Archive for February, 2009

PHP – What Is It Good For?

So, interested in using PHP for your website? You are making a smart move. PHP is great for a relatively small and simple website like mine (say between 10 and 100 pages) and offers easy implementation of:

  1. Including template files. This allows you to have one file that you can pull in on your site at anytime in any place. A simple and common implementation of this is to write one file that includes the header, and another file for the footer. I use this on my own site.
  2. Storing data in array files. This is a great way of displaying different content on a simple template page. For example, on my site, I have one file that lays out what the page will look like in my photography section, and then another file that has different content for different photographs. Only 2 files can create an endless number of pages!
  3. A simple and functional formmail script. This can allow users and/or customers to fill out a form, sending an email to a specified account. This helps your users easily get in touch with you.

It is important to realize what PHP actually does before you use it. PHP is a server side scripting language. That means that the code you write in your files are interpreted by the server before it reaches the user. This is different from client side scripting languages like Javascript where the code reaches the user, and is then implemented. Usually, the PHP will be read by the server, and it will output plain markup or HTML. This is great because it doesn’t rely on your users’ browsers to do anything. Some users turn off Javascript which can be a problem if you use javascript to include certain code in your files.

Soon, I’ll write a post on simple code to get started on some of these uses of PHP. If you’ve never coded anything other than HTML/CSS before, then PHP will be a much different step because it uses logic statements. However, if you’ve ever coded anything with logic (C+, Java, ASP.NET, Javascript, Visual Basic, etc.) then PHP won’t be that hard to pick up.

Cross Browser Testing

If you are making a website, you absolutely need to test it across browsers. This need increases even more when you use CSS heavily for your layout and other styling. Why you ask? Well, different browsers read CSS differently. In particular, Internet Explorer (IE) is awful because Microsoft doesn’t feel the need to ascribe to web standards. So here are some suggestions to get your started with your cross-browser testing:

1. Download every major browser to test your site in. Essentially, you should be working with Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, and Opera. Opera is used by about 3% of internet users, and is the least common of the five mentioned here. There are also other browsers, but usually you need to stop somewhere, and I think Opera is a good place to end.

It might help to set yourself up with Google Analytics so you can know what percentage of your users are using what browsers. It will even break it down further into what version your users have, which brings me to my next point.

2. Make sure to test both IE7 and IE6. Internet explorer 6 and 7 are vastly different. Soon, IE8 will be out of beta testing and will be yet another version that needs to be tested. This is the biggest pain you’ll encounter. IE7 is actually pretty good at complying with web standards, but IE6 is like a death trap. The problem here is obviously you are only allowed to have one version of Internet Explorer on your browser at any given time. So, either install a virtual machine (much to techie for myself) or keep setup files for both IE6 and IE7 around, and just uninstall and reinstall (which is annoying, but it does the trick). Why must we go through such painful agony just to make sure our site looks good? Well, sadly, too many PC users don’t let Windows automatically update for them, leaving about 25% of IE users still with version 6. This is of course sensitive to the date of this post and will slowly decrease. Overall, in the past 6 months, I’ve found users of my company’s website go from about 18% IE6 users to 14%, which isn’t even statistically significant. Bottom line, test in both because they are vastly different!

3. Try out some of the free cross-browser compatibility testing tools out there. There are a lot of them, but most just want your money, and most aren’t very great if they are free. Short of shelling out some money, your best bet is probably browsershots.org. However, last I checked they limit you to one page (with every browser imaginable though). However, this requires you to have your site live when you test, whereas installing the browsers on your computer allows you to test offline.

4. Keep an eye out for common errors with specific browsers. The more you test, the better feel you’ll get for the flaws of different browsers. You’ll learn that the default margin on paragraph tags is different in IE than it is in other browsers. You’ll learn that min-height and min-width attributes do not function on IE6. As you come to figure out these flaws, you’ll be able to preempt them by writing clean and efficient CSS. This doesn’t completely eliminate the need to cross-browser test, but it certainly will make the process go a lot quicker.

When I was studying at CMU, I learned the mantra of usability research, “The user is not like me”. It is so true that it’s cliche, but it also applies to web design. You just can’t assume that your users see the same thing as what you see unless you go about finding out how they see it! Different browsers display code differently. Account for all your users or suffer the consequence and lose some of them to layout bugs…

The Pros and Cons of Tables

When I started my job as a fulltime web designer, I discovered that my boss used tables for everything. This wasn’t that surprising considering he is a back end developer as opposed to a front end designer. I of course yelled at him (in my mind so as not to get fired) about how horrible tables are. Since then, I’ve settled more in the middle, and I figured I should offer my two cents on the debate of Tables Versus CSS for layout purposes.

First let’s take a look at the oh-so-obvious faults of tables, and why these cons are such an issue.

Con 1. Tables are incredibly rigid. Short of moving the content from one cell to another, changing the layout of anything within your table is incredibly difficult. Especially since you won’t want your layout to look like it uses a table, you’ll end up with rowspans and colspans everywhere.

Con 2. Table code can get messy. If you use tables for all your layout, then you’ll end up with nested tables all over the place. The code becomes hard to read, and almost impossible to edit.

Con 3. Tables have different default settings in different browsers. If you want your site to look the same no matter what browser your user is viewing it through, then you’ll have to go through at set padding, margin, border, et cetera to the values you want them to be. This is a hassle because of all the tags associated with tables. You’ve got table, tr, th, and td. Mind you, even if you don’t use tables, you should be setting default CSS values anyway to avoid cross-browser issues.

Con 4. Tables increase the size of your files. That’s right. Tables just often require more code. Even though the difference in load time for most people is negligable, it is still something to consider.

Alright, and now the benefits of tables, and why it is important to set aside your bias against tables and accept these pros.

Pro 1. Tables can be very helpful for certain design elements. Take rounded corners of any box for example. Though you’ll need anywhere between 1 and 8 images to make a rounded corner box (1 if the box does not need to expand, 3 if it expands in one direction, and 8 if it expands in two), tables will make the implementation of this a lot easier. Of course, you can use divs for this, but you won’t need to edit this table, just the content and images inside. Divs can float incorrectly in different browsers, ruining your rounded corner box, but the table won’t break.

Pro 2. Tables are great when you need to show… tables. That’s right, sometimes the best way to display information is in a table, and obviously the best way to implement that in the web is using… you guessed it, a table!

Pro 3. Tables make certain difficult CSS issues much easier. With tables, you can easily vertically center text, or ensure that two separate sentences of text will always appear next to each other horizontally. Obviously, there are tricks in CSS around this anyway. To vertically center a line of text, you can set the line-height to the same pixel height as the div it is in. So clearly, there is always a way around this problem.

When it comes down to it, every pro or con you find for tables doesn’t really matter. For every pro, using a little CSS magic, you can work around it. For every con, using a little effort or time can work around it too.

In the end, using floating divs is a much safer route to go for your layout. You can change the location of content very easily, your code will be cleaner, and make more sense logically when reading through it. But don’t knock down tables. Use tables for your overarching page layout (header, body, footer for example). These things won’t change as much, so tables are a clean and safe solution. Basically, tables aren’t 100% evil or amazing. Use them when appropriate, and don’t overdo it, and you’ll be just fine.