Normally when I describe RWD to a non-web person (and bear in mind this might be a non-technical manager or a client), I'll say something like:

The site will be designed in such a way that it will display well on mobiles and tablets and other handheld devices with smaller screens as well as on laptops and desktops with larger screens

I often see the hesitation in their eyes as if to say

What is this guy on about? I'm not an idiot. It should do all that anyway! Is he just trying to take longer / bill me for more hours / charge more for a project and conjuring up some jargon to excuse himself?

What is a better way to describe a design-approach which sounds (to a layperson) like it ought to be completely unnecessary in the first place.

Would it be better to say:

I'll design the site responsively - that means you'll get two sites in one, a mobile site as well as a desktop site.

Is there a definitive way to describe Responsive Web Design to a layperson so the benefits are self-evident and it doesn't sound like something suspicious is going on?

  • It is always best to find a positive spin on how to present solutions to a customer without insulting them. As technical people, we tend to lay out matters in frank terms that are not always a good selling proposition. Imagine that! Your final example seems to be a good start in this direction. It may help to ask questions specific to their knowledge of responsive design and work your solution into the conversation. Do not get into the processes per se', but get into the pay-off for the customer. How will the customer win? by hiring you over someone else.
    – closetnoc
    Jan 27, 2016 at 16:41
  • I never recommend getting into the technical weeds unless the customer wants it. That is why I suggested gauging the customers understanding. If they understand what responsive design is, then dig in to fill the gaps. If the do not understand, then Yes, the task is always harder justifying the extra work. That is why I would focus on the benefits and cost savings of going responsive and how you address that effectively and cheaply. It may also help you to have a library (of sorts) to call upon that you can reuse to save in development efforts. Just use what is pertinent from previous work.
    – closetnoc
    Jan 27, 2016 at 17:29
  • I used to have a set of libraries and sample code that I could just cut and paste that would save enough time that I could write a fairly sophisticated application within just a few days. It took a while to develop the resources, but it saved so much time and cost for the customer that I actually had too much work heading my way. A good position to be in. Some of this can apply to design too. If you can standardize some of your code methods, that can really help answer the cost issue.
    – closetnoc
    Jan 27, 2016 at 17:33
  • Thanks @closetnoc. This is all way too elaborate. I just want to explain what responsive means - and why it even exists - in words of one syllable to someone who has never heard of RWD and who might well think the claim preposterous that websites have to be consciously designed to take into account different operating systems, different browsers and - pertinent to my question above - different viewport sizes. And that if they aren't, then they don't.
    – Rounin
    Jan 27, 2016 at 18:12
  • I get ya! I thought your example was good or at least a really good start! It is succinct and about as simple as it gets. It seems like you hit the nail on the head. You may want to consider that it is also the standard way to go for most sites these days.
    – closetnoc
    Jan 27, 2016 at 18:17

3 Answers 3


A responsive website is a single website that will look good on devices of various screen sizes without the need for horizontal scrolling, zooming, or server side device detection.

At this point, a demonstration would help clarify. Open a responsive site on the desktop and drag the window smaller and larger. If a demo is not available, here is additonal explanation:

The site is able to re-format itself on the fly depending on the screen size. On mobile devices it will appear as a narrow column. On wider screens the main column will get wider and there may be room for additional sidebar content. Images can grow and shrink as needed. Font sizes can be adjusted to make text fit better on different screens.

It is also possible to hide unnecessary elements on small screens. In addition, completely different versions of an element may be included such that only one appears -- whichever is more appropriate for the screen size.

  • Yes, absolutely. All of that. It's not pithy, though, is it?
    – Rounin
    Feb 1, 2016 at 14:49
  • If by "pithy" you mean "succinct, pointed, meaty, concise" then I hope it is pithy. I don't think it is oversimplified if the person you are talking to has no previous experience with responsive design. Feb 1, 2016 at 14:52
  • I feel that I might have phrased my question badly. I'm trying to get away from giving a detailed explanation or a presentation. I'm looking for a simple metaphorical term which can act as a layperson's equivalent of "responsive".
    – Rounin
    Feb 1, 2016 at 14:53
  • 1
    There is no single term for responsive that a layperson will understand. If you are in the position of needing a layperson to understand what a responsive website is, you will have to give a short explanation. Feb 1, 2016 at 14:54
  • 1
    So you take off the website and you see a slightly smaller one underneath? Feb 3, 2016 at 17:15

"Two sites in one" is over-the-top for me, I think "transforming", "flexible" or "adapting" pages are what it is all about. Also, you can show some non-responsive website (maybe a website of your client`s competitor?) loaded in a mobile browser and tell what kind of work is needed to make such "etched in stone" pages responsive.

  • "Transforming", "flexible" or "adapting" are all a bit too close to "responsive" which is what I'm trying to get away from. It's obvious to us what "responsive" means, but to non-web people not so much. But I like "etched in stone"... can we maybe talk in terms of "solid sites" and "liquid sites"...? Will that convey the difference more effectively than "non-responsive" and "responsive", I wonder...?
    – Rounin
    Feb 1, 2016 at 14:31
  • 1
    The word "responsive" makes sense because website responses to client's device characteristics. Technical terms are not made up occasionally. Marketing words can look prettier, but they often simplify things. Try to look through websites of some big web design agencies - if guys with paid marketers didn't come up with some magic fast-selling word for this technology, what is the possibility that you will? Of course I wouldn't say the possibility is zero and I don't say you should not try if you need it for some reasons.
    – Kadilov
    Feb 1, 2016 at 19:27
  • Haha. Touché. I like your response. However I find that, in the main, very few online marketers come up with anything... Far more commonly they seem to jump on popular terms & techniques without questioning: "Could this be done better?" The online marketers who exhibit originality tend (in my experience, at least) to be the exception.
    – Rounin
    Feb 3, 2016 at 17:12

I use the word "responsive" just in case the client has heard of the term before. Then I insist on saying that the site or page "adapts" to the screen and device cause that's what it does and most people seem to understand that.

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