Jesper Tverskov, June 15, 2006

Page Zoom in IE7 is a usability disaster

Nice that Internet Explorer is on the move again but the new PAGE ZOOM is just a deprecated magnifying glass: No line wrap, no fluid webdesign. As soon as you start zooming the dreaded horizontal scroll panel is right in your face.

For years Internet Explorer has been far behind the other browsers when it comes to changing text-size in the browser. Opera has had a fantastic Page Zoom since the beginning of time, and Firefox a solid Text Zoom.

A Page Zoom is very useful for all people to optimize the size of text and images for both scanning and reading on the fly: scrolling vertically at the same time. A Page Zoom is a must for people with low vision like many elderly users.

1. Text-sizing in IE 6

In IE 6 we just have a mediocre text-sizing feature in the View Menu with five values: largest, larger, medium, smaller, smallest. They only work if the webpage author has specified a relative unit for font-size like "%" or "em" in CSS. [1]

Figure 1: Text-sizing menu in IE6

Since text-sizing is such an important feature for many users, a plea for using a relative unit for font-size has been one of the most important accessibility guidelines for a long time: "always use relative units for font-size". IE6 will be one of the major browsers in use for at least another five years, so the guideline is still important.

Text-sizing in IE6 also has another major problem: It is hidden away in the View Menu: no direct access with shortcut keys. With a mouse you can use the scroll wheel and CTRL to activate the text-sizing feature.

2. Text Zoom in Firefox 1.07

In the Firefox browser we have a much better Text Zoom compared to IE6’s text-sizing feature. It is called Text Zoom and not "sizing" because any text can be zoomed in and out no matter what unit the webpage author has used. A relative unit is not necessary for Text Zoom in Firefox, any unit for font-size will do.

Figure 1: Text Zoom menu in Firefox.

The Text Zoom in Firefox 1.07 has three major problems:

  1. It does not include images only text. [2]
  2. The zoom intervals are too big.

  3. The zoom level is not displayed in the toolbar.

It is nice that we can use CTRL++ and Ctrl +- for shortcut keys and Ctrl+0 for 100%. The scroll wheel of the mouse and CTRL also works as is the case in almost any application under Windows. If you use another operating system test it out. In Firefox the mouse wheel even gives you more zoom levels than in the menu.

3. Page Zoom in Opera 8

Opera has for a long time had a Page Zoom second to none, state of the art. It is called Page Zoom because not only the text but also images are zoomed in and out. It is hard to believe that it will ever be possible to make a better Page Zoom except for the finer details. [3]

In Opera Page Zoom works with + and – alone, they zoom in and out with 10% intervals. If you also use the CTRL key, Opera zooms in and out with 100% intervals. Nice that the basic feature works just by pressing plus and minus with one finger.

Figure 1: Page Zoom menu in Opera.

Opera has a strange shortcut key for 100% or normal view: * (asterisks) but only the numerical one, probably to make it work with one finger! Firefox and IE 7 use Ctrl+0. They should all do both in the future.

Opera’s Page Zoom has at least one minor problem. It is nice that the zoom level is shown in a View Bar compared to Firefox (don’t have any). But it is a weakness that the View Bar could accidentally be turned off. As far as I remember the View Bar is even closed in default installations of some of the newer versions of Opera.

4. Page Zoom in IE 7

IE7 has come a long way. We now have a wonderful Page Zoom modelled after the one in Opera. There is only one big problem. It is not at all working. It is a usability disaster. As soon as you start using it, zooming in, you see the horror of a horizontal scrolling panel indicating that content is too big for the screen.

In Opera this webpage can zoom more than 500%, or more than 50 steps of 10% intervals, before the horizontal scroll panel shows. IE 7 is out of business as soon as I start zooming. Even the first zoom level, 10%, turns the dreaded horizontal scroll panel on!

Figure 1: Page Zoom menu in IE7

The Page Zoom in IE7 is based on a useless concept and wrong assumptions. Microsoft wants us to believe:

  1. That a magnifying glass is all what is needed.
  2. That webpages when zoomed should look the same (many webdesigners actually take pride in fluid design).

  3. That nobody hates horizontal scrolling.

  4. That zoom and vertical scrolling should not work hand in hand.

5. Microsoft, please

Microsoft’s own explanation for how a Page Zoom should work, Page Zoom in IE 7, is mildly stated outrageous, showing not the slightest understanding of usability and accessibility:

"The way we zoom in IE7 is a little different than other products, so let me briefly explain how it works and our design goals. The primary goal of the page zoom feature is to maintain the intended design of the webpage (the user shouldn’t notice any change in the layout of the webpage) while improving the readability of the page. This means we do not re-layout the page after we zoom." [4]

Here is what the quote is saying in my plain language: The lines will not wrap when they get longer, the text and images of the webpage will not adapt to avoid horizontal scrolling, no flexibility, no fluidity, no webdesign. Our concept is a primitive magnifying glass of grandma’s grandma.

Let us repeat for Microsoft to hear it: The whole idea of a Page Zoom is to scroll vertically for easy reading and scanning, zooming in and out on the fly.

Footnotes

[1]

If no font-size is specified by the webpage author, the relative font-size specified in the browser’s stylesheets takes over.

[2]

One could argue that a Text Zoom is a must to have, and that a Page Zoom is only nice to have, and that it would be better to go for a good Text Zoom like Firefox is doing at the moment. In my opinion Opera has not only proven the concept, but has come a very long way of implementing a very great Page Zoom. Text Zoom of Firefox is deprecated; text-sizing of IE6 is Stone Age.

[3]

Actually it is extremely difficult programming to make a Page Zoom work well, and a lot of compromises especially for how to handle images. Any Page Zoom will continue to have bugs and problems at some pages, or will work less than optimal at many pages. The finer details of even the most perfect Page Zoom can be improved over and over again.

[4]

Microsoft’s blog is interesting. Most of the reviewing programmers just eat the cake except for some technical details. No usability or accessibility consultant could avoid noticing by the very first press of Ctrl++, that Page Zoom in IE7 is misconceived.

Updated 2009-08-07