How to please all of the people all of the time

30/05/2011 14:42pm

How to please all the people, all of the time

In the old days, designing for the web was simple. Everybody used more or less the same equipment, and while there were differences – an ageing desktop here, an brand-new laptop there, a ridiculously large monitor over there – you could make a number of assumptions.

Those assumptions came in very handy. You could be reasonably sure that most of your viewers were using displays with standard proportions, that those displays were running at least a certain resolution, and that they were capable of seeing at least a certain amount of colours. There were still differences – some browsers supported web standards better than others, and some features were only available via plugins – but at least you knew your users would be viewing your content from a PC.

Not any more.

Today, your content could be viewed by any or all of the following: desktops, notebooks, netbooks, ultrabooks, five-inch tablets, seven-inch tablets, nine point seven-inch tablets, ten point one-inch tablets, HDTVs, QWERTY phones, touch-screen smartphones, games consoles, in-car entertainment systems and toasters. Okay, maybe not toasters – but you get the idea.

Just to make things more interesting, those desktops, netbooks, notebooks, in-car systems, HDTVs, smartphones and feature phones don’t run the same operating system, support the same file formats or use the same browser technologies. What works on one device might not work the same way on another, and some formats – especially video – might not work at all.

How on earth do you create content that works everywhere?

Two choices

It’s a big problem, and there are two schools of thought on how best to address it. The first school says that the trick is to identify where your visitors are coming from and serve them the most suitable content, and you’ll find that approach on sites such as Facebook and Twitter: access them from a smartphone and you’ll get the mobile sites, not the standard web ones.

The second school of thought is that you should simply craft your content for everyone. It can be a lot more work, but it can be a lot more elegant – and it addresses some of the big problems with serving up different content for different people. Detecting what browser somebody uses is an inexact science, and it can cause huge problems: serving up a mobile site when the user’s on a tablet, or having mobile users share URLs for pages that look just great on a tiny phone screen but thoroughly underwhelming on a desktop PC, or blocking users altogether because they don’t have the “right” browser.

So is it actually possible to please everyone? The short answer is yes, ish.