Tableless Design Can be a Problem Across Browsers

I think the biggest problem I currently have with tableless design is that it that it can be a problem displaying on different browsers.  Table design has already gone through these growing pains.  I rarely find an issue anymore with a browser or operating system displaying a tabled design inaccurately.  The browser code has been refined over a decade and a half to make rendering HTML pretty consistent.  Tableless design is way behind the curve here.  Browsers rarely render sites exactly the same and tableless design is subject to all the compatibility problems sites used to encounter 10 years ago.

It is common to see rendering mistakes on tableless sites, even ones built by large specialized design firms.  In many cases, it doesn’t bother me. If a picture bumps to the left a few extra pixels, who cares?  The problem is that it can often render so poorly that text gets cut off or overlapped.  That’s a major problem.  That is a problem that can negatively effect the user experience and site conversion. 

Having said all that, designers and developers are getting more savvy at tackling these problems.  The trouble is that it usually requires (what my last post warned of) a stock layout with little variation from other sites or additional coding to render more accurately across platforms and browsers.  Those might not be deal breakers but something to consider.  Extra cose is also a common explanation for increased setup fees.  Usually the problem is that no one can foresee all of these issues.  Even the best designers and developers that test for rendering problems are likely to miss some.  The good news is that the testing can minimize risk of a bad user experience.   The bad news is that some visitors will likely encounter a problem.  I’m not sold that WCC compliance with separate CSS layouts is worth that.  There are few things that compare to a good user experience and site conversion. For me, tableless design is not one of them and often looks like an unnecessary risk.

Tableless Design Seems to Limit Layouts

I am by no means an expert on layouts with tableless design, so this is based on my perspective of the sites I’ve witnessed being produced.  They all have a similar layout.  There is a banner along the top, often a set of links along the right or left, a footer, and a blank area in the middle with content.  The imagery and colors change but the fundamental structure is static.  While there isn’t anything wrong with that, it is limiting.  There also seems to be a standard set of roll over options that tend to pop up.  I suspect this is because many designers are reusing others code in an attempt to be “modern”.  If tableless design does limit layout, it can make a site seem  less professional because of a “template feel”.

I tend to believe that this isn’t actually a problem with the technology but with many designers/developers.  While the structure of the layout seems pretty static (if anyone knows of a unique tableless layout with unconventional or custom layout, please leave it in the comments)  I have to believe that given enough time and expertise that almost any layout could be achieved.  The problem is that many designers/developers want to be tableless and WCC compliant but don’t have the knowledge to build a site like that from scratch.  So they end up using preexisting templates and claiming them as there own.  This is extremely common when a separate blog is created.

Why is this a problem?  The first is that you aren’t getting what you pay for.  Building small customizations on top of a preexisting template is not that challenging.  Furthermore, unless significant testing is done, it might cause layout conflicts down the road.  Finally it makes the site more generic.  Templates have a way of surfacing in a lot of places and it always detracts from a site if people see the layout as a cookie cutter of someone else’s.  Most company’s are carbon copies of their competitor so their site shouldn’t be either.  Especially if they’ve bought a product they believe is custom.  While table design does have draw backs, I’ve seen just about any layout succeed.  The method has had years of innovation where designers and developers can achieve some extremely impressive layouts on the web.

So if you want a tableless design, make sure you understand how the layout will be created and that there might be some restraints on the look.  Is it a custom site or is it a template with a few changes made? Neither choice is necessarily wrong, but you need to understand the pros and cons and should be seeing a discount on any template tweaked site.

Table Design Isn’t Going Away Soon

The first reason offered by web professionals who are unreasonably devoted to tableless design is that table design is outdated.  It’s going to be obsolete within a few years.  While I certainly don’t have a crystal ball, I’m absolutely confident that tabled design isn’t suddenly going to stop working.  Every time I hear this stated, I question whether it is genuinely believed or just a “sales feature/benefit” line.  Table layouts are a way of structuring a web page, not software, so massive changes would need made to the fundamental structure of HTML for them to be obsolete.

Not sure you believe me that tables are not on the way out? Visit some of your favorite sites on the internet.  View the code by right clicking and selecting “View Source”.  Look through there and see if you see any <table> tags. <tr> and <td> tags are also fair signifiers.  I’m willing to bet at least half the sites you encounter will have them. 

Browsers aren’t going to stop supporting table layouts because there are too many sites using it.  Would you use a browser where at least half the webpages you visited didn’t display accurately?  I know I wouldn’t.  The companies that make web browsers strive to make them as universal as possible so people will use them.  It’s not in their best interest to stop supporting a common layout.  Tableless design can make for cleaner code and is a completely valid way of working.  However, if a reason offered is that table layouts are going to be obsolete, beware, you might have an unreasonable fanatic on your hands.