Web usability and the search for the perfect blog template

In addition to exploring the nature of mastery itself, this blog is a way for me to continue my own pursuit of mastery in the technology and techniques of blogging (believe me, I’m still learning). When I decided to make the switch to WordPress, I realized that even though I had learned a lot about the technology behind blogging while using Blogger, in many ways I was going to be starting over. Not the least of my concerns was the selection of the right template.

I first got involved in web design in 1997. Of all reading and researching I did when I was first learning, the lessons that stuck with me most were from Jakob Nielsen and his website useit.com. Nielsen’s guidelines appealed to me because of their minimalist nature, with an emphasis on the content and easy navigation over flashy graphics and complicated sites. This was due partly to the audience I was designing for – technophobes who were not overly happy about having to use the web at all – and partly to my own personal preferences. To this day, I still subscribe to Nielsen’s Alertbox newsletter and have his book Designing Web Usability readily available on my desk (right next to George Leonard‘s Way of Aikido and Bruce Schneier‘s Beyond Fear).

One of the key lessons I remember is that of making the pages somewhat screen-resolution independent. Or, in Nielsen’s words:

Fighting frozen layouts seems a lost battle, but it’s worth repeating: different users have different monitor sizes. People with big monitors want to be able to resize their browsers to view multiple windows simultaneously. You can’t assume that everyone’s window width is 800 pixels: it’s too much for some users and too little for others.

Nielsen updated that guideline in today’s Alertbox:

One of the most frequently asked questions in my Web usability course is “What screen resolution should we design for?” The full answer is a bit tricky, but the basic advice is clear:

  • Do not design solely for a specific monitor size because screen sizes vary among users. Window size variability is even greater, since users don’t always maximize their browsers (especially if they have large screens).
  • Use a liquid layout that stretches to the current user’s window size (that is, avoid frozen layouts that are always the same size).
  • Optimize for 1024×768, which is currently the most widely used screen size. Of course, the general guideline is to optimize for your target audience’s most common resolution, so the size will change in the future. It might even be a different size now, if, say, you’re designing an intranet for a company that gives all employees big monitors.

Currently, about 60% of all monitors are set at 1024×768 pixels. In comparison, only about 17% use 800×600 so it’s obviously less important to aim at perfection for these small-display users. What’s equally obvious, however, is that you can’t simply ignore 17% of your customer segment by providing a frozen layout that requires more screen space than they have available.

When looking for a WordPress template, I kept many of these things in mind. After a quick search, I came across Scott Wallick’s “experiment out of control” plaintxt.org. I was originally planning to use his PlainTxtBlog template, which is nice, but was actually looking for something even more minimalist. As I was finally getting this site up and running, I saw that Scott had released the Minimalist Sandbox and knew that I’d found what I was looking for. In fact, I fit quite well Scott’s stated audience:

This theme is for (a) those who want a truly minimalist theme, and (b) those who want a simple theme with varying layouts to play with while developing something new.

I realize that this level of ‘simplicity’ in a theme isn’t for everyone, and in fact I’m not sure you can call it a ‘theme’ at all. For other projects I will not be so minimalist. To be perfectly honest, I’m not really expecting (or hoping) for a lot of visitors to the site itself but rather am hoping to get people to use RSS or e-mail feeds to keep up to date. Maybe that’s not the best way to set it up, but it is an experiment I’m interested in seeing the outcome from.