05/01/2007

Website Resolution … revisited again

In January, there was an interesting discussion at Jason Santa Maria's blog of the age-old quandary of what resolution(s) one should design for (at You Say You Want a Resolution). I tend to hang out at SEO sites and have done for years, so it's different to wander into "designer" territory.

Bear with me; if you design, this is worth it, I think. The discussion is interesting not for the usual fixed width versus fluid (and now versus elastic) arguments, but for statements like this from Anthoy Watts:

Wider screens don't make better web sites. You ever try to read a line of text that spans 1024 pixels? Design must serve content, not technology.

and this from Christian Watson:

As more people get larger monitors and start using higher
resolutions (say 1152×864 becomes the norm in the future) I'm not sure that they'll all be browsing with their browser windows maximized.

(to which I say, so what? Anyone with a large monitor can easily resize the window), and this from Jeff Croft:

As screen resolution increases, so too does the level of ambiguity in the size of the viewport.

In other words, it's a fairly safe assumption that people with lower-resolution screens are viewing maximized, and thus it's fairly easy for us web designers to guess what their viewport size is. As screen resolution increases, some people continue to browse maximized, some fit two apps on the screen at the same time, some fit three apps on the screen at the same time, and so on.

It's even reasonable to expect that some people, when they move from 800×600 to 1280×1024 will actually decrease the size of their browser window (because they ran maximized at 800px but now are running three browser windows on their 1280px screen).

Bottom line? Going forward, we're going to be less able to pick a target resolution that works for a very large percentage (95% plus) of our audience.

To deal with this, we have a two basic options:

1. Go with liquid layouts, or other technologies that scale to fit the browser window (read: Flash).
2. Just let users deal with it. Their browser have scrollbars and resizing widgets — they can use them!

Seriously, at some point we have to put this on the users. If someone decides to browse with 700px wide windows, then they are making the decision to scroll horizontally. Fine. If someone decides to browse maximized, then they are making the decision to see very long line lengths on some sites. Fine. In both cases, the content is perfectly accessible and usable.

I've been getting to that point — designing for 1280 1024 — with some of our newer web design projects because it's silly (in my opinion) to have to adhere to 800×600 when big sites like CNN have gone to 1024. There's more from Jeff Croft there; pretty interesting thoughts/observations that make me wonder if we (in adhering to smaller screen requirements) aren't assuming the user is entirely unable.

Anyway, it's an interesting discussion. If you're going back and forth deciding what resolution(s) to design for, there are some jewels in there, and it just might help.

11 Comments to "Website Resolution … revisited again"

  1. Adrian says:

    Even at 1280×1024 I always browse full screen.
    My mum has a widescreen laptop that I think runs something like 1280×900 or something, and generally runs full screen.

    The only time I've been interested in not running maximised was when I used a 22" widescreen recently, which is pretty big :)

    I do wonder how many people using a 17/19" flat screen (which generall run at 1280×1024), really don't run maximised (or nearly maximised) browser windows.

  2. Diane Vigil says:

    I have the same question, Adrian. I don't run maximized, generally, but I've got a really wide screen.

    On the other hand, my second monitor is a 19", and it's set at 1024 — because that's what I need to be able to read it. (I also don't sit close to the monitors; I'm at arm's length plus about a foot, leaning back in a chair. I guess if I sat closer, I might consider upping the resolution.)

    Even though we go over these issues endlessly — trying to ensure that everyone, even those with totally bizarre setups and resolutions, can see our websites just fine — I begin to agree with Jeff Croft when he said, "Seriously, at some point we have to put this on the users." Or, at least, I try to convince myself that it's okay to let go of the 800×600 thing and … breathe a little. <grin>

    What about you?

  3. Diane Vigil says:

    Ugh. I have to mention the one scenario which keeps me from adopting higher resolutions wholesale: laptops.

    But it always amazes me when someone says that they use higher resolutions (anything about 1024) on smaller screens — I just can't read it.

  4. Sophie Wegat says:

    Some good food for thought there Diane.

    Until recently I've never really browsed with my browser maximised – I'm on a 17" @ 1280 x 1024. Reading your post made me realise how often I do go to maximise my browser lately.

    On the web the user controls their experience and I think we all need to appreciate that it's jot always going to look exactly as we designed it. Sticking to standards and making sure sites are usable and accessible is probably the closest we can get.

  5. Diane Vigil says:

    Wow — you must have incredible eyesight, Sophie. :)

    However, browsing at 1280 means you're get quite a bit more screen real estate than one would suppose the "average" person (if there is such a thing) sees.

    I know what you mean; even the fixed-versus-liquid question is somewhat difficult given the range of resolutions we're dealing with today.

