Choice Part 5: Pushing the boundaries?

Edge Hill weren’t the only people to launch a website redesign in the last week. On Monday, the BBC News website had it’s biggest redesign in years. Personally, I quite like the new design but they’ve come under a lot of flak for certain decisions.

Martin Belham blogged 60% of commenters hate the new BBC News design. I’ve read a number of the comments and it’s no exaggeration to say that some people are very unhappy!

There are certain similarities between our new design and BBC News so why did we make the decisions we did?

First up is the move to designing for larger screens. Our old homepage design was fixed width to fit on screens 800 pixels wide. Our new design fills the screen at 1024 pixels wide. Why the change? Over the last few years there has been a massive growth in adoption of LCD screens – these almost all have a native resolution of 1024 or above. Less than 4% of visitors have a screen resolution of 800×600 and that’s going down all the time. On the other hand, over half our users have resolutions above 1024 pixels wide leading to an inefficient use of space.

Homepage 800 pixels wideSo we decided that our design should be aimed at 1024, and after some vigorous internal debate, that we should use some JavaScript magic to create a version for 800×600 as well. So if you’re one of the 3.72% of users with a low resolution, you’ll find that the homepage design is slightly different to normal.

The wider design allows us to add more to the page, but why not design for fluid widths? Fluid layouts are where the web page expands to fill the size of your browser window. We’ve used this technique on content pages and you can still see it on, for example, Faculty pages which aren’t yet in the new template. The theory behind fluid layouts is sound – the user controls how the page looks – but in practice it’s difficult for developers and designers, especially where pages are dynamically generated.

Choosing which browsers to support was also a difficult decision for us. There is a careful balance between providing the best user experience for the majority of people or catering for the long tail. The majority of visitors use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Over two thirds of IE users are now using version 7 and usage of IE 6 is dropping every month.

So quite late on in the development process we decided to downgrade support for IE 6 to make browsing the site more reliable. The entire site is still accessible but some visual effects are missing. We may be able to reintroduce some of these in the coming weeks, but I would urge anyone still running IE6 to upgrade either to version 7, or another browser such as Firefox, Opera or Safari.

Speaking of Safari, the site also works best with version 3 which despite Apple’s slightly questionable deployment techniques is actually a very good web browser.

I’ll leave it there for now. If you have any comments on the new design, leave a comment, even if you think we’re “turning the Web into a Fisher-Price wonderland for simpletons” 🙂