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Guest Post by Sarah Munn

Responsive vs. Mobile-First Design: How is One Different from the Other?

Responsive vs. Mobile-First Design

According to a report shared by the World Advertising Research Center or WARC, the number of people who access the internet using smartphones is now more or less two billion. This is expected to significantly increase in the coming years as more and more people discover the convenience offered by smartphones. In the earlier years, the mobile phone was used mainly for communication, information, and entertainment purposes. Today, it has become an all-in-one device that allows users to complete practically all their tasks – from banking to checking emails, paying bills, doing research, checking up on friends via social media, playing games, listening to music, watching movies, and reading books. This paints a clear picture of the direction that website designers should take. Since smartphones are now an essential part of our day-to-day activities, it is inevitable to focus on creating responsive and mobile-first websites. However, many people do not know that a responsive web design and a mobile-first site design are not the same. These two approaches are often used interchangeably, even though they have several differences

What we will cover in this article

What is Responsive Web Design?

Imagine yourself navigating through a client’s website on your desktop. A few minutes later, you get a call from your boss, and he asks you to meet him in his office. You need to show him the website, so you bring your smartphone with you and open the site. Just as you were about to show it to your boss, you get a glimpse of your phone and see that the web page does not fit the screen. You try to fix it, but all to no avail.

The scene above commonly happens when a website is not responsive. If your site is responsive, switching from your desktop to smartphone should not be a problem because it is designed to automatically adjust to the smallest screen. As such, the website will not only look good; it will also function well as a responsive design means using images, moveable grids, and layouts that can be viewed on both the desktop and smartphone. It uses the same configurations so that the site will display correctly regardless of the device’s resolution or screen size.

To find out if a website is responsive, open your browser and manually zoom in and out. If the image is blurry or out of sync, then you’re browsing an unresponsive site.

What is Mobile-First Web Design?

A mobile-first web design is all about designing a website for mobile devices and then adapting it to desktop computers and tablets. In other words, the process starts with the smaller screen of a smartphone before it is adjusted to fit the bigger screens. In mobile-first web design, the mobile devices are the priority, and once it’s all done, the design is adjusted to work well on desktops and laptops. It is the opposite of responsive website design.

For example, let’s go back to the story of you browsing through a client’s website, but let’s change the situation a bit. You and your team are working on a client’s website, and the instructions were clear: “We want to focus on the smartphone users market, but we also do not want to displace desktop users.”

So, you know what to do – create a website optimized for mobile devices but can be conveniently adjusted for desktop and tablet users. You understand that the goal is to build a product for the target market, and all the other aspects will follow. Thus, you decide to create a mobile-first website. When you present to the client, you show him the website on your smartphone and assure him that the pages are also viewable and accessible on desktops and tablets.

Primarily, though, the goal of mobile-first web design is to ensure that all the elements (texts, buttons, calls-to-action, and other features) are appropriately placed on the limited space of small screens.

Another reason for going mobile-first is convenience and accessibility. The pages load faster, and the user experience is good.

Responsive Website Design
Mobile-First Web Design

What Makes Responsive Website Design Different From Mobile-First Design?

If you want a more specific discussion on the differences between responsive and mobile-first web design, there are four factors to focus on: Process, Purpose, Search Engine Optimization, and User Experience.


As mentioned above, the responsive website design process starts with creating a design for desktops and then adjusting the elements for smartphones and tablets. As such, from using the maximum resolution required by larger screens, the designer shrinks the elements to fit the smaller screens of mobile devices. The ultimate goal is to create a website that automatically responds to different screen sizes and devices so that there won’t be a need to build two separate websites or URLs.

As the name states, the mobile-first design process begins with the designer creating a layout for mobile devices and then scaling it so that desktop and tablet users can view the website comfortably. A mobile-first website designer’s goal is to create a seamless user experience characterized by fast page loading speeds, easy navigation, and rich and relevant content.


Responsive design is ideal for B2B companies because their users prefer using laptops and desktops over smartphones. Additionally, responsive websites strive to provide authoritative and informative content.

Mobile-first websites are preferred by individuals and users who do practically every activity or task on their smartphones. In this regard, it is ideal for B2C companies.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

A responsive website is expected to fare better in SEO compared to a mobile-first site. This is because websites that are desktop and mobile-compatible rank significantly on Google. It’s also easier to rank higher if there is only a single version or one site URL.

Mobile-first websites are not as properly optimized as responsive ones because of two reasons: it has two URLs – one for mobile users and another for desktop users; and because of this, only the mobile website will be optimized. 

User Experience

Responsive website design assures users of a seamless, intuitive, and satisfying experience for everyone regardless of the device used. After all, responsive sites are designed for devices of all screen sizes. As such, you’ll find it easy to switch from your desktop to a laptop or notebook or from a tablet to your smartphone.

A mobile-first website provides a satisfying experience to smartphone users. Although the site can be accessed and viewed on desktops, it is not highly optimized, so the overall experience is not as seamless as smartphone users’.

Now that you know the difference between responsive website design and mobile-first web design, you have an idea of which one you should choose for your site. Your priority should be to go with the option that fits your goal. If you want to make sure you’re making the right choice, talk to an experienced web designer.

About the Author

Sarah Munn is the Outreach Manager of Phoenix Web Design, a web design company based in Phoenix, Arizona that specializes in creating bespoke and responsive websites that will surely grab people’s attention. When not writing content, she spends time with her grandparents and also giving back to the community

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