Sunday, November 2, 2008

Screen resolution - an eternal dilemma

Those of you who have been visiting ABB's web site recently may have noticed that it is still in 800x600 pixels. And so is this blog by the way, that is the standard width for all Google-hosted blogs.

But many sites have moved a step up the ladder to 1024 px width. My favorite news site changed a while ago, and I've noticed Facebook recently followed suit.

Only 3 % of our users still have screen size 800x600 and the number keeps falling.

But that is not the whole picture. Many users with better screens do not maximize their browser, so the active window is actually smaller than it could be. I've seen recent statistics (I've lost the link, sorry!) indicating that about 20 % have an active window that is less than 1024.

We know from all user testing that people hate horizontal scrolling, and they will certainly not do it just to see what is outside their current screen. When you have millions of users, one in five makes for a lot of people!

But at the same time we're facing a challenge from the opposite side and that is the dilemma; more than 50% of our users have a screen wider than 1024 px.

I've noticed that many use "screen size" and "screen resolution" as if they were synonyms, but they're not. Some years ago a 14" screen would be 800 pixels wide, today it is often 1400 px. As a consequence all elements shrink with the site itself, making it difficult to read on a more "modern" screen. A 9 pt font that looks okay on an 800 screen looks like a 5 pt font on a state-of-the-art laptop. Hopelessly small! So over time you need to increase the font size to accommodate these users.

In the end we have decided to increase the site to 1024 px, despite all the work it takes to redo a site with more than a hundred thousand pages. But what tipped the scale may have been something else; 800 px has started looking old fashioned. It's not about vanity, it's about making the right first impression to users; if the design looks outdated, users may believe the content is outdated as well.

Next weekend we plan to launch the new design. And as we make the change we have also used to opportunity to refresh the use of images as well as optimizing performance and improving usability in different ways. I hope to get back to that once we have launched.

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