The large-desktop experience in
responsive design

A case study on giant monitors

When talking about responsive web design most designers and developers immediately think of websites on smartphones, tablets and laptops. Once in awhile however, a client comes along who displays more than half of their traffic on large desktop screens.
In this article I want to share some ideas and UI-patterns I found useful while designing a website “large desktop first” … while of course still making it scalable down to mobile screens.

Some things upfront

(1) Large desktop is not television:
When thinking of large screen sizes, some argue that it could be more like user interfaces on our televisions, such as game consoles or smart TV UIs. Sadly it’s not the same at all. There are some big differences between large desktop and television which influence the layout to a large degree:

  • The context of usage differs a lot. While television is a “lean-back” experience, slumped on the couch munching popcorn, the large desktop is more “lean-forward”. UI-Patterns can be different to the web. Just think of scrolling directions in television layouts.
  • The viewing distance to the screen might be two to five meters for a television, while the large desktop user still sits in front of a table and having a similar distance than a laptop user (let’s say 50–80cm). Font sizes, paragraph widths, picture sizes and in result layout formats are different.
  • The input method is in most of the cases a 5-Key controller. Some TVs might have a pointing device and even a keyboard. Still television is a lean back experience.

Thus, we cannot adapt from television layouts.

(2) Understanding the user and his device:
When I viewed my client’s analytics data, it showed that most of the visitors had 1920 pixel wide screens, followed by 1680 pixel. It’s likely they sit in front of a Dell-desktop-thing, an iMac or a similar large monitor.
When we design for these screens, we have to understand that most analytics don’t show us the actual viewport size (meaning how large the user scaled his browser window). So the actual size of the website could be a laptop layout while displayed in a scaled window on a super large screen.
Still there is the possibility that the user might want to see the website fullscreen even on large monitors. As responsible designers we take care of that layout size as well.

(3) So what are we exactly talking about:
When I talk about large desktops I mean devices that are bigger than regular laptop size screen, like MacBooks or Windows laptops. Large desktops are iMacs or Dell-Monitors with 20+ inch screens.
The following chart demonstrates where we are heading for:

The large desktop devices start at at screen width around 1600 px (device independent pixel or CSS-pixel) .

Enabling the large-desktop experience

One of the first layout decisions to take is how your website makes use of the given screen estate. There are generally two options how to deal with that in a responsive layout :

A) A fixed layout will limit the width of the page in every breakpoint and keep the layout to a set width.

B) A liquid layout stretches over the whole screen width, always using the maximum space of the current size of the viewport.

I find that bit very hard to explain. Here is a little demonstration:

First select a layout option. Then drag the handle and resize the layout to see it behave in different screen sizes.

When a website wants to offer a large-desktop experience it is recommended to employ a liquid layout in order to make use of the whole screen rather than including left and right page margins.


Comeback of the left-hand navigation

When I started exploring layouts, it became clear very quickly that there is a lot of scope when it comes to width. Using some of that width for navigation could leave more height for content and the page itself. One responsive pattern seemed most appropriate:

The menu comes in a top header bar that behaves sticky. Mobile screens might have an off-canvas behavior. On large desktop the menu becomes a left-hand navigation.
The content area of a website stays almost the same width between laptop and large desktop layouts when using a left-hand navigation.

A good reason for the left-hand navigation lies in the responsiveness itself.

Webpages can only grow in width to a certain length. Paragraphs get harder to read when the line-width becomes too long. Too much content next to each other makes a page look crowded and awkward to scroll, while adding more white space may make the layout look too sparse.

However, as the width of the actual page stays almost the same compared to the contiguous breakpoint (laptop layout), only a few adaptations are needed to be made to make the content fit the screen.


The layout blow-up

A large screen offers a lot of space for the layout and that space can be used for more functions, more details or more content at a glance. Besides making use of that extra space in this way we might want to scale the whole layout slightly. This can enhance the readability and provide the user with a stunning experience that fit’s the screen size and accommodates the larger viewing distance.

A straightforward implementation is using an elastic approach where all margins, paddings, font-sizes and other values are in relation to the default font-size (using the units em or rem). This structure enables us to blow up the whole layout by changing one parameter: the font-size in the body-tag. In my project I changed the font size from 16 to 19 pixel (118.75% of default font size). I applied this layout blow-up when the viewport got bigger than 1600 pixel (100em). Thus the large desktop experience offers a slightly scaled layout with better readability.


Johannes Holl is co-founder and UX-designer at Boana