Since all of the Adaptive- and Responsive-Design trends have taken over UX and web design, I've noticed that the vast majority of sites I go to - and which I browse predominantly on a laptop or desktop with a big monitor - look almost exactly like they do on a tablet.

I had thought the idea of these new trends was to scale sites to the browsing experience being used. All the articles I've read on the subject talk about scaling sites to phones, tablets and desktop, and using appropriate design for each one.

However, so many of the sites I'm going to on my desktop have HUGE images, HUGE panels, FLAT design, HUGE fonts, big ol' KANDY-KOLORED GUI elements, very very VERY simplified interfaces, etc. Everything is waaaaay dumbed down from the desktop GUIs of the past (which, in my opinion, were a lot more useful and let me do a lot more with far fewer gestures; I could see a lot more on the screen at once, which was helpful).

That is... they look just like their mobile counterparts.

Yet when I've looked around the web using some creative Googling, I've found just about nothing discussing this. Most of it are designers talking about how great these design trends are, and how to scale to mobile devices; almost nothing about how most sites aren't actually scaling to Desktops (except in fitting the screen, pretty much, and in no other way).

Isn't there any discussion of this?

Why aren't companies and designers making more use of the desktop experience? It's like they designed to the tablet... and just stopped.

  • Tim
  • A few thoughts…none complete enough to become an answer: First, people are using mobile devices more and more, so our (collective) comfort level with those design conventions may have increased while usage of the dense UIs of yesteryear decreased. Second, I think to some degree we've become much more uncomfortable with the experience of searching the screen for what we want without interacting somehow. Last, I wonder if desktop users are so accustomed to adapting to different UIs that usability testing doesn't show the large-small-screen approach to be deficient, even if it could be improved.
    – Nate Green
    Aug 18, 2016 at 13:06
  • +1 For huge images. (which then create home pages which scroll and scroll and scroll...). I often use the zoom controls on the browser on websites to shrink everything.
    – PhillipW
    Aug 18, 2016 at 13:43

5 Answers 5


You are seeing the triumph of Mobile-First Design Principles

When mobile devices starting getting used to surf websites, website owners had a serious challenge on their hands to provide a good experience to those users. Not only did the design need to fit on a tiny screen, but the site had to work well with much slower internet connections.

Mobile-First design practices were born of this (rather urgent) need. The mobile site had to be lean, quick, and get right to the point.

Web professionals started noticing something in their user acceptance testing, website conversions: users really liked the simple, lean, and quick mobile sites, even when they were using laptops and desktops.

Why do people like mobile-like sites on their PC’s? Largely because speed matters. Folks found that a site they had deemed “fast enough” yielded better results with even marginal speed gains, regardless of whether the user had a slow cellular or fast broadband connection.

In A/B tests, [Amazon] tried delaying the page in increments of 100 milliseconds and found that even very small delays would result in substantial and costly drops in revenue.


A higher bar for progressive enhancements to desktop experience

Faced with hard analytics showing that a tiny slowdown of a page would adversely affect revenue, site owners have a good reason to decline any proposed progressive enhancement for the desktop experience that might slow page load, even a little. Such enhancements would probably (according to Amazon and Google, at least) end up lowering conversions.

So, enhancements for desktop had better be real improvements for the broad majority of users, not just nice-to-have's for some — or they will be rejected as revenue-killers. Since we are using mobile-first design, a website’s desktop experience with very few progressive enhancements will look and feel a lot like its mobile experience.

Other Factors: consistency and user’s aesthetic preferences

A consistent user experience is also known to be important — so mobile-hostile functionality like hover behaviors have been going away. (Properly-implemented tooltips which work on mobile are still OK.)

Beyond that, people simply prefer simpler websites.

  • 3
    What about Old Programmers like me, who far prefer a lot of complex info on the screen at once? And how do we know that most desktop users actually prefer - for example - 1-4 GIANT BLOCKS on the screen at once (with 'grow-as-you scroll behavior) on an eCommerce site that sells thousands of things, instead of being able to quickly search for what they want and see a paged list of one-line-per-item with enough info to quickly determine if that's what they want? I much much prefer the latter. I don't want to have to click 97 times to find something, but that's what most sites are doing.
    – Tim
    Aug 12, 2016 at 0:48
  • 3
    That is to say - I can't be the only person (or even that extremely rare) who prefers to get as much info in a quick glance and with as little navigation as possible, and who's searching needs are relatively sophisticated and specific; I KNOW what I want and what I'm looking for, I don't want things suggested to me or guessed... Compared to "click click click" forever, or "scroll scroll scroll" forever. It's the same reason why I drive a manual transmission instead of a self-driving car with a big button that says "GO" in it. :-)
    – Tim
    Aug 12, 2016 at 0:57
  • 1
    Disagree. Mobile first is not the same as minimalism and minimalism is part of his question. Speed matters but not as much on the desktop which is more likely to have a faster wifi or wireless connection.
    – Rob
    Aug 12, 2016 at 1:31
  • 1
    @rob, can you provide some reference backing up your assertion that speed is not as important on desktop? Google and Amazon are on record that it is vitally important.
    – Tim Grant
    Aug 12, 2016 at 1:56
  • 1
    @timster I believe he meant You don't have to worry for speed on desktop as much as you have to worry for speed on mobile; it's equally important in both, but desktop machines usually have faster connections than mobile devices
    – Josh Part
    Aug 12, 2016 at 2:00

There are a lot of possible answers to this. One is that too many people just plug in a framework and go with that. So you see a lot of sameness nowadays. You also find the desktop looking like mobile because the designer/developer either didn't have the time to expand the desktop experience or didn't want to or was lazy.

