It doesn't have to look the same

Posted on 01 April 2002 by Rachel Andrew

This is an old article maintained for historical purposes. The information may not be correct or relevant today.

In the old days you would rarely see anything in your logs but Netscape and IE, at one point their usage was about 50/50. There was a general understanding that a good web developer would ensure their site looked the same in both browsers, sometimes going to incredible browser checking, two site building lengths to attain this goal.

Lets fast forward a few years …

IE has the greater share of the market, yet there are a growing number of people using alternative devices to browse the web. These devices range from the speaking browsers and Braille readers used by the visually impaired to the pocket PCs, Palms etc. used by many people on the move.

Can your site look the same in all of these things? Should we be good little web developers and start browser checking in earnest, designing alternative pages for every device that enters the market, should we frantically scour industry news for new platforms, new devices, new browsers just in case something slips through our elaborately constructed net of checks?

I don’t think so. To start with I don’t have time, and most clients don’t have the money to be building what is essentially a new site for every eventuality.

Perhaps then we should design more simply? If we don’t do any of the complex stuff then maybe it will display on everything just fine and we can sleep at night.

Is that an option for you? Sometimes simple design is the answer. If your site is content heavy or perhaps aimed at a market who are extensively using alternative devices – for example a resource site for visually impaired web users, or an information site for PDA users – then that might be the answer. For most of us though, simple isn’t the answer, our clients want the cool stuff.

So what can we do?

In my opinion (and I stress my opinion – there are lots of viewpoints out there) we need to step back from our endless battle to make it look the same across all platforms. We can’t make our site look the same on a PDA as a 21” monitor, we can’t make our site “the same” for someone on a speaking browser, and although things are improving there are still differences in support and implementation of various W3C standards. Let go, its not going to look the same.

Different is not wrong, this is the web, a dynamic medium where we have no control over our user nor should we want to have. By building sites that separate style from content we are free to display the same pages in as many ways as our imagination will allow. We can have bells and whistles for the new browsers, we can have attractive and readable designs for the version 4 browsers, we can display the content legibly for older browsers, devices that do not support CSS. We can create stylesheets for different media types – print and even aural, so that the visually impaired get a great listening experience on our site.

It sounds good, doesn’t it? I don’t believe we are years away from this nirvana. I see people starting to try this out. It has started with a wealth of beautiful personal sites springing up. Sites where individual designers and developers have seen the possibilities of this technology and run with it, now we are starting to see commercial sites here and there, setting up shop with a new way of working.

I see the future – it looks different.