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Size Matters

Web site width, scrolling, and why web sites are not TV shows.
(September 2007)

The Back2Front web site at three resolutions:

Res 1289x1024

Res 1024x768

Res 800x600

This week I had a discussion with the Principals of a newly-incorporated consulting company about the width of their new web site. They were viewing the site using newly purchased, high-resolution, flat-screen monitors. They were wondering why the site (designed at 760 pixels wide) only took up a small portion of the screen with blank space on either side of the content area. They wanted to widen the web site to make use of the "extra space", filling it in with information. I explained that we could widen the site to 960 pixels but that smaller monitors would not accommodate the wider width; portions of the web site on the right hand side would be cut off, requiring these visitors to scroll to the right to see it. However, they decided that all of their customers were likely to be using newer equipment and decided to go with a wider screen width.

Also this week while visiting another new client, I happened to notice the monitor he was using to view his competitors' web sites. I was surprised to see an old, 12-inch, 800x600 resolution CRT monitor sitting on his desk. He could only see the top 1/3 of most web site home pages - in fact, the Back2Front web site (at 760 pixels wide) completely filled the width of his screen. This client is a profitable, well-run wholesaler with distribution worldwide.

I might have made the mistake of assuming that everyone these days uses large, high-resolution monitors to surf the internet (and if not, certainly large, well-run companies would employ this kind of equipment!). But this was direct evidence that it just isn't so. After all, successful companies do not become successful by spending money needlessly. This company, and many like them, continues to use equipment that works - until it doesn't any more.

So the question of width is still not a simple one. I remember having this same debate 10 years ago when the large high tech company I was working for decided to move from 600 (the standard at the time) to 760 pixels wide, for their company web site. It was a difficult decision then and it is a difficult decision now. You want to be able to take advantage of the space that the larger, higher resolution screens offer, but at the same time, you do not want to have the right hand side of your content cut off either. To complicate things further, laptops, Blackberries, and other Internet-capable devices use displays of various widths and resolutions that you may want to accommodate as well.

Web developers know that originally the question was moot since digital content was supposed to accommodate any screen size automatically by the simple expedient of variable width wrapping. The layout of a digital page was not fixed but expanded or contracted according to the size of the display equipment (monitor) being used. We call this "liquid layout" these days.

But at Back2Front we find that most of our clients prefer a fixed layout to accommodate graphical elements, and to avoid the unfortunate side effect that a liquid layout has, of sometimes producing some very odd looking pages. Many of our clients prefer to control the layout of their pages quite precisely, and that is fine - if a bit misguided. Web sites are not printed pages and to endeavor to make your web site behave like a book is to willfully decide not to take advantage of the media. After all, one of the advantages of digital media is flexibility. You can add, subtract or modify content at any time and need not be concerned with things like pagination and the cost of ink and paper!

In fact, we see a disturbing trend towards a "TV screen" approach to web design these days. More graphics and less text is the current trend. Many of our more recent clients have asked that we create web pages that do not scroll downwards at all, in order to produce pages that fit within the confines of the screen both horizontally and vertically. But this, combined with the excessive use of graphics, provides minimal space for text. We have even seen clients alter (or drastically reduce) the quantity of their text in order to accommodate a graphical design. This superficial, design centric, "TV" approach is for flashy, passive entertainment, and assumes that no one actually reads any more. This is dangerous for business web sites!

Web sites are part of the biggest and most powerful information distribution system ever seen - called the Internet. A World Wide Web of interconnected machines and data, where everything known is available and every question can be answered at the click of a mouse button. To reduce this powerful medium to a mere TV substitute is to sadly underestimate your audience, and to waste an opportunity to take advantage of the true power of the Internet - the power of information exchange.

So choose a narrow width that provides the most visitors with a legible web site, opt for a wider screen if you are sure your clients will be happy with it, or go with a liquid layout to accommodate any width. But for goodness' sake - do not treat your web site as if it is a TV program!

It's OK to scroll down - and yes, people do still read.

By Candace Carter, Back2Front - The Web Site People, 2007