In the course of a discussion about fixed v fluid width layouts for web pages, I dared to make the comment that fixed width design can actually be a usability bonus in some cases – something which is close to heresy among web design purists. As I pointed out, most web users are non-technical, and most non-technical users don’t like having to resize their browser windows in order to avoid text columns being too wide to read. At which point, someone else, who seemed to have misunderstood the point I was making, chipped in with:
People heavily into the graphic arts like large fixed widths.
Which, of course, is one of the reasons why people who are heavily into the graphic arts almost always make very poor web designers 🙂
I’m not arguing for preferring fixed widths over fluid widths, at all. I am arguing for the inclusion of fixed widths in the web designer’s toolbox, to be used where appropriate, but that’s a somewhat different argument. On the whole, I prefer fluid designs and would use one in preference to a fixed width design unless the fixed width gave me some clear benefit in usability in that particular context. But it’s that word “usability” in there which is the key. My real argument is simply this:
In web design, usability trumps everything.
And that’s it. Usability is more important than visual appeal. Usability is more important than doctrinaire adherence to fluid or fixed widths. Usability is more important than winning awards.
Usability is more important than validation. Usability is more important than SEO. Usability is more important than cool new Web 2.0 features. Usability is more important than whether your site is hosted on Linux or Windows. Usability is more important than, well, you name it, really.
That’s not to say that none of these matter at all. On the contrary, they matter a lot. But the reason they matter is because they contribute to usability, if done right. Good visual design makes a site more usable. Valid, semantic HTML and CSS makes a site more usable. Good, human-centred SEO makes a site more usable. Ajax and Web 2.0 features can make a site more usable. So long as what you’re doing contributes to usability, then it’s worth doing. But the moment you take your eyes off usability and start doing things for their own sake, then you’re missing it completely.