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Looking around the web, I've noticed quite a few sites (mainly sites that haven't had a major facelift for a couple of years) that have the entire site sitting to the left of the page.

Examples:

This seems to happen more on sites with a lot of traffic.

Is there any reason that they are sitting over to the left of the browser window? It's not like its a big deal to put the site in an HTML wrapper and set the margin:auto. There must be a conscious decision to it. What were they thinking?

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Those websites look just fine on smaller screens. –  Mathew Foscarini Nov 19 '12 at 16:08
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I'm sure those pages are centered on their designer's 1024x768 monitors –  Ben Brocka Nov 20 '12 at 22:33
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6 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Of the sites you mention, there's no good design or usability reason they are left justified. It's probably inattention to design and/or adherence to legacy design.

(FWIW: You don't need a wrapper to center a simple webpage. You can do it with body {width:960px; margin:0 auto;} in the CSS.)

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Indeed, they are legacy designs which were designed for smaller screen resolutions. It may be a hang over from the days where code wouldn't rectify the problem. –  PhillipW Nov 19 '12 at 9:44
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The decision to left align or center align is best determined by the type of website. Data driven sites left align for maximum screen width. Task based websites and applications rely on muscle memory so left aligning better supports users. Applications are increasingly cloud based so they feel like websites (Salesforce app-not the website), and usually left aligned for for massive data display and muscle memory.

Ultimately, a usability study will help determine user preference for website alignment. Eye tracking tests can be conducted too to determine users' path through a site for overall content layout.

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Legacy.

In the past, the browser treated the top left corner of the page as the origin and built the page from there. On smaller screens, the top left corner of the page will always appear (and thus it's good to make your design built so that you know the user will see it (and thus your navigation) from the beginning rather than risk it being hidden from being on the bottom / off to the side. Left-aligned pages made a good "foolproof" way prior to the innovations of responsive design to make the site readable for smaller sizes as well as larger ones.

As browsers have improved and screen sizes have increased (and responsive design has made this one-size-fits-all approach obsolete), these sites end up showing their age more than others.

From a usability perspective, this isn't a big deal except for its effect on a site's reputation -- a user who sees a site that looks older may well assume the site is either out of date or hasn't been maintained in a while, which could affect their willingness to interact with the site.

Most of the reasons for designing a site this way have been rendered obsolete, so unless there's an aesthetic reason to design the site this way, it may just be a sign of a designer that's stuck in their ways.

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Consider your bias - you obviously regard a centred page as somehow preferable. North American, perhaps?

People elsewhere may expect and prefer otherwise. I know I do.

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Which locales prefer left-aligned sites? Just curious... –  Rachel Keslensky Nov 20 '12 at 22:59
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Would anyone feel differently, I wonder: I find a lot of the feel for left-aligned web sites is connected with small, rectangular components. Much like a spreadsheet, that starts off in the top-left corner, and spreads out more strongly in a vertical/downward direction than horizontal/rightward direction. Moreso than small/rectangular elements, I'd expect left-aligned sites being much more text-heavy than colour or imagery based.

That's the feel on the front page of jenningsbet.com although much less on the front page of betfair.com.

Although in both those cases, there seems to be a bunch of subdomain sites linked and what I've checked, after one click on the front page, the design is centered. Bizarre.

Okay I just wanted to add: here are a couple examples after a minute searching:

http://www.andythomasphotography.co.uk/
An odd-one-out left-aligned with MUCH colour and image style, but it turns out obviously very well used, taking advantage of left-alignment.

www.jrvelasco.com/ A great second example of good left-aligned content.

http://www.artflavours.com/ Another beautiful left-aligned design, still full of small rectangular components (but oh-so-beautiful!)

It seems a common pattern between these three, and probably most GOOD left-alignment is a texture or other background image gradually flowing, unbounded beyond the right side of the screen.

Btw, I had to remove the anchors for the links because I'm new and not allowed including more than 2 urls.

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Good edit, sam. I didn't have the reputation on UX stackexchange when posting that to include more than 2 links in an answer. :) Hmm, I wonder if I do now.... –  Tom Pace Nov 23 '12 at 5:00
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Indeed, centered-content design has more visual "white-space" around it which can make it appear more symmetrical. However, there is generally no difference in the informational value and interaction when the layout is centered. In most cases it's very subjective - just the result of a designers opinion.

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just a bit of background - i am a designer –  sam Nov 18 '12 at 22:22
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