29 Mar 2012 Spacer Web development and the laws of the virtual world
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Web development and the laws of the virtual world

As a user, we believe a website should work. We don't care how or where we're viewing it from - our computers, phones, a tablet; it should just work. If it doesn't work - if its core functionality is inhibited - we lose faith in the brand. Our chances of returning to that website are slim.

...and if it does work, we don't even notice it, because in this age, we just expect it to.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke, "Profiles of The Future"


As developers, we need to make the unnoticeable magic happen, within the laws of the virtual world. We believe that users shouldn't be hindered by the device they choose to view a website through.

In a perfect world, devices would view the web in the same way. There would be one browser to rule them all. A web developer naively dreams of this day, in the same way a physicist dreams of the Theory of Everything. A single browser would give us one set of rules to build to.

In reality, there are many browsers, attempting to best each other with the way they present the web. There's a multitude of devices and operating systems, further complicating the way things as simple as text displays.

We cannot count on users having a particular browser, or never viewing the website in multiple ways. The opposite in fact; we want those return visits, we want them to visit our site from home, work, and from their phones on the daily commute. We need to make the web work for them, so they don't even notice it's working for them.

So, how does one make the same website work in so many different ways? Careful planning, and vigorous testing during development to make a website as cross-browser1 compatible as possible. All browsers, both Mac and PC versions, Android, iPhone, iPad. Test on each, adjust to suit.

But, adjust what?

Like every other aspect of the web, the application of cross-browser compatibility measures have evolved over time. Due to the sheer number of devices and browsers one is required to support in order to make the magic happen - and due to new devices constantly being released to add to the mix - the mindset is in flux.

The flux state can be (very generally) narrowed down to two mindsets;

  1. Those who believe a website should look exactly the same on every device.
  2. Those who believe a website should function on every device.

A balance is found, leaning either way, depending on the underlying goal of the project. Websites need to be both functional and beautiful, or people won't like visiting them.

As a web developer, I am inclined to believe in method two. A website should function, before all else. To better explain my school of thought, an analogy:

Let's build a bridge. Architects, engineers, and a multitude of other people, all with varying goals and skillsets, touch the project during its evolution and eventual build.

Now let's imagine a moment in time where there is a challenge. The engineers advise the project managers that if the bridge is built using a particular design feature, it will shake dangerously in high winds, scaring and potentially injuring anyone on it at the time. They advise the design feature be dropped, and support struts be put in its place for added stability. The architects aren't happy - why can't the engineers make their version work? By removing it, they are hindering the emotional response the architects intend to express in that design feature. To counter, engineers cite the laws of the physical world; the parameters that they are required to work between.

So, a decision must be made. This is, in my opinion, when it's important to address the reason for building the bridge. It needs to join two banks of a river. It needs to be used by people, so it is required that the bridge be safe without anyone having to question its safety. In addressing the purpose of the bridge, we also find an underlying user-generated emotional response in amongst the functionality. Safety.

Through this we find our answer. What is the point of this bridge if it can't achieve its underlying reason for existing in the first place?

These are the questions developers ask constantly. We are the engineers, and we cite the laws of the virtual world to explain what is and isn't possible, what is and isn't advisable, what will function and what will hinder the online experience.

Pick what's most important to your users

A website is like a bridge; connecting your users from one side of the computer to your brand. Many parties are involved with its creation, each with their own set of rules to guide their decisions, which will lead to inevitable conflicts of mindset.

But within each challenge lies an opportunity to reassess the project's goal. With the user in mind, you will find that the resolution to the challenge is easier to come by than you think.

1 Cross-browser on Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross-browser.

POSTED IN Tips and Tricks / CMS / Strategy

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