerce site originally designed for the desktop gets converted into a mobile website for tablets and mobile phones. However, research shows that people are more likely to use their mobile phones for research and do the actual buying on a desktop or laptop.
  • Although a responsive website may adjust to fit a particular device, it may still load slower than a mobile-only website whose content has been stripped down for mobile-only use.
  • Some browsers still support CSS2 instead of the newer CSS3 (the only CSS code version that supports the media queries used in responsive design).
  • As with all new web design techniques, the responsive design still needs some fixing to work out. In addition, results will vary from website to website, so it might take longer than expected to implement while you work out the kinks. For this reason, you could make a good case for adopting a hybrid approach of separate websites and responsive design.

Mobile display approach vs. responsive web design

You can’t answer the question of what is responsive web design without also discussing how, when mobile usability came to prominence in the late 2000s, marketers had fewer options to choose from when creating mobile-accessible sites.

One option was to create an entirely separate site — typically, something that would be built using a tool like bMobilized or DudaMobile and hosted on a mobile-specific subdomain (as in, “”).

Mobile sites often looked completely different than their desktop predecessors, as they were built to showcase the information — such as location, hours, and specials — web developers felt would most interest mobile audiences.

Two downsides to that approach have challenged its adoption in recent years. First, as our smartphone usage has expanded, users no longer want to see a pared-down version of a site’s content on a mobile device (at least, they don’t universally).

They want to engage fully with your content and can’t do that if they constantly have to flip between your desktop and mobile device sizes.

The second and larger consideration is the SEO impact of using separate mobile sites. Standalone mobile sites must be correctly mapped to desktop versions using rel=” canonical” and rel=” alternate” tags.

Get this wrong, and you could see your search rankings fall due to indexing challenges and duplicate content issues.

With responsive design, you don’t have to worry about developing two separate versions of your website. That means there’s no need to map the desktop and mobile versions or worry about duplicate content issues.

There’s also less maintenance involved when you have a single responsive website. Lastly, it will be easier to track your analytics since you don’t have to track a visitor’s journey through multiple conversion paths.

Mobile app vs. responsive website design

With mobile phone usage on the rise, you may opt for a mobile app instead of figuring out what responsive web design is and how you might use it. However, not all websites need an app.

More specifically, a mobile app is needed when your users need a specific set of features and functionality that would work better in an app.

Common examples include mobile banking apps. Otherwise, a responsive website is more than enough to cater to your visitors’ needs if you have an online store or are a service provider.

Is WordPress responsive?

WordPress is a Content Management System (CMS) that needs a theme to work properly. Thanks to numerous WordPress themes, you can easily make your website responsive.

Themes that adhere to responsive design principles have been available since 2011, and the most reputable, well-known themes are responsive out of the box.

How to make your WordPress website responsive

When making your WordPress website responsive, you have three choices to follow responsive design best practices. Let’s take a look at those choices more in-depth below.

1. Use a responsive theme

As mentioned earlier, plenty of WordPress themes are responsive out of the box. One of the easiest methods is installing a responsive theme such as Astra or OceanWP on your WordPress website.

Because responsive design has become so popular, you’ll find that most WordPress themes claim to be responsive. But don’t just take their word for it. Instead, read reviews of the theme if they’re available.

Did any past users mention issues regarding the theme’s ability to operate responsively? If so, you may face the same problems once you’ve installed the theme.

And speaking of installation, once your new “responsive” theme is active, test it on as many devices as you can (or use the Google Mobile-Friendly Test) to ensure it’s operating as expected.

2. Do it manually

If you’re a developer, you can code your WordPress theme with your required responsive specifications.

But if you aren’t an experienced coder and you have a static WordPress site, you’d like to transform it to be fully responsive, and you may still be able to do so using the tutorial published by Torque.

To summarize the process covered in greater detail on Torque’s site, re-coding your static WordPress site to become responsive involves several steps:

  • Defining the default zoom.
  • Setting fluid image widths and heights.
  • Resizing images.
  • Implementing breakpoints.
  • Creating a mobile menu.
  • Adapting fonts.

When making changes to your site’s code, remember to back up your current website before beginning fully. That way, you can revert if you make any mistakes throughout the process.

Performance Considerations To Keep in Mind

As you start making your website responsive, remember that adding a lot of CSS media queries and various image sizes can impact your site’s performance. As such, there are a few important considerations to keep in mind:

  • The browser should detect the screen resolutions automatically to display the correct image size.
  • Minimize the CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and JavaScript you need to use and cache the rest.
  • Use media queries and conditionally load assets so that the browser window loads only what’s necessary.
  • Use lazy loading for responsive images and other assets.

Final Thoughts: Is Responsive Web Design Right For You?

To decide whether or not responsive design is right for you, consider your website’s objective and the number of resources you’re willing or able to devote to maintaining it. Depending on how the chips fall, you might better invest in a separate solution for a different platform.

One such example is the LinkedIn app for iPad. Instead of simply adapting its desktop website to mobile, the company created an app with more functionality on a mobile device than its normal site. Similarly, you should weigh the cost of creating such a website against your anticipated functionality needs and potential ROI.

Also, if you employ responsive design, keep in mind that creating one site for multiple environments will require lots of testing. Although your site’s concept may be simple enough, testing will let you hammer out the fine details of making your website display optimally for all devices. 

Use a service like Google Analytics to evaluate the performance of your website across different types of devices to be sure that all users receive the same experience.

As Ethan Marcotte put it, responsive design is a powerful tool for creating “layout-agnostic websites.” However, it is only one tool in the web design and marketing tool chest. As time goes on, developers will no doubt find new ways of making this method even more effective. Consequently, websites will become even better at adapting to various web-enabled devices. 

But until then, it’s best to carefully evaluate your mobile site design options and act according to your business’s best interests.

You can also check out the WordPress Hosting Plans we have to offer. Create your unique, responsive website today. 

  • Tiffani Anderson

    Tiffani is a Content and SEO Manager for the Bluehost brand. With over 10 years experience across all facets of content and brand marketing, she strives to combine concepts from brand marketing with engaging content through the lens of SEO.

    University of North Texas
    Previous Experience
    Content Marketing, SEO, Social Media
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