Responsive vs Mobile-first Design: How is one different from the other?

Mobile-first and responsive web design are two terms that are often used interchangeably. However, they are two different things. Here's how you can differentiate one from the other.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Here’s an interesting statistic: the number of internet users is now at a whopping 4.5 billion! Surprisingly, it has also become the norm for people to use different devices when browsing the web nowadays.

That said, the need to design an app or website that works both on desktops and mobile devices has never been more important. Fortunately, there are two ways you can achieve said objective—through responsive and mobile-first designs.

Also Read: Information Architecture & Web Design: A Beginners Guide

The Differences Between Mobile-First and Responsive Web Design

Mobile-first and responsive web design are two terms that are often used interchangeably. However, they are two different things. Here’s how you can differentiate one from the other.

Mobile-First Web Design

Mobile-first web design was the idea of Luke Wroblewski, one of the product directors at Google. Also known as progressive enhancement, Wroblewski first coined the term mobile-first design in 2009.

In essence, it refers to developing the mobile site first and from there scaling up to larger devices. With this approach, an app or a website design begins with the most crucial elements to provide a robust base for further development.

Upsides of Mobile-First Design

Well-organized content.

Mobile-first design encourages the inclusion of only relevant and important content. By not including any unnecessary details, the customer journey is simplified, and the customers can easily achieve their objectives.

The mobile-first approach can also positively affect the functionality and look of the website’s desktop version as it helps you clearly define and determine the primary purpose of your website.

Better UX.

This concept will give you a robust UX basis for further development. Mobile-first also makes it possible to include vital elements even if the mobile screen has limited space. As such, developers have a better chance of providing a rich experience to users.

Lesser bugs.

Mobile-first design will require a simpler code than responsive design. Since coding for desktop screens can be a complex task, the approach can help simplify the process and help ensure there are no errors in the desktop version.

Examples of Mobile-First Websites


Before they built their mobile application, Facebook redesigned their website using the mobile-first approach. Their original mobile-first site highlighted the importance of content.


Amazon is another example of a website that uses the mobile-first approach. Thanks to its clear navigation and well-structured layout, their website demonstrates how the mobile-first design can benefit an online sales platform.


Instagram was first introduced in 2010. It is a mobile application that allows users to use filters on their photos and share them with friends, family, and followers. Today, Instagram has evolved into a strong marketing instrument and business platform.

Since Instagram uses the mobile-first approach, it has achieved the perfect mobile-centric design that can be easily scaled to a desktop version.

Responsive Web Design

Responsive web design uses the opposite approach to mobile-first. Ethan Marcotte created this design approach. He designed the approach around the idea of flexible layouts and images. In responsive web design, the desktop website comes first.

Using CSS, the website is adapted based on the parameters of the browser window set by the device or user. The goal of responsive web design is to develop one version of the app or website that can adapt to screens of different sizes.

Responsive design is also referred to as gradual degradation since the approach is used to scale down a website.

Upsides of Responsive Design

One URL for all devices.

Since the website is adapted for any device, all the data will also be hosted on one server. Only one URL will also be used. This approach also makes it effortless for users to find the site since they won’t need to download additional applications.

One website for all devices.

With responsive web design, there is no need to develop separate apps or websites for smartphones and tablets. All you need to do is create a desktop website and adapt it. One responsive website will also require less money and time for support and testing.

No need to zoom websites when using mobile devices.

On a non-responsive website, you will need to zoom in on the elements and the buttons if you want to click them. This can negatively impact the user experience as it stretches the user journey. Fortunately, responsive web design makes the browsing process fast and straightforward.

Also Read: 7 Hacks for Creating Design Systems you should know

Responsive vs. Mobile-First Design: Which One is Right for You?

To determine which of the two website approaches suits your business best, start by gathering data and information about your website visitors, outlining the purpose of your site, and creating customer personas.

As soon as the whole picture is clear, follow the 80-20 rule. For instance, if 80% of your website visitors use desktops, responsive design is a much better option. On the other hand, if 80% of your audience uses mobile devices, the mobile-first approach is best.

Also Read: Ways to Improve your web design today

Final Thoughts

Mobile-first and responsive web design are two different approaches, and both offer enticing advantages. Study your audience, do your research, and clearly define what your website is for so you can determine which of the two is right for you.