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I see that a lot of fluid websites use a min-width and max-width property on their web pages designed mainly for desktop. When the browser width is less than min-width, content stops shrinking and the user has to scroll horizontally. I can relate to the rationele behind it. As far as I understand, it basically means that the content is designed so that shrinking its width past this point will make it unusable. It is acceptable, because that page is designed with a minimum width in mind.

But I cannot fully understand the use of max-width property on the main content. These websites usually limit the growth of the content container and center it. Why not let it fill the screen since you are already using percentages instead of pixel values? Web sites like Outlook or Gmail fill the screen whereas a lot like Amazon choose to limit the width and center the content.

Edit: Great answers so far and I would like to add one other point: Some sites (e.g. Google, Amazon) extend the header infinitely when limiting the content area width and some others (e.g. StackExchange, StackOverflow) choose to limit and center "header content" but extend "header background" infinitely. I also wonder your comments on the significance of this in terms of UX.

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There are physical limits as to how long a line of text can be before it gets difficult to process. Much like breathing while speaking, the mind needs periodic breaks to process the string of letters and numbers it has just taken in. Line breaks provide an opportunity for this to occur. A general rule that I have heard is to aim for roughly 80 characters per line.

However, this is not the whole story. It seems like we could simply base our font size off of the vw unit to ensure that we always hit this magical 80 character ideal, but no one really does this. Why not? The short answer is peripheral vision. Keep in mind that our eyes and brain also need to keep track of what line we're on, so when we jump after the line break, we know where to continue from. If the text block takes up too much of our field of view, the start of the line will be too far into our peripheral vision by the time we get to the end, and we lose sight of our place. That's no good either.

The best way to solve the demands of both character limit and field of view limit is to just enforce a maximum width that (hopefully) ensures we're fitting 80ish characters to a line while those characters remain large enough to read easily and the entire block remains small enough to stay within readable focus.

A couple of points about outlook and gmail specifically. Outlook uses some of the excess horizontal space to display both navigation and the list of messages in left aligned panes. The remainder of the window appears to be used for the message body, but extreme widths (using multiple monitors) reveal that it quietly enforces a max-width for the body contents. Gmail surprisingly does allow body text to grow effectively infinitely. I pulled up a couple of wordy emails to check, and to be honest long paragraphs don't read especially well. Note that the compose dialog is width limited, so it's somewhat surprising that they aren't limiting the width for reading. Perhaps they've found in their testing that emails are typically fairly short or (in the case of promotional) have already been laid out by a designer. Or perhaps Google needs to update their desktop layout...

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@JoshDoebbert has a good point on the text legibility. This other question has some interesting information on the topic.

I just wanted to add that percentages are good to let the content adapt to smaller screen size. As you said there is a minimum size and in the same way there is maximum size that lets the content be understood correctly. Whether it is text or images the screen size in both height and width should be considered to display the content correctly, and set relevant breakpoints for both parameters.

enter image description here

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  • Content Display

Think about this: you make a site with content prepared for full width, no max-width. This will work relatively OK for common sizes, but full screen images for big screens will add a massive load OR they will get pixelated. Just choose your poison. And this is easily fixed by... max-width

  • Legibility

There are many studies about line length. NN/G says between 45 to 75 characters, Baymard proposes 50 to 75 characters, Viget says around 100 characters and so on. For example, this post has around 100 characters width, and it takes 1/3 of my screen. The whole idea of having a 300 characters line makes me dizzy!

  • Control

Your screen is a container which holds different elements. When you build a layout, you will place those elements according to different design theories, your project needs, your users, the needed elements to be displayed and so on. Thus, there's a high degree of intentionality. If you leave this to pure luck, all these elements will be randomly scattered and resized with unpredictable results. For example: An "above the fold" button may need 2 scrolls after an image is resized to adapt to full width (and proportionally increase height). As you may imagine, this isn't a very good option for anyone

  • Focus

This is related to the item above. For example, let's say you want your user see a smiling person right in front of her eyes, and a CTA below that to increase clicks. Works great on mobile, laptops and desktops up to 1200px width. Then you decide to allow full width. Now the smile could be at the middle/bottom of the image and your CTA completely lost. Any simple study will tell you this is extremely wrong, and it's easily measurable


Finally, one thing: Full width with some amount of control is OK for carefully crafted sites with no dynamically generated content. However, you need to fine tune this in many forms.

You gave the Google example: well, the header takes the whole width, but the content takes only 600px width (the results themselves) with a maximum width of 1250px if right sidebar is displayed. See image below:

enter image description here

  • Actually my examples were Outlook and Gmail but now that you gave the Google example, I wonder why they chose to limit the search content area but not the header. – John L. Dec 2 '16 at 0:19
  • well, here you have the focus in action: Google wants you to check the results. The other elements (such as your avatar, settings and such) would drive focus aways, so they use the full width intentionally to keep focus on the content while still keeping the remaining elements for the user should they need them. – Devin Dec 2 '16 at 1:08

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