Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A checklist of minimalistic layout considerations for web applications

As explained in my previous blog post, I used to be quite interested in web technology and spend considerable amounts of time developing my own framework providing solutions for common problems that I used to face, such as layout management and data management.

Another challenge that you cannot avoid is the visual appearance of your web application. Today, there are many frameworks and libraries available allowing you to do impressive things, such as animated transitions, fade in/fade out effects and so on.

Unfortunately, many of these "modern" solutions also have number of big drawbacks -- typically, they are big and complex JavaScript-based frameworks significantly increasing the download size of pages and the amount of required system resources (e.g. CPU, GPU, battery power) to render a page. As a result, it is not uncommon that the download size of many web sites equal the Doom video game and may feel slow and sluggish.

Some people (such as the author of this satirical website) suggest that most (all?) visual aspects are unnecessary and that simply a "vanilla" page displaying information suffices to provide a user what he needs. I do not entirely agree with this viewpoint as many web sites are not just collections of pages but complex information systems. Complex information systems require some means of organizing data including a layout that reflects this, such as menu panels that guide a user through the desired sets of information.

I know many kinds of tricks (and hacks) to implement layouts and visual aspects, but one thing that I am not particularly good at is designing visuals myself. There is a big pool of layout considerations to choose from and many combinations that can be made. Some combinations of visual aspects are good, others are bad -- I simply lack the intuition to make the right choices. This does not apply to web design only -- when I had to choose furniture for my house I basically suffered from the same problem. As a result, I have created (by accident) a couple of things that look nice and other things that look dreadful :-)

Although I have worked with designers, it is not always possible to consult one, in particular for non-commercial/more technical projects.

In this blog post, I have gathered a number of minimalistic layout considerations that, regardless of the objective of the system and the absence of design intuition, I find worth to consider, with some supporting information so that rational decisions can be made. Furthermore, they are relatively simple to apply and do not require any framework.

Text size


A web application's primary purpose is providing information. As a consequence, how you present text is very important.

A number of studies (such as this one by Jakob Nielsen in 1997) show that visitors of web pages do not really read, but scan for information. Although this study was done many years ago it still applies to today's screens, such as tablets and devices that were designed for reading books, such as the Kindle.

Because users typically read much slower from a screen than from paper and hardly read sections entirely, it is a very good idea to pick a font size that is large enough.

In most browsers, the default font size is set to 16 pixels. Studies suggest that this size is all but too small, in particular for high resolution screens that we use nowadays. Moreover, a font size of 16px on modern screens, is somewhat equal to the font size of a (physical) book.

Moreover, CSS allows you to define the font sizes statically or relatively. In my opinion (supported by this article), it is a good practice to use relative font sizes, because it is a good habit to allow users to control the size of the fonts.

For me, typically the following CSS setting suffices:

body
{
    font-size: 100%;
}

Spacing


When I was younger, I had the tendency to put as much information on a page as possible, such as densily written text, images and tables. At some point, I worked with a designer who constantly reminded me that I should keep enough space between page elements.

(As a sidenote: space should not necessarily be white space, but could also be the background color or background gradient. Some designers call this kind of space "negative spacing").

Why is sufficient negative spacing a good thing? According to some sources, filling a page with too many details, such as images, makes it difficult to maintain a user's attention. For example, if a page contains too much graphics or have colors that appear unrelated to the rest of the page, a user will quickly skip details.

Furthermore, some studies suggest that negative spacing is an effective way to emphasize important elements of a page and a very effective way to direct the flow of a page.

From an implementation perspective, there are many kinds of HTML elements that could be adjusted (from the browser's default settings) to use a bit of extra spacing, such as:

  • Text: I typically adjust the line-height to 1.2em increasing the space between each sentence of a paragraph.
  • For divs and other elements that define sections, I increase their margins and paddings. Typically I would set them to at least: 1em.
  • For table and table cells I increase their paddings to 0.5em.
  • For preformatted text: pre I use a padding value of at least 1em.
  • For list items (entries of an unordered or ordered list) I add a bit of extra spacing on top, e.g. li { margin: 0.2em 0; }.

