Will Page Zoom Prove Relative Units Less Useful?

Last week I read an open-ended post from Robert Nyman asking his readers if we should continue to use relative units on the Web. I’ve had this question on my mind for at least a while, and I’m glad Robert’s post rekindled my thought process on the issue.

Robert questions whether we should be using relative units because browser manufacturers are now defaulting to page zoom when invoking size alterations. He notes that while relative units can be exponentially helpful for readers when the developer has used them properly, but more often than not, documents are destroyed with a single size adjustment made by a reader. Page zooming helps with the issue of a degraded experience when relative units are misused (or not used at all). Robert has a general opinion on the matter as a whole:

I think most users would appreciate full page zooming, where everything in the web page is resized in perfect relation to each other. It will be easier to read while at the same time giving the end user a more consistent use experience.

There are some interesting comments that follow Robert’s post, with both positive and negative reaction to both relative unit use as well as page zooming. I think it’s an issue that’s got many developers on both sides of the fence.

How do I feel about relative units and page zoom?

I’ve written before about the benefits of using relative units in Web design, and I’ve become quite comfortable with using relative units for type in the majority of my production work.

There are a number of ways to take advantage of relative units when designing on the Web. I’ve opted to use relative units for (mostly) type as opposed to layout structure. Having precise control over element position is a true benefit of using pixels for layout elements.

I’ve come to enjoy working with relative units for type a bit more simply because the parent-child relationship has given me an opportunity to scale the type of a document with a single unit adjustment. This can be both beneficial as well as troublesome, which is why I think many developers are partial to pixel units for type. There are times when you’d like to adjust the type size for a parent, but not the children. If you’re working with relative units, you’re in a situation requiring subsequent edits to unit measurements of child elements. On the same token, you’re faced with the opposite speed bump when looking to adjust the type size of many elements at once. I think it partially comes down to personal preference and workflow in one regard; but should a personal preference of a developer effect the end product? In this case, I’m not so sure.

At the end of the day, what’s important is to produce documents which are most beneficial to readers. Unfortunately, there’s an elephant in the room making fixed units for type a (partially) poor choice for designers. Internet Explorer, as we all know, refuses to scale type sized in pixels. Although I haven’t confirmed it for myself, it’s been said that even IE8 will not make this adjustment. This bug is one of the more common long-standing bugs rooted in IE, and will continue to haunt designers for years to come. Many designers & developers have taken a stance stating that they prefer sizing type in pixels, and Internet Explorer can simply take a back seat, end of story. I haven’t reached that level of frustration, and I’ve embraced relative units for type, so I’ll continue to use em to size my type.

The issue at hand: page zoom

As with nearly everything, page zoom has both pros and cons. While one part of me views text-resizing as unexpected to the average reader, page zooming (and the resulting horizontal scrollbars) can be equally frustrating. I’ve tried to take a step back and view the issue from the standpoint of a reader as opposed to a designer, and I still find it difficult to come to a decision regarding page zoom. While I think it’s great that page zoom can help retain a document as a whole, and resolution-independent imagery could open the door to endless possibilities, I’m not sure if it’s the best possible solution.

Which brings up an entirely different issue; with browser makers beginning to default to page zoom, is it out of our hands anyway? At this point, I’m not sure how to answer that question, and I’d like to hear other opinions. I will continue to work with relative units for type, as I don’t see any harm in doing such, and it’s a personal preference of mine. Additionally, we’ve got Internet Explorer to contend with for some time, and using pixels for type degrades reader experience in that regard.

Do you think page zoom is the way of the future? Given the circumstances, how do you feel it compares to type resizing? With an arguably small percentage of readers making use of this browser feature, do you think page zoom will for some reason take prominence in a feature list, where text sizing has taken more of a back seat?