The Question that Won’t Die: Optimal Screen Resolution?

Jared Spool

September 19th, 2005

I recently got this email from a web designer at a state government agency:

Do you recommend that government sites be designed so that they scale depending on the user’s browser/screen resolution or be a fixed width?

I have not found much at www.uie.com regarding this issue.

A FIXED WIDTH FOR 800 x 600:
Our current site is designed at a fixed width of 750 pixels. Studies show that users prefer shorter lengths of screen text, hence our text lines are no longer than 420 pixels wide.

A SCALABLE WIDTH OF 800 x 600 to 1024 x 768:
We are considering changing to a “liquid” design and letting the user decide what width they would like the content displayed. This would not be a problem for “power” users, but I am concerned that some of our users (the elderly and low literacy users) – may not know that they can manipulate content width.

Readability and comprehension of our content is more important than speed. What do you recommend?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten this question. For years and years and years. It just won’t die.

For better or worse, here was my answer:

The reason we don’t talk to much about this on our site is that it’s far more important to focus on having the right content on your site.

In other words, no company has ever gone bankrupt because they chose the wrong width screen. However, many of the dot com failures can be tied to having poor content on their site.

To ensure you have the right content and that it’s presented in the right way, you’ll need to spend a lot of time with your users. As a side-benefit of spending that time with your users, you’ll see how they react to the layout of your page. If your screen width is wrong, this will be very clear to you, almost immediately.

Therefore, my recommendation is that you focus on ensuring you have the right content and make sure you have allocated the resources to find out if your design decisions are working for your users. I promise you that screen width will quickly become an unimportant issue.

Good luck with your design.

9 Responses to “The Question that Won’t Die: Optimal Screen Resolution?”

  1. Small Initiatives - Sensible Internet Design » Screen size? Fuhgeddaboudit, Spool says Says:

    […] Jared Spool offers his take on the debate over designing for common denominators in screen resolution. […]

  2. Derek Says:

    Assuming a website’s content is already perfect, what are the drawbacks to redeveloping a site for a 1024 screen resolution? I’m guessing a lot of people are struggling with this question and will continue to do so for the next few years.

    Granted, this probably isn’t going to make or break a site, but neither are many other design decisions.

  3. Jared Spool Says:

    Assuming a website’s content is already perfect, what are the drawbacks to redeveloping a site for a 1024 screen resolution?

    Sites with perfect content are hard to come by, so that’s a huge assumption.

    But, letting our imagination believe that’s possible, I would think the downside of 1024 width only comes when you’ve got windows less than 1024. More and more, we’re seeing that users don’t open their browser windows to full width.

    Granted, this probably isn’t going to make or break a site, but neither are many other design decisions.

    Yes, but one of the things we have to worry about is the death of a thousand cuts. When we study sites, it is far more likely we’ll see users give up because of a compendium of issues, no one issue being serious.

    On the other hand, if the content is just perfect, maybe users won’t care about the width…

  4. Raoul Mengis Says:

    … the best solution is not 800×600 or 1024×768
    USE “ELASTIC PAGE” with CSS and Xhtml1.1
    Sample:

    http://www.sionpassion.ch
    http://www.fullygrandcru.ch
    http://www.benoit-dorsaz.ch

    Visibility on all sizes of screens : PC, PDA(s), mobile phones.
    For more info: 1Work

  5. Chris Cavallucci Says:

    The DotNetNuke portal provides tools to let the *user* decide what layout to use. Visit http://www.dotnetnuke.com/ and click on the display symbols in the upper right corner near the text resize controls. Clever!

  6. Jeroen Coumans Says:

    Stating that a site requires great content is kind of stating the obvious. I think the only ‘right’ answer to that question is: “it depends”. The website’s (intended) audience, their (current|target) knowledge is the proper context to determine the answer. And the only way to find that out is by researching your audience.

  7. Jared Spool Says:

    Jeroen wrote:

    Stating that a site requires great content is kind of stating the obvious. I think the only ‘right’ answer to that question is: “it depends”.

    If it’s so obvious, then why doesn’t everyone do it?

    Stay tuned for a future blog our current thinking on the “it depends” answer…

    The website’s (intended) audience, their (current|target) knowledge is the proper context to determine the answer. And the only way to find that out is by researching your audience.

    I’m with you there, 100%! Again, I’ve found you can’t state this too many times.

  8. Jim Says:

    A FIXED WIDTH FOR 800 x 600:
    Our current site is designed at a fixed width of 750 pixels.

    That breaks in many situations, such as when a sidebar is in use.

    A SCALABLE WIDTH OF 800 x 600 to 1024 x 768:
    …I am concerned that some of our users (the elderly and low literacy users) – may not know that they can manipulate content width.

    Why on earth are you concerned about that? If they don’t know, then they leave it as it is, and it works just fine.

  9. Ruckus Says:

    1024 x 768 is okay for me

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