Friday, May 24, 2013

My Kingdom for Decimal Alignment on Numbers

This post isn't proposing any solutions (although I do toss out a hack). This post is a rant that I hope helps influence browser makers.

Background

Much of my web work isn't for public facing web sites. Often it's for enterprise-level software that is deployed via the web and used in a web browser. I think any web developer who does anything beyond standard brochure-ware is ultimately in the same boat. Usually we need stylistic control over elements on the page that aren't typically considered exciting.

Once again I find myself working on a reporting feature for a large piece of software. Reports are typically grids (a table) made up of columns & rows with numbers, letters, icons, colors and so on. Clients are used to seeing these reports the same way they might see them in Excel, Crystal Reports, and similar tools.

These reports are formatted for quick visual scans to identify outliers and exceptions, so control over formatting is key to their effectiveness.

Example

Often these grids contain numbers of various lengths that include decimals. Often these decimal values aren't the same number of (significant) digits. Let me offer an example of wildly divergent numbers (I cannot show real client data):

Name Number Units
George 1,984.0 years
Arthur 42.000 ?
Ray 451.0 degrees
Marie 13.51 g·cm−3
Isaac 6.67384 (× 10-11) m3 kg-1 s-2
Sergei 289.8001 billions of dollars

It's standard practice to align numbers to the right. The problem is that some numbers have decimals lengths that don't match other numbers, thereby throwing off the formatting and making the entire column harder to read than necessary. Note that the biggest number is the same length as the smallest number.

CSS to the Rescue

CSS3 has a solution. The property text-align has an option to solve our problem. It can accept a one character string as the character on which to align the text.

Not just a decimal, but a string. This is great news for languages that use a comma instead of a period for decimals. It's great news for very large or very small values where perhaps you want to align on the multiplication sign instead.

This style will allow me to align on the decimals in my example table: text-align: "." right; (the keyword after the string still keeps my numbers aligned to the right, after the decimal is factored in)

Browser Support

Now the question comes down to browser support. What browsers support it? None.

A Hack

To achieve the effect I want, I would have to split my numbers into two columns, one for the whole number and one for the decimal value. Like in this hack:

Name Number Units
George 1,984 .0 years
Arthur 42 .000 ?
Ray 451 .0 degrees
Marie 13 .51 g·cm−3
Isaac 6 .67384 (× 10-11) m3 kg-1 s-2
Sergei 289 .8001 billions of dollars

This table isn't ideal. I have to clear out padding values, remove borders, and accept that my numbers are split. It is unnecessary work that could be avoided if the browser makers would just fully support an aspect of CSS3 that has been around for years and whose related styles already have seen support for even more years across prior CSS versions.

The extra styles, whether inline or with per-cell classes, also add to the overall page weight. HTML tables aren't exactly examples of slim mark-up to begin with, but this can bloat them even more.

This table is also an accessibility gotcha. Users with screen readers are used to a particular way tabular data is read, so this variation may not come across so clearly. Users who scale text may see odd baseline text alignment as text wrapping in other columns can throw off everything else.

It is likely that others who have needed to represent data with alignment on specific characters have just used images instead. That solution is far worse than even this hack, particularly from an accessibility perspective.

My Request to You

If you work for a browser maker, please bring this to someone's attention.

If you don't work for a browser maker, please share this (or your own examples) so that perhaps the browser makers will see there is a need, even if it's not as sexy as animations, transitions, WebGL, and so on.

Related

Even in the modern international web, the specification is sometimes too Anglo-centric, as in the case of the input type="number", which isn't as universal as hoped. You can read about the request to allow developers to set a pattern attribute on input type="number" to specify the thousand separator, decimal separator, decimal precision and if any special characters should be allowed.

There are also people calling for Mozilla to drop support for MathML, suggesting that people who don't use numbers in financial and scientific applications on a daily basis may not see the value in stronger support for number formatting.

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