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Wide Vs. Narrow Design - The Screen Resolution War

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Mike Richard
June 13, 2006

Mike Richard
Mike Richard is an eight year veteran of sensible web design/development and creative director for a Rhode Island-based tech firm. His keen insight is matched only by his dashing good looks and witty sense of humor. He blogs about life at www.mrichard.net and politics at www.jayseverinhasissues.com.

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One of the first and most critical decisions web and user interface (UI) designers must face when designing for a fixed screen resolution is whether to design for the classic, narrow screen resolution of 800×600 pixels or the newer, now-more-commonplace resolution of 1024×768 pixels (and above).

The decision is not as simple, nor as trivial as it sounds.

Design too wide (1024×768 pixels and above) and you risk shutting out a portion of your demographic as valuable content and ad space sit out of view to the right of their browser window. Plus, your users will typically see the dreaded horizontal scrollbar!

Design too narrow (800×600 pixels) and you risk wasting valuable screen real estate in the afore-mentioned right-hand side with many users seeing nothing but your lovely page background filling 25% of their brand new 19″ (or larger) monitors.

The web is at a crossroads right now. There are still those waiting to make the leap from 800×600 screen resolution to 1024×768 (and above). But with the advent of larger monitors and better graphic cards, that number is dwindling every day. As recent as last year, the majority of users - 80% or more - were running 800×600 screen resolutions. That statistic has largely flipped and now many large scale sites are eschewing the 800×600 spec and designing for the future (i.e. 1024×768):

  • www.cnn.com
  • www.espn.com
  • www.nytimes.com

There are lies, damn lies - and statistics. - Mark Twain

Statistics often fail to prove much, if anything. That said, I’ve worked for almost a decade within the WWW community. My company’s clients span virtually every industry, catering to a broad range of demographics. In looking at our site statistics at hand, roughly 15-25% of our clients users are running 800×600, with the remainder of folks experiencing the web in the larger, 1024×768 (and up) format. Twenty-five percent - a minority, but a sizable minority at that - is certainly nothing to sneeze at. But that number will likely half in the next 6-9 months and continue to decline sharply thereafter.

Of course now you’re asking, “How do I know what resolution my users are running?” Fortunately, that information is often right at your finger tips in the form of your own web server logs. Your website administrator or webmaster can you help with this. If you do not have a webmaster per se, or are your own webmaster, ask your website host how to get access to your web logs. One other option is to use an all-purpose tracking script. I love StatCounter.com’s offering - the administrative panel provides a wealth of invaluable information that no website owner can do without. Best of all, it’s free!

The bottom line is that this decision, as with many design and UI decisions, is largely dependent on your demographic. An older, less computer savvy audience will likely experience the web via the classic 800×600 screen resolution. A younger and/or more affluent demographic will likely prove just the opposite - with newer computers and larger monitors, these folks are almost certainly viewing the web via higher screen resolutions.


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