User experience, web, technology

Small-caps, web text, and CSS

There’s a trick to getting small-caps to work on the web, and it’s counter-intuitive.

Let’s say you had an abbreviation, like CSS, that you wanted to put into small-caps, say with a little extra tracking. You might think you could use the CSS property font-variant: small-caps, and you’d be good to go. Not so.

Here’s why. Because for small-caps to work, you need to start with lowercase letters.

However, when you’re simply typing your thoughts out before you’ve decided on small-caps for abbreviations, acronyms, etc., you probably typed those abbreviations in uppercase.

So, when you tried small-caps, it simply didn’t work. For example, see this web page from 2005 that Joe Clark wrote to test small-caps. Note how the small-caps versions are more like regular capital letters. Not cool. It makes the hack look good, which is bad.

So, here’s what you can do (and what I think browsers ought to be doing automatically anyway):

  1. First apply text-transform: lowercase
  2. Then apply font-variant: small-caps

That ought to do it.

Here’s a more specific example of the CSS.

abbr, acronym {
text-transform: lowercase;
font-variant: small-caps;
letter-spacing: 1px;

User experience, web, technology

I got to help UXmatters with print styling

UXMatters print pageA few months ago I contacted UXmatters online magazine to let them know of a problem I had printing out articles with Firefox. The first page would print, but that was all. I could switch to Safari and print fine, but that just didn’t seem right.

I found out that they were a little shorthanded on specialized web help, so I  volunteered to assist. Pabini Gabriel-Petit, the publisher and editor-in-chief, graciously accepted my offer.

Creating print CSS is usually simpler than web page layouts, because the goal is typically to have the content of the page print out well on standard size paper. Multiple columns and site navigation are usually uncalled for.

My first try was to revise the existing print CSS file. After half an hour at that, I decided it would be simpler to start from scratch. The original print CSS was quite complex, and it seemed I was searching for one issue: why did the pages stop printing after page 1?

So I rewrote the CSS, simplifying the CSS code greatly. I had the layout in good shape, but oddly still had the 1 page issue.

I went back to the main screen CSS file and begin sifting through it, looking for clues. Then on a hunch, I found the issue.

The global CSS file is thick. There’s a ton going on there to defend against various cross browser issues. One particular rule I saw repeatedly was the use of overflow: hidden. That rule is used for a few reasons, but one of them is to force a floated box (div or what have you) to expand when it wants to collapse, vertically. This allows things like backgrounds to show through properly.

One of the selectors that this rule was used on was actually a wrapper for much of the page content. It made sense to me, in a way, that this could confound a browser into hiding paged content that went beyond a page.

So the real key to the much simpler CSS file was to add in an overflow: visible to a large set of selectors to override that overflow: hidden for printed pages.

I sent Pabini the new code, and over the following weeks she tested it and added some details I had missed. About a month ago she deployed the new print CSS code  to the website.

This little evening project was a fun puzzle, and I’m glad I was able to help make such great content on the UXmatters website print out better for more people.

(Back in 2002 or 2003, I forget when, I wrote an article on print styling for web pages.)

User experience, web, technology

Marking up breadcrumb navigation

Breadcrumb navigation is a secondary navigation system that usually represents a site visitor’s current position in the site, showing other pages above the current one in the site’s hierarchy.

In some sites, like those built with Dokuwiki, breadcrumbs actually show the history of the user’s session instead of the hierarchy of the user’s current position in the website.

Breadcrumb navigation is typically found at the top of a content region, and usually below primary tabbed navigation.

History? Bah, yesterday’s newspaper.

In his April 10, 2007 Alertbox, Breadcrumb Navigation Increasingly Useful, Jakob Nielsen declares, Breadcrumbs should show the site hierarchy, not the user’s history.

For the purposes of conceiving of solid, semantic markup, let’s agree with Nielsen. Breadcrumbs represent position in a site’s hierarchy.

Semantic values: hierarchy, location, current position

In hierarchical breadcrumb navigation, the following aspects of information are important.

  • Steps in the hierarchy that show broader sections of the site related to current position, i.e., the ancestors of the current page
  • The order of those steps
  • The ability to immediately jump to any ancestor page
  • Indication of the current page, which should not be linked

The markup

So, with those in mind, here is an example that provides just enough code and semantics, and little else.

<ol id="breadcrumbs">
<li><a href="../../../../../../">Kim Jong Il’s Favorite Widgets, LLC</a></li>
<li><a href="../../../../../">Military</a></li>
<li><a href="../../../../">Nuclear</a></li>
<li><a href="../../../">Warheads</a></li>
<li><a href="../../">Just for funsies</a></li>
<li><a href="../">2006</a></li>
<li class="current_page">Gilju, Hamgyong province, 0136 GMT</li>

This markup is fairly lean, yet does communicate the order of steps via the ordered list.

Note that the Project Cerbera website provides a nice discussion and some other examples of breadcrumbs markup that are in line with this approach.

The examples at Project Cerbera also show nested lists to indicate the nested nature of the links, but that is over-the-top. The simple ordered list sufficiently communicates the order of steps in the hierarchy, without providing additional markup noise for a screen reader to announce or a designer to style.


The breadcrumbs should strive to follow conventions.

  • Take up one line
  • Use a standard separator between steps, like >
  • Each step links to an appropriate page using standard link indicators (underlined and colored)
    • Except for the last step, which should be unlinked and represent the current page

Unstyled example

  1. Kim Jong Il’s Favorite Widgets, LLC
  2. Military
  3. Nuclear
  4. Warheads
  5. Just for funsies
  6. 2006
  7. Gilju, Hamgyong province, 0136 GMT

Styled example

Minor variations could include having the current page item be in a bold font, however, breadcrumbs are secondary navigation. They don’t need to attract much attention.

To reference the Project Cerbera site again, the examples there use a greater-than background-image on the list items. That technique may stand better in cross-browser tests than the use of the after pseudo-class used here.

User experience, web, technology

Diagram of XHTML, CSS, JavaScript as types of code in a web page

XHTML, CSS, Javascript as part of a web page
XHTML, CSS, Javascript: Cumulative aspects of a web page. Click the image for a larger version.

I’m thinking of using this diagram in an XHTML class I may be teaching in a couple weeks. The idea is to put XHTML, CSS, and Javascript in context with each other—yet to also illustrate that they are separate types of code and often are actually different files altogether.

User experience, web, technology

Why use CSS-based layouts?

I was prepping for a Dreamweaver class a couple months ago and was fiddling around with the practice files that came as part of the course material. There is a whole lesson devoted to using html tables as a tool to do page layouts. This poses an issue for me.

My primary job for the last six years or so has been to create web sites. It has been about three years since I did a web site that relied on tables for layout. Simply, there is no really compelling reason to continue to use tables for web page layouts anymore. Further, there are solid reasons to stop.

So, I reworked their basic practice file to use xhtml and css instead of html and tables. Here’s a comparison of the two versions.