What is “Cross-browser compatibility?”

March 29, 2008

Topics: Usability, Web Development.

Here’s the first clue: it’s not creating a pixel-perfect replication of your ideal version of a site in all browsers.

In fact, cross-browser compatibility ultimately has very little to do with what a web site looks like, and a lot more to do with how it functions. It also has relatively little to do with browsers, and perhaps could better be explained as multiple user-agent compatibility.

“Compatibility” (in this context) is not a term which means “looks and behaves identically” — instead, it may be better described as “performs equivalently under alternative conditions.” But developers and designers tend to most immediately seize upon appearance as the guiding line for cross-browser compatibility.

Of course, let’s be honest: there are a lot of very good reasons for this. Completely disregarding what we may know about the behavior of a site, clients tend to be very visually oriented. They pop their new site open at home one day during development and notice a whole variety of differences which they’re suddenly concerned about. If you’re lucky, they’re opening up Internet Explorer 6 after you’ve gone through the painstaking process of correct its inability to cope with standards-compliant code, rather than before you’ve gotten around to it. That can be awkward…

Another good reason is that despite what I’ve stated above, making the design behave more-or-less identically between different browsers is actually quite desirable. From a usability perspective, a seamless change in interactivity between different user-agents is very desirable. If you’ve ever tried to guide somebody through using a website which delivers a different experience to their browser than to yours, you are intimately familiar with one reason it’s a very bad idea.

But the absolute key to cross-browser compatibility is simply functionality. A lack of cross-browser compatibility doesn’t mean that something looks different; it means that it doesn’t work.

And a good thing, too. Otherwise, compatibility would be pretty well impossible between desktop browsers and mobile browsers. 😉

With web design, it’s occasionally entirely possible to make two browsers render a design exactly the same…if you assume certain factors will remain constant, such as the user settings described in my last post. If any of those have been changed, everything pretty well goes out the window. As desirable as it is to make your designs look as similar as possible between the various desktop browsers, it always has to be acknowledged that there are limits.

There’s nothing at all that you can do to actually guarantee the same view for everybody; instead, you need to guarantee an equivalent view for everybody. Equivalent in that they will be able to get the same information and use the functions of the site to perform the same actions.

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7 Comments on “What is “Cross-browser compatibility?””

  1. What’s the current status of Adobe’s cross browser testing software?

  2. Cross-browser compatibility is somehow entirely different from the multi-browser compatibility.

    Cross-browser refers to the ability for a website, web application, HTML (HyperText Markup Language) construct or client-side script to support all the web browsers. The term cross-browser is often confused with multi-browser. Multi-browser means something works with several web browsers. Cross-browser means something works with all versions of all browsers to have existed since the web began.

    It is petty difficult for a developer to achieve the cross-browser compatibility rather than achieving the multi-browser compatibility.

    Functionality as well as looking of the content on the contemporary web browser is matter, as I think. And as this article says the desktop and mobile browser’s compatibility is petty impossible in today’s scenario.

    Well article is a good stuff on this issue.

  3. Functionality is I think the only thing that matters. I really do not care what things look like exactly. Just that they still work. I can always make things pretty later.

    That is the non-designer programmer in me coming out.

  4. Thanks, Rob! If it’s not broken, no need to fix it, right?

    Of course, clients frequently have very different ideas of what ‘broken’ means…

  5. Couldn’t agree more and I’m glad to see it’s not just me that thinks this way. Just spent the last few weeks re-doing my website. Works beautifully in FF, Opera and Safari, but IE (Internet Explorer) does some weird visual stuff. However, it doesn’t break, so I’ll probably leave it for now.

  6. Thanks, David! It comes from the frustrating experience of working for designers who insist on it — adding hours of work to a project so that a particular band of text appears the same size in Safari and IE (Internet Explorer)….

    Not my preferred way of spending my time! 😉

  7. Thanks for a nice overview of the process, Joe. The task is daunting enough without striving for the pixel perfect layout. Your common sense approach is a breath of fresh air.