Screen versus window size and the never ending debate on usability

Filed as News on September 4, 2006 10:28 am

I’€™m no big fan of usability guru Jakob Nielsen. Don’€™t get me wrong, I don’€™t doubt he knows his stuff, but his idea of usability falls on the requirement of ugliness. In my opinion things aren’€™t as black and white as Nielsen sometimes portrays it, since it’€™s all about getting the content to the reader the optimal layout is one that’€™s easy to take in, and easy to read. If it’€™s too ugly you might even loose the reader and how’€™s that for usability?

Jesper Ronn-Jensen has two very readable posts up, the first actually being a response to Nielsen’€™s thoughts on optimizing sites for 1024×768 pixel resolutions. Ronn-Jensen sure has a point that it all comes down to how big the window is ‘€“ not the screen’€™s resolution. He thinks people doesn’€™t maximize when sitting on bigger screens with higher resolutions, which makes sense to me. I don’€™t want a huge window with a small site sitting lonely in the middle, nor do I want to read text over my 21″ widescreen ‘€“ that’€™s plain horrible.

However, according to statistics sent to Ronn-Jensen as a response to his post, I am apparently not in majority – which you can read in his second post. It seems people tend to maximize their window anyway, although that’€™ll leave them with a somewhat overall twisted take on the webpages they are surfing. It’€™s a designer’€™s nightmare.

Where does this put us? Should we design our sites so that they dynamically resize to the browser window, or maybe it’€™s time to go all fixed layout on our readers? The choice sure isn’€™t easy but I must say that Nielsen has a point when he’€™s talking about layouts that are stretches somewhat, if not all the way. It all depends on what you’€™re publishing of course ‘€“ a portfolio site or company infosheet isn’€™t as sensitive as a text-laden site. If you’€™re doing the latter I suggest reading up on line lengths in a Usability News post from 2005.

No matter what all these experts are claiming to be the ideal font size, line length, width of actual page and so on, you’€™ll always find people disagreeing. However, no matter how much you believe in your own reasoning and sure thinks your choice is the right, you still should read up on the theories out there. Who knows, you might actually pick something up?

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  1. By Matt Craven posted on September 4, 2006 at 11:44 am
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    We’re rolling with a dynamic layout here on BH – however this last design approach was the first time that we defaulted to a layout that was at least 900px wide or so..

    And we’ve heard no complaints about that…

    Course, our audience is more techy than most..

    Matt

  2. By Thord Hedengren posted on September 5, 2006 at 2:51 am
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    I’m not sure that a techy audience prefer this or that kind of layout actually, but maybe you’re right. Most people want sites that look good and are easy to read, and TBH sure fills those requirements.

    Being a designer sure is hard on you. :(

  3. By Vicki posted on September 5, 2006 at 7:32 am
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    Well there are alternatives to fixed-width layouts (that look small and lonely in the middle of your page) and liquid layouts (where lines of text will streeeeeeeeeetttchhh into something unreadable and unpleasant to use in a larger window… I’ve read that around 60 characters a line is optimal) without going “dynamic”. Elastic layouts, with margins etc set in relative units, and max-widths set on blocks of text, and scalable images, go a long way to making sites more usable no matter what the window size…

    Dynamic layouts can be useful… I’ve seen a few where a third, less important column drops below the content (by intention) when a smaller window size is detected. This is great except it could be disconcerting when the user resizes the screen and the layout changes… however… most users don’t do that, just us webdev types. :-)

    Equally important these days, though, is the increase of people using mobile technologies to access the web — it’s not just the increasingly common large screens that are an issue — the increasingly common small screens are too. So it’s really important that sites are well-built in terms of using valid and semantically-correct code to ensure they have the maximum chance of being usable whatever the screen size…

    Just my 2 cents… I have plenty more to share but that might be boring here. :-)

  4. By Thord Hedengren posted on September 6, 2006 at 3:54 am
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    Oh yes, dynamic layouts can be very useful and user friendly – but in a designers’ perspective it’s a bit hard to work with if you want to do something special. But I completely agree with you, it’s definetely an alternative!

  5. By Eddie posted on September 7, 2006 at 10:25 am
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    Another facet to all this is browser chrome… specifically, side panels and the like. I have a widescreen monitor with large resolution, but I too like my browser maximized. I bet, if I sat down on a couch with a psychologist or hypnotist, we’d find out it’s due to Fitt’s law. But that *still* doesn’t mean I like to have a skinny page taking up 20% of my screen surrounded by whitespace.

    Nope, I get good use out of side panels. I wrote about this here:
    http://my.opera.com/usability/blog/show.dml/109366