Some people would argue that the above list of adjustments are still quite conservative and even more spacing should be considered.

Font color/foreground contrast


Another important thing is to pick the right foreground colors (such as the text color) and ensure that they have sufficient contrast -- for example, light grey colored text on a white background is very difficult for users to read.

In most browsers, the default setting is to have a white background and black colored text. Although this color scheme maximizes contrast, too much contrast also has a disadvantage -- it maximizes a user's attention span for a while, but a user cannot maintain such a level of attention indefinitely.

When displaying longer portions of text, it is typically better to lower the contrast a bit, but not too much. For example, when I want to display black colored text on a white background, I tune down the contrast a bit by setting the text color to dark grey: #444; as opposed to black: #000; and the background color to very light grey: #ddd; as opposed to white: #fff;.

Defining panels and sections


A web application is typically much more than just a single page of content. Typically, they are complex information systems displaying many kinds of data. This data has to be to be divided, categorized and structured. As a result, we also need facilities that guide the users through these sets of information, such as menu and content panels.

Creating a layout with "panels" turns out to be quite a complex problem, for which various kinds of strategies exist each having their pros and cons. For example, I have used the following techniques:

  • Absolute positioning. We add the property: position: absolute; to a div and we use the left, right, top and bottom properties to specify the coordinates of the top left and bottom right position of the panel. As a result, the div automatically gets positioned (relative to the top left position of the screen) and automatically gets a width and height. For the sections that need to expand, e.g. the contents panel displaying the text, we use the overflow: auto; property to enable vertical scroll bars if needed.

    Although this strategy seems to do mostly what I want, it also has a number of drawbacks -- the position of the panels is fixed. For desktops this is usually fine, but for screens with a limited height (such as mobile devices and tablets) this is quite impractical.

    Moreover, it used to be a big problem when Internet Explorer 6 was still the dominant browser -- IE6 did not implement the property that automatically derives the width and height, requiring me to implement a workaround stylesheet using JavaScript to compute the width and heights.
  • Floating divs is a strategy that is more friendly to displays with a limited height but has different kinds of challenges. Basically, by adding a float property to each panel, e.g. float: left; and specifying a width we can position columns next to each other. By using a clear hack, such as: <div style="clear: both;"></div> we can position a panel right beneath another panel.

    This strategy mostly makes sense despite the fact that the behaviour of floating elements in somewhat strange. One of the things that is very hard to solve is to create a layout in which columns have an equal height when their heights are not known in advance -- someone has written a huge blog post with all kinds of strategies. I, for example, implemented the "One True Layout Method" (a margin-padding-overflow hack) quite often.
  • Flexbox is yet another (more modern) alternative and the most powerful solution IMO so far. It allows you to consicely specify the how divs should be positioned, wrapped and sized. The only downside I see so far, is that these properties are relatively new and require very new implementations of browser layout engines. Many users typically do not bother that much to upgrade their browsers, unless they are forced.

Resolution flexibility (a.k.a. responsive web design)


When I just gained access to the Internet, nearly all web page visitors used to be desktop users. Today, however, a substantial number of visitors use different kinds of devices, having small screens (such as phones and tablets) and very big screens (such as TVs).

To give all these visitors a relatively good user experience, it is important to make the layout flexible enough to support many kinds of resolutions. Some people call this kind of flexibility responsive web design, but I find that term somewhat misleading.

Besides the considerations shown earlier, I also typically implement the following aspects in order to become even more flexible:

  • Eliminating vertical menu panels. When we have two levels of menu items, I typically display the secondary menu panel on the left on the screen. For desktops (and bigger screens) this is typically OK, but for smaller displays it eats too much space from the section that displays the contents. I typically use media queries to reconfigure these panels in such a way that the items on these menu panels are aligned horizontally by default and, when the screen width is big enough, they will be aligned vertically.
  • Making images dynamically resizable. Images, such as photos in a gallery, may be too big to properly display on a smaller screen, such as a phone. Fortunately, by providing the max-width setting we can adjust the style of images in such a way that their maximum width never exceeds the screen size and their dimensions get scaled accordingly:

    img
    {
        max-width: 100%;
        width: auto;
        height: auto;
    }
    
  • Adding horizontal scroll bars, when needed. For some elements, it is difficult to resize them in such a way that they never exceed the screen width, such as sections of preformatted text which I typically use to display code fragments. For these kinds of elements I typically configure the overflow-x: auto; property so that horizontal scroll bars appear when needed.

