How to optimize website for touch devices

JavascriptCssTouchDom EventsUsability

Javascript Problem Overview

On a touch device like iPhone/iPad/Android it can be difficult to hit a small button with your finger. There is no cross-browser way to detect touch devices with CSS media queries that I know of. So I check if the browser has support for Javascript touch events. Until now, other browsers haven't supported them, but the latest Google Chrome on dev channel enabled touch events (even for non touch devices). And I suspect other browser makers will follow, since laptops with touch screens are coming. Update: It was a bug in Chrome, so now the JavaScript detection works again.

This is the test I use:

function isTouchDevice() {
    return "ontouchstart" in window;

The problem is that this only tests if the browser has support for touch events, not the device.

Does anyone know of The Correct[tm] way of giving touch devices better user experience? Other than sniffing user agent.

Mozilla has a media query for touch devices. But I haven't seen anything like it in any other browser:

Update: I want to avoid using a separate page/site for mobile/touch devices. The solution has to detect touch devices with object detection or similar from JavaScript, or include a custom touch-CSS without user agent sniffing! The main reason I asked, was to make sure it's not possible today, before I contact the css3 working group. So please don't answer if you can't follow the requirements in the question ;)

Javascript Solutions

Solution 1 - Javascript

It sounds to me like you want to have a touch-screen-friendly option, to cover the following scenarios:

  1. iPhone-like devices: small screen, touch only
  2. Small screens, no touch (you didn't mention this one)
  3. Large screens, no touch (i.e. conventional computers)
  4. Touch-screen-enabled large screens such as iPad, notebooks/pcs with touch screens.

For case 1 and 2 you will probably need a separate site or a CSS file that eliminates lots of unnecessary content and makes things larger and easier to read/navigate. If you care about case #2 then as long as the links/buttons on the page are keyboard-navigable then case 1 and 2 are equivalent.

For case 3 you have your normal website. For case 4 it sounds like you want clickable things to be bigger or easier to touch. If it's not possible to simply make everything bigger for all users, an alternate style-sheet can provide you with the touch-friendly layout changes.

The easiest thing to do is provide a link to the touch-screen-version of the site somewhere on the page. For well-known touch devices such as iPad you can sniff the user agent and set the touch stylesheet as the default. However I'd consider making this the default for everyone; if your design looks good on the iPad it should look acceptably good on any notebook. Your mouse users with less-than-stellar clicking skills will be pleased to find bigger click targets, especially if you add appropriate :hover or mouseover effects to let users know that things are clickable.

I know you said you don't want to sniff user-agents. But I'd contend that at this time the state of browser support for this is in too much flux to worry about the "Correct" way to do it. Browsers will eventually provide the information that you need, but you will probably find that it will be years before this information is ubiquitous.

Solution 2 - Javascript

Good news! The editor draft of CSS4 Media Queries have included a new media feature 'pointer'.

> Typical examples of a ‘fine’ pointing system are a mouse, a track-pad or a stylus-based touch screen. Finger-based touch screens would qualify as ‘coarse’.

/* Make radio buttons and check boxes larger if we
   have an inaccurate pointing device */
@media (pointer:coarse) {
	input[type="checkbox"], input[type="radio"] {

It's also possible to test the media query from JavaScript:

var isCoarsePointer = (window.matchMedia &&
                       matchMedia("(pointer: coarse)").matches);

Updated Feb. 11th. 2013 On Windows 8 recent versions of Chrome (version 24+) detect touch-hardware when launching the application and expose touch events. Unfortunately if "pointer:coarse" returns false, there is no way to know if it's because pointer media queries are not implemented or because there is a fine pointer. WebKit haven't implemented "pointer:fine" yet, so we can't check that either.

Update Sept. 26th. 2012 Tested in Safari on iOS6 and Chrome on Android 4.1.1 and it's not there yet. 'pointer' and 'hover' media-queries landed in WebKit May 30th. According to the User-Agent, Safari uses WebKit branch 536.26 from April 25th, and Chrome on Android uses and even older one (535.19). Not sure WebKit branches from User-Agent strings are to be trusted, but my test page is not able to detect pointer media queries either. The implementation from May only implements the pointer media query for touch devices, so pointer: fine won't work for devices with a mouse.

Solution 3 - Javascript

Google Chrome has a command line switch for enabling touch events. Disabled by default. So until they enable them for everyone again (hopefully they won't), it's possible to detect touch with the help of javascript like I described in the question..

