Dealing with Browser Differences

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 functionality. Some designers played it safe and avoided any web technology more advance then basic HTML. On the other end of the spectrum were designers who chose to design cutting edge 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 ate 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.

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 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 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 non compliant browser, such as Netscape 4. If it is 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 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.

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