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Designing Your Website for Browser and Platform Compatibility
By Christopher S L Heng
In the early days of the Internet, I used to come across many sites advertising "Best viewed with Netscape" or "Best viewed with Internet Explorer" or the like.
 
These days, such labels seem to be rarer. And no wonder. Webmasters today put an inordinate amount of effort to promote their sites on the search engines and elsewhere, and it's unlikely that they'll want to turn away any visitor just because he/she uses a different browser.
 
Along with this principle of catering to the widest possible audience is the principle of designing your page for compatibility with the different browsers, operating systems and hardware out there.
 
In this article, I will discuss five compatibility issues. They are by no means exhaustive, but they are at least starting points to designing a site that will be viewable by more visitors.
 
 
1. SCREEN RESOLUTION ISSUES
 
thefreecountry.com's site statistics indicate the following about the screen resolutions of its visitors:
640  x 480  -    8% of visitors
800  x 600  -   53%
800  x 553  -    1%
1024 x 768  -   31%
1152 x 864  -    2%
1280 x 1024 -    3%
Others      -    2%
If you design your site with fixed table widths, you need to be aware of the above. For example, if you design for the 800x600 screen resolution, at least 8% of your visitors (if your site has the same profile as mine) will have to scroll their screens horizontally to see the entire page. Horizontal scrolling irritates a number people (particularly if they have to scroll left and right continually just to read your sentences), hence many sites design for the worst case scenario (640x480). Others consider such a small screen area to be impossible to design nicely for, and consequently design for 800x600 - leaving those with 640x480 resolutions to fend for themselves.
 
In my opinion, it's really up to you whether you want to cater to the 640x480 audience, since they appear to be getting smaller with each passing year. If you wish to do so, remember to take into account things like the size of the browser window borders and scroll bars and the like, leaving you a maximum canvas width of slightly less than 600 pixels. My feeling is that you should not design your pages to require more than 800x600, for if you do so, you'll displease more than half your audience, who will have to repeatedly scroll horizontally (back and forth) to read the sentences on your page.
 
Of course, if you only use relative table widths (such as the use of percentages like 100%, 80%, etc), your page already caters to different screen resolutions.
 
 
2. COLOUR LIMITATIONS
 
It may come as a surprise to you that a colour code like "#F2C3BE" results in different colours on different systems, depending on the number of colours in your visitors' colour palettes, their monitors, etc.
 
What looks to you like beautiful shades of colours may turn out to be ugly combinations on a different system.
 
Most web experts advise you to stick to colour combinations that are duplicates of "FF", "CC", "00" and the like (multiples of hexadecimal "33"), which are supposed to be safe.
 
 
3. FRAMES
 
Much has been said against the use of frames in web design articles all over the web, yet frames continue to be used in many sites. This is probably because it is the easiest way to keep content which must be on every page in one location.
 
Many people dislike framed pages. It shrinks the screen area available for viewing the page (which somehow seems to be always designed for a screen larger than that available in the framed page) forcing them to have to scroll horizontally to read the page. Furthermore, the vertical scroll bar on the left frame of many sites also usurps valuable screen area. And if the site designer has decided to remove the scroll bar (because it looked fine on his high resolution screen), you find that you can't read some content because you can no longer scroll down.
 
Other reasons against frames include the inability of many search engines to properly index framed sites; the possibility of visitors entering your site via one of the subpages without your enclosing frameset page; etc.
 
If you are considering the use of frames on your site, see if you can think of alternatives. For example, you might want to use Server Side Includes to include common content like your navigation bar. If you really have to design with frames, make sure you view your site in a resolution like 640x480 to see if people with that screen area can even navigate or view your site. I think you'll probably be unpleasantly surprised.
 
 
4. JAVASCRIPT AVAILABILITY
 
Should you use JavaScript on your web page? While it is true that many people use Internet Explorer and Netscape, both of which support it, it is also true that a small percentage of people use browsers that do not support JavaScript. Still others have disabled JavaScript in their browsers.
 
My personal policy is that if I use JavaScript on my pages, there is a way for people without JavaScript to still access those facilities. For example, the site navigation facilities on thesitewizard.com and thefreecountry.com can operate whether or not the visitor has JavaScript enabled or not. If it is available, the JavaScript embedded into the page will execute. Otherwise, a CGI script will be called to do the job.
 
If you're interested, my article describing how this can be accomplished on your site, along with full source code for both the JavaScript and CGI script, can be found on:
http://www.thesitewizard.com/archive/quickmenu.shtml
 
You might want to consider using such a combination of JavaScript and CGI scripts to do your tasks.
 
 
5. JAVA APPLETS
 
Although everybody's raving about how Java is the best thing since sliced bread, you should be aware that many people disable Java in their browsers. Java applets also take an inordinate amount of time to load on many machines: the virtual machine itself takes time to initialise, not to mention the time spent downloading the applet.
 
My feeling is that if you can do without, try not to use it. I realise that this is not always possible: some sites use it for entering confidential data (eg, filing of various forms), educational purposes, games and other such purposes. If your use of Java does not fall into that category, and you're only using it to draw some nice graphics on your page, consider using animated GIFs instead, which loads faster and is supported by the browsers of a larger number of visitors.
 
You can find facilities to draw and generate animated GIFs on:
http://www.thefreecountry.com/ecentricity/freeban.html
 
Plan your website from the start to take into account compatibility issues. This way, you know that your site will benefit from the widest audience that you've strived so hard to obtain.


Source: Copyright by Christopher S L Heng. All rights reserved.
Get more free tips and articles like this, on web design, promotion, revenue and scripting, from http://www.thesitewizard.com/.


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