Update jun 3 2010: This actually got into the stable version on 25th of May 2010 :( Don't know it it was a mistake or not.

Have discussed the issue on the w3c mailing list, but I doubt anything will happen very soon. They might discuss this during TPAC in November.

Update sep 30 2010: Supposedly fixed in Chrome 6. Haven't had time to downgrade to stable yet to verify. Since Chrome upgrade automatically this problem should already be gone :)

Read this if you're considering using media queries: and

Update may 16th 2011: W3C is now working on a Touch Events specification, but more or less refused to hide touch events for terminals without touch hardware. So don't expect the touch event detection to work for long.

Update june 6th 2012: The W3C CSS4 Media Queries (Editors Draft) spec have something very interesting. See my separate answer about this.

Solution 4 - Javascript

I don't know if a standardized media query like Mozilla's will solve the problem by itself. Like one of the Chromium developers said in that discussion you linked, the presence of touch event support in the browser doesn't mean touch events can or will fire, or even if they do, that the user will only want to interact via touch input. Likewise, the presence of touch input support in the device doesn't mean the user will use that method of input - perhaps the device supports mouse, keyboard, and touch input and the user prefers the mouse or some combination of the three input types.

I agree with the Chromium developer that supporting touch events was not a bug in the browser. A good browser should support touch events because it might be installed on a device that supports touch input. It's the website developer's fault that he took the event support to mean the user would be interacting via touch.

It seems we need to know two things: (1) What are all the supported input types on the device (2) What are all the supported event types in the browser

Since we don't know #1 right now, there is one approach proposed by PPK of quirksmode that I like. He talks about it here:

Basically, listen for touch events and mouse events, and when they happen, set up the UI accordingly. Obviously that's limiting to the developer. I don't think it's a valid approach to your problem with link size because you don't want to wait for interaction to alter the UI. The whole point is to present a different UI (a larger/smaller link) before any interaction occurs.

I hope you make your proposal and it gets included in CSS3. Until then, as much as it pains me to say it, user agent sniffing looks like the best approach.

p.s. I hope hope hope someone comes here and proves me wrong

Solution 5 - Javascript

No, there is no such thing. CSS has the screen size option, which will allow you to optimize layout, but that's all. There is also media="handheld" but that also doesn't apply to your requirements.

Feature detection might work using javascript, however, there are issues with different events for different devices. PPK (the man behind is doing a huge amount of work checking what javascript is possible for each mobile/handheld device, and it's proving that nothing seems to be standard with these devices and yet this STILL doesn't apply to your requirement for touch laptop devices.
(honestly I dont know why you are concerned about a device that isn't even out yet, be pragmatic and worry about it once it's here and you can test it)

PPK's work on mobile browser and touch events, will save you hours. Check it out here

Solution 6 - Javascript

Solution 7 - Javascript

Not a complete solution, but you might want to simply outright avoid any small buttons. While small buttons are more of a usability problem on touch devices, they are always hard to use, even with a big screen & mouse.

If you just pay attention to using suitably big buttons with enough space between them, everyone will benefit. Plus, it will force you not to clutter your interface with too many small buttons :-).

Solution 8 - Javascript

try using tables and make a full cell to be a link... i'm working on that in my website... it's not working well so far... but you might find a way... on this way, no need to overload your website with javascript and functionality detection... you can give it a relative size instread of a fixed size... and in this way, your website can be viewed in a desktop as is viewed in a iphone... think about this idea... any sugestion is apreciated...

Solution 9 - Javascript

See for support for adding pointer:fine in Chrome. It is actually possible to detect whether pointer:coarse is supported (to distinguish unset from not supported) - just create the media query yourself and test in javascript whether it parsed properly.

Eg., today "@media (pointer:coarse)" in Chrome shows up:

> document.styleSheets[0].rules[5].media[0]
"(pointer: coarse)"

But unsupported bogus values like "@media (pointer:other)" don't:

> document.styleSheets[0].rules[8].media[0]
"not all"

Solution 10 - Javascript

You won't have any control over detecting touches, and even if you did the logic steps to figure out what exactly the user is trying to touch is complex and best handled by the device itself.

Your best bet is to create a mobile version of the site or an alternate stylesheet that is loaded when you detect a mobile device with Javascript.

Solution 11 - Javascript

If you are using PHP, this is a good solution:

You can detect whether the browser is a phone from the serverside by sniffing the browser request details, and if so, display alternative/extra stylesheets/js/html


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