Providing the same UI across browsers

As a web designer and e-learning course developer, I often grapple with the notion of making my products appear the same in every browser. I’m not opposed to the idea that you should make your work look (almost) identical in every browser. After all, you’re promoting a specific design aesthetic and the last thing you want is for a browser to dictate what you can and can’t do, especially browsers you don’t even like. (I’m looking at you, IE6.)

But it’s never as simple as we’d like. Internet Explorer has that crazy CSS box model. Older versions of Firefox and Safari don’t support border-radius or RGBa.  Mac browsers use completely different scrollbars and form elements than Windows and Linux browsers. For that matter, scrollbars and form elements in Windows 2000 look completely different than XP, Vista, and Windows 7.

This is one of the reasons Flash has become so popular — it allows designers to standardize their RIA‘s UI elements across browsers.

The latest salvo in the war for controlling your browser’s look and feel is Jilion’s SublimeVideo, an HTML5 video playback system that ensures your video has the same controller across browsers. It bypasses the browser’s built-in controller in favor of Jilion’s (very slick) custom controller. Jilion’s blog states (emphasis mine):

We aim at delivering a modern and simple video-embedding solution for web developers that provides the same user experience and uniform UI across browsers.

Jilion’s work comes from the same school of thought that led designers/developers to change the look and feel of other built-in browser components such as radio buttons and checkboxes. (Guilty!)

While looking at Jilion’s fine handiwork, I was struck by a thought: If a person uses a particular browser regularly, they will be accustomed to that browser’s native controls — whether it’s for video or drop-down menus in forms — and might be thrown off by the custom controls. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea to create a homogeneous video controller for all browsers.

After all, why does a Firefox user need to have the same experience as a Chrome user? Why does an Opera user need to have the same experience as an Internet Explorer or Safari user? These people have probably never seen what a webpage looks like in a different browser, anyway. What benefit do site visitors really receive from “a uniform UI across browsers”?

If you change the default controls to match the look and feel of something your visitor has never seen before, you run the risk of creating confusion, distrust, or alienation. Even worse, if the controls are poorly made or conceived — and many are — you might make your site less usable. A cardinal sin.

The more I think about it, the real beneficiaries of a uniform UI across browsers aren’t the site visitors, but rather the designers who demand artistic control and the clients who insist the product looks the same everywhere, without understanding that it’s okay (even expected) to have some differences.

Personally, I realized 100% uniformity is an unnecessary hardship when I began adopting HTML5 and CSS3 features into pipwerks.com last year. These new features are still not supported in all browsers, and essentially forced me to give up IE6 support. (pipwerks.com uses Andy Clarke’s handy Universal IE6 stylesheet for IE6.)

I’ve come to grips with the notion that my site’s design won’t look the same in Opera 9 or IE7/8 because those browsers don’t support border-radius. My design is simple enough that the general impression is preserved across browsers, but people who use certain browsers will see a slightly less refined product. This is a-ok with me.

It should also be noted that growth in the mobile market appears to be shifting perceptions about consistency between browsers, too. Most major sites have a “mobile edition” which will look quite different than the standard website, and is most likely geared to look great on an iPhone and so-so in all other mobile devices.

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