One of the little joys (or annoyances, depending on how you look at it) in website design is the inevitable challenge of getting a website to play nicely with all the different internet browsers, computers, mobile devices, screen sizes, etc., out there today. For anyone who has a website, it is also inevitable that someday you will look at your website on a different computer and see subtle changes in how the site looks. So what causes this, and is it possible to be avoided?
Computers are not paper
At first glance, this statement seems obvious. Your computer certainly isn’t a piece of paper. But to begin explaining why websites look different from computer to computer, this is a sensible starting place. For example, if you type a document and use Palatino font, 12 point body text in black with 18 point headings in blue, and one-inch margins, and you print it out, anyone who looks at that piece of paper will see the same thing.
However, computers don’t work that way. You’ve probably had an experience where someone you know may have been looking at the same thing on their computer screen that you were looking at, but they saw something a little different. That’s because each computer is different, not only in age and technical capabilities, but also in what software someone has installed on it, the type of internet connection, and so forth.
Part of the beauty in having a computer is having the ability to customize your own experience, and that means not seeing everything identically. You can begin to embrace the uniqueness of the computer experience when you understand that.
Websites are not brochures
Because of the differences between computers and paper noted above, websites themselves are not brochures. Again, it seems like an obvious statement because people can’t click through brochures or view a slideshow, for example. But it goes beyond that. While you can control the exact color, font size, and minute placement of the smallest image on a brochure and instruct a printer to follow those instructions, a website relies on many different computers’ interpretations.
It is a simple fact that one website will often look close, but not identical, between one computer and the next. This can be due to computer age, technical abilities, different browsers, and user settings; for example, someone can have font size enlarged for easier reading or not allow any images to download because of a poor internet connection. If you plan on having a website, you will have to understand that you may not have absolute control over the final product. You will need to work with your designer to get it as close to your desired look as possible, but it will never look identical from computer to computer.
Handling website differences
None of this means that you should settle for whatever goes. While your web designer cannot guarantee that your website will look identical on all computers, he or she can take some steps during the design process to deal with those situations where users’ computer settings are less than ideal.
First, experienced web designers understand and use the concepts of “progressive enhancement” and “graceful degradation.” They sound like complex terms, but they’re actually easy to understand. Progressive enhancement refers to the idea that computers and internet browsers who can handle more advanced features are given them. For example, a neat shadow effect behind a text headline on your website would show up in advanced computers but not on other ones. This is not a problem because people can still read the headline, but advanced computers have a more sophisticated look. Graceful degradation, on the other hand, means that when computers or internet browsers are outdated or when people use only the minimum, like not loading images (either because of bad connections or vision impairments), the basics of the website still come through. At the very least, someone should be able to get the basic information from your website with the most rudimentary setup. (You’d be surprised at how many websites fail in this area.)
Second, experienced web designers will also test their websites a lot. Websites designed today should work well in Internet Explorer (new and older versions), Firefox, Opera, Chrome, and Safari, at the very least. Internet Explorer, especially the older versions, have always been a challenge for web designers because they are not programmed with the latest technologies, and they also interpret things their own unique way. The other four internet browsers are more sophisticated. (I have used Firefox and Opera for years.) Websites should also work on PCs and Macs with a variety of screen sizes. Experienced web designers will cross-check these to see how your site looks. (I check my clients’ sites in over 90 different configurations.) While not every difference should (or can) be changed, the overall goal is to make sure that the website works. And, it’s also important to note, not every situation can be tested, either. There are millions of possibilities!
Third, you can get involved. Seek feedback from people you know about your own website. Check it on different computers. (Don’t forget mobile devices! They are increasing in popularity.) If you see something that’s not usable or working right, speak up. Your web designer should be able to fix it for you, with some trial and error.
Embracing the technology of computers and the internet also means embracing the individual differences in website experiences. Knowing that you can’t guarantee an identical experience every time doesn’t mean you can’t guarantee a useful experience. Keep updated and current with your site, and you should have no problem.