Web typography - in a quandry

It is considered somewhat of a typographic rule that

“Anything from 45 to 75 characters is widely regarded as a satisfactory length of line for a single-column page set in a serifed text face in a text size. The 66-character line (counting both letters and spaces) is widely regarded as ideal. For multiple column work, a better average is 40 to 50 characters.”

What I am musing over is appropriate behaviour for web applications with "liquid layouts" and columns which can contain multiple lines of text.  Essentially the choice boils down to prescribing a value (or range) for the column to fit to, or allowing the text to fill the remaining view port space available, given sensible element spacing.  Perhaps it is better to create a simple pros/cons list and attempt to weigh up the balance in favour of one approach or another.

Pros

  • The end user is completely in control, they can adjust the view port to fit the text to the level of their choosing, a value that they are happy with, which may be very different from the majority.
  • View port space is filled to its maximum potential
  • Vertical scrolling is minimised


Cons

  • Is the end user really in control, sure they can in theory adjust their view port to mold the text pattern to their choosing, but how many users are of that level of competence or can even be bother to tweak their window size?
  • Can cause more fixed elements to look disproportionate to the available space on the extreme width range, e.g. 16:9 monitor wide text columns, mixed with "thin" tables and "thin" images.

Looking at the general case the answer perhaps depends on the nature of the application.  Many websites adopt different approaches for example.  In fact some companies show both approaches for different parts of their site.  Check out Microsoft Support for a fixed column view and then check out MSDN with their ever expanding columns.

In my specific case I believe that the weight is strongly on the Pros side, it is too common for users to not realise they can resize their wide screen view port, legibility and proportionality is improved for the majority of users, and for the minority case of the user who does not gain a significant benefit from the less wide column sizes on their 1920+ pixel width monitor should be considered a small loss to the larger gain.

I have tried to research the proportion of users that run all applications full screen, but have not come up with any research.  When watching people use applications I generally see them run everything full screen unless they are developers.  Even with developers there is a tendency to have more than one monitor so all apps are  for the most part running full screen.  Hey try to work with some applications in anything less than full screen and it is a bit of a struggle, see Visual Studio and SQL Management Studio for my favourite examples (auto-hiding the toolbars does not count ;) ).

Yes perhaps you could go on a moral crusade and not code for the less technical users, but that seems rather a poor separatist mentality that really will not fly within the business world.  Yes we all sometimes wish we could say, "I am sorry you are not competent to use this software", but really we should be admitting that we could have made it better in the first place to avoid any real confusion...

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