28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part VII

Not all browser windows are maximized.

Monitors are growing in size these days. I jumped from a 15″ to a comparatively enormous 22″ just a couple years ago, and recently I’ve been considering a few models in the 24″ and over range.

Despite my monitor’s capacity, I tend to keep my browser window at a modest size–around 880 pixels wide by 980 high. I do this for several reasons, not the least of which the idea that websites are primarily modeled after vertically-oriented reading materials, such as books and newspapers. While my eyes scan up and down a column comfortably, they start to protest when they have to go much further than that 880 pixel limit. (Of course, pixels aren’t measurements of real space, and distance from the screen is a factor, but under normal circumstances with most monitors I’ve used, this continues to be a good rule of thumb for me.) And 880 is for all content on a page combined. When dealing with blocks of text, anything over 500 pixels wide is pushing it.

Fortunately, most websites I visit still limit their content to a rather narrow column of roughly 700 to 900 pixels–many still too large for my tastes, but I’d like to think a little market research has shown those widths have gone over well with their target markets. Of course, market research doesn’t happen as much as it should, but that’s another topic altogether. Several surveys on the matter place me around the middle of the chart, and a few say my browser size is slightly narrower than average.

Many websites offering tips for web design suggest optimizing a site for 1024 x 728 displays, which still isn’t the safest bet since, aside from maximized browsers with very little chrome and navigation tools hidden, display size doesn’t say anything about available browser size.

Monitors are getting much wider, but laptops (and especially the recent influx of netbooks on the market) are still stunted vertically, some even dipping below 450 pixels. This isn’t such a big deal, as we’ve typically got seven keys dedicated to vertical movements in a browser window (not to mention scroll wheels and touchpad scrolling), and only two used to move our browsers left and right–and only then in much smaller increments than we can move up and down. That, and our eyes are more accustomed to scanning downward rather than sideways.

I’m no better than the next guy at making predictions involving technology, but even as monitors grow to sizes larger than you can fit on your computer desk without finding a new place for your Rolodex from well before the turn of the century, I expect most websites will stick to the same limits they use today. Typesetters have long known the horizontal restraints of our eyes, and have developed meticulously measured columns that minimize fatigue and enhance the reading experience. By putting a little effort into online content so it conforms to the same limitations, designers will find their visitors sticking around a little longer without reaching for the aspirin bottle.

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