How to Design for Different Browsers | 4 | WebReference

How to Design for Different Browsers | 4

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How to Design for Different Browsers

Learning from Browser Statistics

However you gather your statistics, they can tell you some important things about your audience and how they may experience the Web. Consider Table 2-2, which provides a set of browser statistics typical of the end of 2005. These statistics may not necessarily be meaningful as you read this book, but if you are completely unfamiliar with the typical browser breakdowns, these will give you a ballpark idea.

Table 2-2. Browser statistics for December 2005 from The



Microsoft Internet Explorer 6


Microsoft Internet Explorer 5








Opera x.x


Netscape 7


Netscape compatible

< 1%

Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.x

< 1%

Netscape 4.x

< 1%


< 1%

Netscape 6 (and older versions)

< 1%

Once you have statistics in hand, what conclusions can you draw from them? Even statistics as general as those in Table 2-2 provide a jumping off point for thinking about how they might impact design.

The good news is that 99% of browsers in use today support some level of current standards, at least on paper. Unfortunately, the reality is that even browsers with strong standards support have their own quirky implementations and bugs that require developers to jump through hoops, particularly when it comes to CSS, ECMAScript (JavaScript), and the DOM. That's where web design and development can feel like a black art. Techniques for addressing CSS browser bugs are covered in detail in Chapter 25.

As of this writing, the vast majority (83%, according to these statistics; others vary) of web traffic is happening on Windows machines running Internet Explorer 6. That means you cannot afford to ignore its unique behaviors and requirements. For example, knowing that more than 80% of your visitors will not be able to zoom text when its size has been specified in pixel units should influence the way you size text with style sheets. Other examples of Internet Explorer's special needs are listed in Chapter 25.

Version 7 is nearing its final release as of this writing, and IE 6 will eventually fall to second in the rank, but it takes several years for old browser versions to fade from use completely.

Speaking of old browser versions, the statistics above show that browsers such as Netscape 4, originally released in 1997, are still hanging around. In fact, statistics show that there are still a handful of hits from Netscape 2.

With the vast volume of web traffic, even less than 1% could amount to millions of users. If your revenue depends on them, you must continue to keep them in mind and make sure that your site is, at the very least, functional on even the oldest browsers.

What the statistics above do not show us are some important browser developments over time. The most drastic trend, of course, is Microsoft's complete domination of the browser arena. In mid-1997, Netscape Navigator enjoyed a comfortable 70 to 80% of overall browser usage (according to statistic sites such as those listed earlier); by 1998, that share was down to 50%. Now, all versions combined make up just 1%.

It seemed Internet Explorer was unstoppable, that was until 2005, when it suffered its first drop in browser usage to Mozilla's free Firefox browser. There was a grass-roots campaign to promote Firefox ( as an alternative browser to people fed up with IE's security holes. Firefox usage quickly expanded to 5 to 10% of all browser usage (depending on whose stats you use). As of this writing, its rise is slowing. Even so, it has caused Microsoft to recognize the need to improve its security and to continue development of a standalone browser application. Microsoft has plans to integrate web browsing functions so fully into its operating system that browser software as we know it may be obsolete.

How do professional web designers and developers cope with the multitude of browsers and their varying capabilities?

In the past, it required some tough decisions or a lot of extra work. It was common to create multiple versions of a site to ensure similar functionality. Some designers played it safe and avoided any web technology more advanced than basic HTML. On the other end of the spectrum were designers who chose to design cutting edge sites exclusively for the latest version of one specific browser. We can thank the Browser Wars of the late '90s for that chaos.

Web standards—or more important, the fact that the major browser developers have finally started to support them—have simplified the way designers cope with the multitude of browsers in use. Gone are the days of choosing sides or building several versions of the same site. Today, it is possible to create sites that are accessible to 100% of browsers and that look good in the vast majority of them. The trick is following the standards yourself in the way you write, style, and program your content.

Note that I said "possible" in the last paragraph, and not "easy," to create sites for all browsers. As of this writing, the web environment, although inching towards standards compliance, is not there yet. There are still inconsistencies, even in the current browser versions, that require some fancy coding to deliver a consistent cross-browser experience. While we are in this period of transition, there are still some old-school techniques that are common practice or even necessary despite going against W3C recommendations.

Bugs aside, sticking with standards is still the primary tool to ensuring your site is usable for all users on all browsers. Following are some specific strategies for addressing varying browser capabilities.

A Little Help from Authoring Tools

Both Adobe GoLive and Macromedia Dreamweaver provide tools that give you feedback on your design's performance in various browsers. GoLive provides a complete list of browser profiles that change the appearance of the document in the Layout window. Simply select a profile from the View palette and the Layout window simulates how your page will look when viewed with that browser. This can allow you to make certain adjustments in real time, without the need to open multiple browsers for testing.

Dreamweaver has a Check Target Browser feature that checks your code against a list of browser profiles to see if any tags or attributes are unsupported and then generates a report with its findings. To take some of the guesswork out of browser support for scripting, Dreamweaver allows you to set a target browser. Dreamweaver then limits the behaviors you can select to just those supported in that browser. The program also includes built-in functions for performing browser detection.

