Developing for Nations: The website width question

While it may date me to a certain extent, I remember the short-lived days of having to design a site with a maximum width of 600 pixels. Man, those were ugly days. But, what could you do if someone’s monitor was only 640 pixels wide and you wanted to make sure that with scroll bars and everything else, your site would fit on their screen? You designed for 600 wide, that’s what you did.
In 2000, things quickly changed and 750 became the standard width as you designed for an 800 pixel minimum width screen. Then in 2005, we started to really go nuts and make things 950 wide as the thinking was that most people had a screen that was at least 1024 pixels wide. This day and age, folks are generally pushing 1000 width and sometimes more depending on the market. The trends are quite excellently illustrated in the table below, which you can see in their entirety at the always excellent w3schools.com.

Date Higher 1024×768 800×600 640×480 Unknown
January 2009 57% 36% 4% 0% 3%
January 2008 38% 48% 8% 0% 6%
January 2007 26% 54% 14% 0% 6%
January 2006 17% 57% 20% 0% 6%
January 2005 12% 53% 30% 0% 5%
January 2004 10% 47% 37% 1% 5%
January 2003 6% 40% 47% 2% 5%
January 2002 6% 34% 52% 3% 5%
January 2001 5% 29% 55% 6% 5%
January 2000 4% 25% 56% 11% 4%

Naturally one might ask, “Why not just build a site of flexible width instead of fixed to solve the problem altogether?” I have yet to see any site that expands well. While they may look good at smaller widths, once expanded, they always funk out in my opinion. If anyone has an example that works well, let me know.

Developing for Nations

But I bring this up as a day or two ago, a fellow contacted me asking about the proper screen width for a website that would be focused most entirely on African users. Essentially his organization wanted to try and figure out the ideal width for a site so that it wouldn’t be too wide for users to see on the screens they’re using. It’s a naturally question given that screen widths on a per country basis, not only in Africa, but around the world, are very hard to come by.
It is true that a number of the old website width rules come in to play as a great deal of hardware from North America and Europe ends up in Africa, whether to use or be dangerously recycled and dumped.
Of course the big question to ask, is where in Africa are you talking about? If it’s countries like Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, or others with a burgeoning online community, you can most probably design for 1000px as from what I’ve seen personally, those who are online are using either brand new or relatively new hardware that is not only at least 1024 in width, but often 1200 or more. If you need to take in to account all of Africa, then okay, you probably need to think about things a bit more as undoubtedly there are a number of 800×600 screens still floating around. There might even be some 640×480 tucked away, but I doubt they’d still be functional at this point and there are a lot of newer, wide CRT monitors coming in for those who can’t afford to upgrade due to so many individuals and companies in North America and Europe switching to LCD screens.

The Magic Number is 900

This is the width of this site and the target width of all sites on Maneno. In fact, for most sites I contract to build, I typically aim for 900 in general as it allows the site to show up perfectly fine on anything from the newest monitor down to a 1024 width screen. I mean, for the purposes of this site, over the last month, there were less than 2% of the visitors who had an 800 width screen, none with a 640, 18% with 1024, and the rest (about 78%) with a screen of 1200 pixels or more. Yes, you read that right in that nearly 80% of the users have a width of 1200 pixels or more.
So, while that 2% will have to scroll some of the content, the other 96% will see the site perfectly fine and even have room for it to expand. And that’s the thing as I know a variety of website entities out there have mandates to serve the absolute maximum number of users. For instance the BBC still supports Mac OS 8&9 and Windows 95&98 (their testing lab must have some ugly, dusty boxes in it.) But in trying to slim down your site to reach every single person, you are limiting the possibilities of the website. As an example, you probably will avoid a lot of JavaScript if you have to support old Netscape or Explorer versions. This in turn creates a second-rate product. And why should Africans get a second-rate product?
I’m of the opinion to build websites with the same line of thinking no matter who is the user in that you build for the masses and try to maintain accessibility for those outside what the masses are using. From everything I’m seeing that means that if you’re targeting African users as a whole and not just specific countries, build for 900 and within two years, 1050. The next two years are going to see some massive ICT growth on the continent. I’m going to laugh heartily if some developer in Nairobi is building a site in 2011 and grumbles about having to keep it to 1200 maximum width instead of 1400 in order to support all the users in the US still using old machines.