This article was written in 2013. It might or it might not be outdated. And it could be that the layout breaks. If that’s the case please let me know.
Today I was playing around with my new phone and looking at some sites I worked on in the past. One of these sites has the option to make the text of the site bigger. I always considered these text zoom options to be somewhat redundant, like a print-button inside a webpage. Just because you can, doesn’t automatically mean you should put it there. As we all know, if a site is built properly, you can easily make the text bigger, or zoom in. And printing has been a default option in every browser as long as I remember. So I asked on Twitter, as one does, if these options are useful for actual people (other that the person responsible for the accessibility checklist).
I got some interesting answers.
Teach people the right thing
Kaj Rietberg explained that you shouldn’t use them, because people have to learn how to use the zoom-controls of their browser. If they don’t know how to zoom, they are restricted to using sites that offer this option, which makes the web a terrible place, if you think about it. So yes, I think this reasoning makes sense. It does conflict with the idea that we are not in the business of educating our visitors though, we are in the business of making things as easy as possible for them.
Heydon Pickering thinks it might be a leftover from the dark ages of web design, the era when IE6 dictated the norm, and lazy developers used pixels instead of proper ems and percentages. Indeed with these old IEs, it was impossible to zoom in on the monstrosities we created back then. If that is the case, we can all just drop them, the world is a much better place now.
In a second tweet I asked if these font-embiggen-options were actually an indication that the chosen default font-size was too small. Back in the dark ages we somehow loved 10 pixel fonts, so this makes some sense. We grew up since then, which doesn’t necessarily make us wiser, but it did reduce our eye sight, so the default font sizes of current websites are much larger. In a series of tweets, Misha Scholte explains that, in theory, it’s easy to solve with good typography, which does not necessarily mean big letters. By choosing a font with a bigger x-height our texts become much easier to read. But if you are not responsible for the fonts in use, and you couldn’t convince the designer to change it, a font-embiggen-option might actually be a good idea.
So there, again, as you come to expect from my posts, no conclusion. Use them if the typography is crappy. If the typography is good, it’s probably not necessary. And if you really want to help your visitors, instead of giving them a redundant option to zoom, you can point them in the direction of this site, where they can learn to make the web easier. Thanks, everybody on Twitter, for again some valuable insights!