Dreamweaver users may also be interested in the book Build Your Own Standards Compliant Website Using Dreamweaver 8, by Rachel Andrew (Sitepoint).

It is important to keep in mind that your primary goal on the Web is to communicate. While it may not be possible to make your site look exactly the same on all browsers, you can be sure your content is accessible and usable, at the very least, by following standards recommendations for marking up your content.

Start with good markup

When an HTML document is written in logical order and its elements are marked up in a meaningful way, it will be usable in even Mosaic 1.0 (try it yourself on the Mosaic emulator at Plus, you have to figure that if a visitor is using Netscape 2.0, your page won't look any worse than any other.

Follow accessibility guidelines

The techniques that make your site accessible to people with disabilities also ensure that your site can be viewed on all browsers, including old versions, text-only browsers, and micro-browsers in handheld devices. See Chapter 5 for more information on accessibility.

Now that HTML has resumed the role of providing document structure, Cascading Style Sheets bear the burden of delivering consistent page layouts and formatting. The good news is that the vast majority of browsers support CSS Level 1, so you can do basic text formatting with peace of mind that the majority of your visitors will see it the way you intend.

The bad news is that there are still inconsistencies in the way much of the specification is implemented, even by those browsers who claim full CSS support. So CSS implementation still requires some extra effort to achieve consistent results. In some cases, it is necessary simply to live with one browser displaying items a few pixels off. Remember, the goal is to communicate. A few pixels shouldn't matter.

The specifics of known bugs, limitations, and workarounds are covered in Chapter 25, so I won't go into detail here. But I can show you a general style sheet strategy for addressing the special needs of all browsers. This technique comes from web standards guru Jeffrey Zeldman. In his book, Designing with Web Standards(New Riders), he describes the Best-Case Scenario Design Method.

The crux of the method (in addition to the proper use of XHTML and CSS) is to design for your favorite full-featured, standards-compliant browser. This is a departure from the past practice of checking how pages looked in the lowest common denominator browsers first. Then test your page to make sure it looks and works the same in comparable standards-compliant browsers. If it doesn't look the same, you may need to use some fancy CSS tricks to work out the kinks.

Once you have the design working acceptably in the modern browsers (which are used by the vast majority of users), take a look at it in a noncompliant browser, such as Netscape 4. If it looks okay, you're done. If not, the solution is to separate your style sheet into two separate sheets: one with just the basic CSS features and another with advanced rules features for browsers that understand them. Link the advanced style sheet using @import to hide it from browsers that wouldn't know what to do with it.

Knowing which rules are basic and which are advanced takes research, testing, and practice. With some trial and error, you should be able to design a site that looks the way you want it to in the top-model browsers but still is acceptable in older versions.

The standards that govern web behaviors are the scripting language ECMAScript (so close to JavaScript 1.5 that it is usually just referred to by the less technical sounding moniker, JavaScript) and the Document Object Model (DOM), which defines the components of a web page that can be manipulated.

There is the same good news/bad news scenario for JavaScript and the DOM. Although 99% of compliant browsers profess to support the standards, they are fraught with bugs and inconsistencies. Some browsers do not support certain JavaScript functions. Microsoft has added its own extensions to the DOM that work only in Internet Explorer. And so on.

For the remaining 1% of browsers that do not support the DOM at all (namely Version 4 browsers), there are no simple workarounds. It is usually necessary to serve an alternative version of the page that uses scripting functions those browsers can understand, or to provide an explanatory page without scripts at all that would work on any browser.

Although by following standards-driven development techniques, you ensure that your site is usable for all visitors, you may decide to embrace or steer clear of certain technologies based on knowledge of your audience. Before designing a new site, be sure to spend time up front researching the likely platforms, browsers , technical savviness, and connection speeds of the users you are targeting. If you are redesigning an existing site, spend time with the server logs to analyze past site usage.

There are no browser-support guidelines that can anticipate every design situation; however, the following scenarios should start you thinking:

The final word in the dilemma of designing for a variety of browsers is test! Always test your site on as many browsers, browser versions, and platform configurations as you can get your hands on.

Professional web design firms run their sites through a vigorous quality assurance phase before going "live." They generally keep a bank of computers of varying platforms and processing powers that run as many versions of browsers (including Lynx) as possible.

Another option is to subscribe to a screen capture service such as Browser Cam. For a monthly fee, you can enter the URL of a page you want to check, and Browser Cam creates screen captures of the page in all the operating systems and browsers you select. This makes it easy to see which browsers are having problems without needing to run copies of all of them yourself. Read more at

If you have extremely limited resources, make the site available on a private test site and take a look at it on your friends' computers. You might view it under corporate conditions (a fast Windows machine with a 6.0 browser and a T1 connection), and then visit a friend at home to see the same site on AOL with a 56K modem. (If nothing else, this is a good excuse to get away from your computer and visit your friends.)

Although your pages will certainly look different in different environments, the idea is to make sure that nothing is outright broken and your content is communicated clearly.

Excerpted from Web Design in a Nutshell, 3rd Edition by Jennifer Niederst Robbins. ISBN 0-596-00987-9, Copyright © 2006, 2001, 1999 O'Reilly Media, Inc. All rights reserved.


Created: March 27, 2003
Revised: April 17, 2006