    I'm just looking to move away from the standard 800×600.

  6. Sophie Wegat says:

    Getting away from 800 x 600 would be nice. It's always been just that little bit too small eh.

  7. Diane Vigil says:

    I agree, Sophie. Also, there's a thread at cre8 where Egol says he widened his site to 1024, got more content above the fold, and his stats (time on site and other things, as I recall) improved.

    I guess it's my time to test it out, though there's nothing seemingly so difficult as working on your own site. :)

  8. Ron Carnell says:

    I've been running 1280 by 1024 on a 21" CRT for several years. My browser has pretty much always been maximized because, frankly, that's what I got used to doing back when I was running 640 by 480 on a 15" CRT. Old dog, new tricks, yada yada.

    I've been echoing Anthony Watts for years about the evils of excessive line length and readability. I spend a LOT of time in forums, a traditionally liquid design arena, and have always hated the long line lengths and what it did to my eyes. It's no coincidence that Cre8 is perhaps the only on-line forum that has a fixed-width skin available that limits content and line length to a very comfortable 800 pixels.

    Unfortunately, even old dogs sometimes find themselves dropped off in new neighborhoods.

    I very recently upgraded my computer system. My new monitor is a 24" flat panel display with a *native resolution* of 1920 by 1200 pixels. As is true of most LED monitors, native resolution roughly corresponds to how many light emitting diodes are hardwired into the panel. I "can" lower the resolution, but it will never look quite as crisp or clear as it does at its native resolution. I like crisp and clear, so I quickly found a way to cope. I no longer maximize my browsers (or much of anything else, for that matter).

    (Not incidentally, Vista set my resolution for me upon being installed. It "talked" to my monitor and they agreed to the setting with only minimal input from me. With flat panel technologies and native resolutions, Windows is no longer picking a one-size-fits-all resolution, be it the very old 640×480, the still pretty old 800×600, or even the more recent 1024×768 settings. Screen resolution is becoming hard wired and, paradoxically, I think, less standardized.)

    I found it interesting that Jason's reply to Anthony more or less agreed with him. "Line lengths like that," responded Jason, "Are just plain poor design, regardless of screen/window size. 1024px is a perfectly reasonable size for designing legible and beautiful websites. That task lies with the designer, not technology."

    Yet, Jason's own site is a liquid design (in truth, semi-liquid) and as I stretch my browser closer to my 1920 pixel limit, the line lengths become much too long to comfortably read without strain. Perhaps design and technology are not so easily divorced?

    It would certainly be nice to push the burden onto the visitor. People like me, who ran a higher resolution with a maximized browser, should know better. People like me should be able to resize their browsers to limit long line lengths when necessary. Even old dogs have to adapt.

    But what about the people who are NOT like me?

    I think it's okay to push the burden onto the technical-savvy, but I don't think it's acceptable — or wise — to add to the burden of the neophyte. The visitor still running at 800 or 1024 pixels, or even 1280 (the new standard?), may not know what a browser is, let alone how to resize it. He has to take what ever we give him. And I just don't think we can "put this on the user" without first taking into account who the user is.

    Which, of course, is probably the only right answer. Audience, audience, audience. Egol tested his results against HIS audience, and clearly liked his findings. That, I think, is probably the only safe time to make the design change.

    In the meantime, my own sites will mostly remain at 800 pixel fixed-width because that's what I think my audience wants. Besides . . . it hasn't really been all that long ago those sites were running 640 pixel fixed-width, so I'm not yet feeling all that crowded at 800. :-)

  9. Diane Vigil says:

    I know what you mean, Ron. And I agree that audience is important.

    I also think it's important to distinguish what types of content we're talking about. If you're just displaying text, then if you've got a desire to fill the screen, you've got to limit those line lengths somehow, but there are other ways to do that. Bill's SEObytheSea site is a good example.

    However, if you're displaying text interspersed with (or in line with) pictures and perhaps a menu on one side, the width limitation soon fights against how large your images can be. If that means that the images are not as effective as they could be, then it's time to find a workable solution.

    It's likely that, if I didn't have my head in (as you know) a server right now, I'd be increasing the width of dianev.com to 1024. I'd like a little more "pow" room. :)

  10. Deaf Musician says:

    This is great, specially because everyone agrees to a norm where wider layouts aren't necessarily a good thing. I always design my sites no bigger than 1000px in width that includes the sidebars.

  11. Diane Vigil says:

    Thanks, Deaf Musician — 1000 pixels plus 20 pixels for the scrollbar gives nearly the 1024 pixel layout. Your site looks great, by the way.

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