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.