Some of the designs are trying to emulate television. Many designs are copycat approaches of the latest trend someone read on reddit. Everyone is trying all the new toys and bobbles they can get hold of on the web now but spending too much time on making glitter and explosions instead of thinking it through.

Then there is the thought that one doesn't want to stray too far from mobile to desktop and back because it can confuse the user; make them wonder if they are on the same site they visited on their other device. This, too, is only a design problem which can be solved given some thought.

I'm in the camp that feels one should take full advantage of the space you are given. Not with clutter but using space wisely.


Using the command+"F" keys on my Macbook Pro, I just searched this page for "first" - as in "mobile first" - and found five matches whereas searches for "progressive" and "enhancement" - as in "progressive enhancement" - yielded no matches. Mobile first design arose from a need or desire to deliver an essential experience to mobile viewers usually having smaller viewports. With increasing viewports, progressive enhancement would allow for experiences suitable to those larger viewports including not only bigger text and bigger images, but also additional content. The admittedly not very robust search experiment mentioned in my first sentence suggests that while mobile first design is being implemented, progressive enhancement has been getting less emphasis. And I suspect that even when it is emphasized, it is often limited to bigger text and bigger images (consistent with Tim's observations) and fails to include additional content. Additional content for larger viewports can be confusing (as Rob remarked), but it still may be desirable.

Added 27 January 2020: Amazon provides an example of progressive enhancement that I encounter frequently. In the Amazon app in my former iPhone 6 or current iPhone XR, when I am viewing information about a book, Amazon currently does not provide the "Look inside" feature whereas in my MacBook Pro 13 or MacBook Pro 16, the "Look inside" feature is available, allowing me to see the book's table of contents, first pages, etc.

  • Good point about progressive enhancement. To my mind, progressive enhancement is an essential part of mobile first design, but I guess that's not a universal assumption. Looks like I glossed over that a bit in my answer, will review.
    – Tim Grant
    Aug 17, 2016 at 14:21

Device capability, screen size and connection quality are all independent things. You could have a large screen monitor hooked up to an old PC on rural broadband. We simply can't know all the variables, so a focus on optimum load times for all is vitally important.

Perceived speed, however, is different to actual speed of a website. Users who find a page difficult to navigate might describe it as 'slow' even if it loaded quickly. Not all users are the same, of course, and some will believe a crowded UI is easier to use, but the tests I've run (and read about) amost always point to a focussed UI yielding the best results.

That simplification/refinement of sites on all devices (mobile and desktop alike) is inevitable as we learn more about users and how they actually use our sites.


@timster's Mobile First is a compelling argument and might as well be true, but I do get the concern raised by the original question. Case in point, Gmail vs Inbox.

Google owns both Gmail and Inbox. Google initially tried to introduce priorities and auto-compartmentalization of mails in Gmail and simultaneously came out with Inbox which was a fresh take on mails. I guess it was one of the first forays of Material Design into the desktop space. It was not only for speed or minimalism. Although these things matter, there is another important aspect that I personally think holds value. Control.

Absolutely Personal Opinion Follows...

One can argue that a simple looking clean design is what users want and that it true to a major extent but it does not end there. A minimally functional clean UI also adds a lot of abstraction to the system. The UI becomes cleaner and thereby reduces the number of functions one by one. These functions are absorbed by black box algorithms behind the scenes. This is how you maintain control.

Up until yesterday, all mail sites were somewhat similar. May it be Yahoo Mail, or GMail or any other. Today, Inbox and Outlook.com are very minimal and neither offers you the advanced filters which Gmail did out of the box. Half of Gmail functions are gone or at least hard to find. The functionality has been absorbed by the platform. This move makes us dependent on the platform, locking us in.

A lightweight interface with less function offers speed and cleanliness like all other answers mention. It also offers control for the business. I know I sound too paranoid and feel free to disregard this answer as I have no data to back this up.

  • Not paranoid - I feel the same way. Thanks for your good explanation of the phenomenon, it describes what I'm seeing precisely : that web sites start reducing user-control of functionality, and replace it with the business's idea of a "good compromise default functionality"... and that's not usually what I want. I prefer to have a lot of control over what I see. One interesting recent example (tho' not one that encompasses all of the above points, I admit) was Google's removing of the Collections feature on YouTube. It was a highly useful feature, and there is a giant thread about it...
    – Tim
    Aug 17, 2016 at 18:31
  • ... (continued) ... on Google's support forums. Google has never answered people's questions as to why it was removed. They just said something vague about "Making your video viewing experience even better!!!" - then they did nothing. It's been that way for more than a year. People suspect some corporate revenue reason, but Google has never been transparent about their GUI decisions. It makes YouTube less useful by removing an important feature, and replaces it with nothing.
    – Tim
    Aug 17, 2016 at 18:31

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