Picking colors


In addition to the text and the background colors, we may also want to pick a couple of additional colors. For example, we need different colors for hyperlinks so that it becomes obvious to users what is clickable and what not, and whether a link has already been visited or not. Furthermore, providing distinct colors for the menu panels, headers, and buttons would be nice as well.

Unfortunately, when it comes to picking colors, my intuition lets me down completely -- I do not know what "nice colors" are or which colors fit best together. As a result, I always have a hard time making the right choices.

Recently, I discovered a concept called "color theory" that lets you decide, somewhat rationally, what colors to pick. The basic idea behind color theory is that you pick a base color and then apply a color scheme to get a number of complementary colors, such as:

  • Triadic. Composed of 3 colors on separate ends of the color spectrum.
  • Compound. One color is selected in the same area of the color spectrum and two colors are chosen from opposite ends of the color spectrum.
  • Analogous. Careful selection of colors in the same area of the color spectrum.

A particular handy online tool (provided by the article shown above) is paletton that seems to provide me good results -- it supports various color schemes, has a number of export functions (including CSS) and a nice preview function that shows you what a web page would look like if you apply the generated color scheme.

Unfortunately, I have not found any free/open-source solutions or a GIMP plugin allowing me to do the same.

Printing


Something that is typically overlooked by many developers is printing. For most interactive web sites this not too important, but for information systems including reservation systems, it is also a good practice to implement proper printing support.

I consider it to be a good practice to hide non-relevant panels, such as the menu panels:

@media only print
{
    #header, #menu
    {
        display: none;
    }
}

Furthermore, it is also a good practice to tune down the amount of colors a bit.

A simple example scenario


As an experiment to test the above listed concerns (e.g. text-size, foreground contrast, using paletton to implement color theory and NOT trusting my intuition), I ended up implementing the following "design":

This is what it looks on a desktop browser:


For printing, the panels and colors are removed:


The page is even functional in a text oriented browser (w3m):


By using media queries, we can adjust the positioning of the sub menu to make more space available for the contents panel on a mobile display (my Android phone):


The layout does not look shiny or fancy, but it appears functional to me, but hey, don't ask me too much since I simply lack the feeling for design. :-)

In my previous blog post, I have described my own custom web framework for which I released a number additional components. I have also implemented an example repository with simple demonstration applications. I have decided to use my "rationally crafted layout" to make them look a bit prettier.

Conclusion


In this blog post, I have gathered a collection of minimalistic layout considerations for myself that, regardless of the objective of a web application, I find worth to consider. Moreover, these concerns can be applied mostly in a rational way, which is good for people like me who lack design intuition.

Although I have described many aspects in this blog post, applying the above considerations will not produce any fancy/shiny web pages. For example, you can implement many additional visual aspects, such as rounded corners, shadows, gradients, animated transitions, fade-ins and fade-outs, and so on.

Moreover, from writing this blog post I learned a thing or two about usability and HTML/CSS tricks. However, I again observed that the more you know, the more you realize that you do not know. For example, there are even more specialized studies available, such as one about the psychology of colors that, for example, shows that women prefer blue, purple, and green, and men prefer blue, green, and black.

This, however, is where I draw the line when it comes to learning design skills and made me realize why I do not prefer to become a front-end/design specialist. Knowing some things about design is always useful, but the domain is much deeper and complex than I initially thought.

The only thing that I still like to do is finding additional, simple, rationally applicable design considerations. Does anyone have some additional suggestions for me?

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