How to Pick the Best Layout Width for a Website
Every website has a core audience. That audience may consist of a group of users that are all technically savvy, or literally all users who access the Internet at any given time. This discrepancy places a burden on all web designers to create an interactive experience that is pleasing and usable to their core audience.
I define a core audience as a majority of users that are above the 5% mark. I use this measurement to make important decisions about how I present information. Presentation includes design, layout, navigation, processes, and also screen resolutions. Which brings us to one of the most common debates and decisions in web design – what’s the best screen width for websites?
There are different schools of thought on this issue. Some purists believe that websites should be designed to fit the screen width of any resolution, and they usually opt to design a layout that stretches with the browser. The problem with this approach is that not all layouts look good using that technique, and the disparity between screen resolutions can be significant – from 800-600 to 1400-1050. Also, click through rates (CTRs) of ads can decrease when they appear disjointed or separated from an ever changing dynamic layout.
The most common choice among web designers is to build a fixed width layout – especially since it allows designers to better control the presentation of the content and strategically placed advertising. One of the most frustrating parts of building a fixed layout is deciding on the actual width. Traditionally, there have been two choices, 800px or 1024. The preferences for many designers is to go with the wider layout. The idea is that more content can be presented horizontally, and there’s a belief that most people are using a minimum of a 1024-768 screen resolution. In other words, there’s a common assumption that most users outside of the core audience (+-5%) are the only users that have screen resolutions at 800-600.
For many websites that’s true. For example, users with a screen resolution of 800-600 don’t seem to visit the Sitening website at all. In fact, the top 10 resolutions that are being used to access sitening.com are all well above 800px.
Unfortunately, assumptions and guesses aren’t enough when picking the best fixed width screen resolution for a website. FamilyResource.com offers an excellent example of the exception. FamilyResource.com’s core audience is women, many of which include career oriented and stay-at-home mothers. Many of these women still access the Internet on old computers with small 14 inch CRT screens, and operate their computer with a screen resolution at 800-600. In fact, over 20% of users that access FamilyResource.com have a screen resolution of 800-600 – well above the +-5% threshold. If FamilyResource.com had been designed for screen resolutions that were 1024, then 1 out of 5 visitors would end up having a poor user experience, and would probably never return to the website.
It’s essential to know the core audience of a website when deciding on a layout width. The use of website statistics, along with a keen understanding of who will be using the website, are a web designers best tools for choosing an appropriate width for their layout.