HTML tables, once commonly used for webpage layouts, are now a layout headache for many web designers. Tables often work best with fixed widths, which means they can wreak havoc on otherwise pixel-perfect responsive website designs. So what’s a WordPresser to do?
The first thing to do with tables is to use them sparingly. Tables should be used for tabular data and nothing else.
Not sure if a table is the right option for a specific data set? Put it to the spreadsheet test. Would this data make sense presented in a spreadsheet? If so, an HTML table is an appropriate choice. If not, consider using a list or some other element to present the data.
Once you’ve identified a table as the best option, what then? Make sure it renders beautifully regardless of the size of the device viewing the table. Easier said than done, right?
Fear not. In this tutorial, you’ll learn about five different tools you can use to make HTML tables beautifully responsive.
How Are Tables Handled by WordPress?
There isn’t a straightforward answer to that question. The way tables are presented in WordPress varies from one theme to the next because table styling is handled by the CSS that ships with each theme. So tables are rendered according to the CSS rules included with the active theme. Switch themes and the way tables are rendered will change.
Some themes have better built-in support for responsive tables than others. TwentySixteen, for instance, does a pretty good job of dealing with tables as long as they only have two or three columns filled with short bits of data. However, not all themes are as thoroughly designed as TwentySixteen.
Let’s have a look at how TwentySixteen handles an HTML table when rendered on a handheld device. Here is a bit of HTML that will produce a table with five columns and six rows. It shows the most popular content management systems according to W3Techs.
When dropped into a post with a TwentySixteen child theme activated, that table looks pretty good viewed on a laptop or desktop monitor. It’s clear right off-the-bat that TwentySixteen includes thoughtful table styling.
We can use Chrome Developer Tools Device Mode to see how things look on a smaller device.
Well that’s not ideal.
The TwentySixteen developers did include CSS styles that make tables responsive. If this table only included two or three columns it would probably look pretty good. However, this table includes five columns which is too much for the default table styling included with TwentySixteen.
Let’s fix this table up.
Make Tables Responsive Manually
To make tables responsive, we need three things:
- A properly formatted HTML table.
- A simple CSS ruleset that will be triggered when the display shrinks below a predetermined width. This bit of CSS will rearrange the table rows into columns, hide the row of heading cells, and add the contents of the heading cells to each data cell.
It’s important to note that the table must be properly formatted for this to work. The script is designed to look for heading cells in a
thead element and assign them as HTML attributes to the data cells in a
tbody element. If you create a table doesn’t include
tbody elements the code won’t work.
And here’s the applicable CSS.
The simplest way to use this code is to add it right to the post or page where the table appears. You can do that by dropping the CSS between
The result is actually very nice. Here’s how the table looks when previewed with the iPhone5 preview in Google Chrome.
A Better Way to Do Tables
If you only ever use this code once, adding it right to the post or page where the table appears is fine. However, if you’re going to use tables on a regular basis, a better way to add the code is to embed it right in the theme files.
Adding the code right to your theme really isn’t that hard. You can do it in just four steps.
- First, make sure you’re using a child theme to avoid losing your work the next time you update your theme.
- Second, copy and paste the CSS into the theme’s style.css file.
- Fourth, use the
in_footerto true while you’re doing that.
The trickiest part of the process is adding the script file with
Your functions.php file may look a little different, but this gives you an idea of what the enqueue function should look like. WPMU DEV writer and WordPress developer Daniel Pataki has covered the
wp_enqueue_script function in depth on this blog. So you can refer to that tutorial–as I did–if you struggle with this step.
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Using a Plugin to Create a Table
Of course, maybe you don’t want to go to all of that trouble and would just prefer to use a plugin. There are certainly plenty of table plugins in the WordPress plugin directory, many of which claim to make tables responsive. I tested several different table plugins and found four that do a good job of rendering tables on devices of any size.
This powerful table generating plugin provides a spreadsheet style input screen that can even perform simple mathematical calculations. There are many options available, including pagination of large data sets, the addition of a search box to filter table contents, sorting of table contents by column, and many styling options.
The Responsive Mode setting offers four options: standard, automatic column hiding, horizontal scroll, and disabled. The standard mode produces a table similar to the manual method covered previously, although the result is not quite as nice. Horizontal scrolling keeps the full dimensions of the table but makes it scrollable so that all content can be viewed by scrolling through the table horizontally. Disabled keeps the full dimensions of the table and does not make it scrollable, cutting of a significant portion of the table as a result.
I settled on automatic column hiding as the best option for this particular table. This option hid columns that could not be shown with the reduced dimensions and made them visible by clicking on an icon added to each table row.
Data Tables Generator by Supsystic is a powerful table plugin. It would be a very good option for website that use tables regularly and want to make those tables sortable, searchable, filterable, and add pagination so that large data sets are displayed across multiple pages. The responsive mode options are nice and do a reasonable job of making table contents more accessible on a mobile device. However, for simple tables, the manual method implemented earlier in this tutorial produces better results.
If you do install this plugin keep in mind that it won’t affect any existing tables already added to your site. So if you’re looking for a plugin that will fix up tables retroactively, keep looking.
Interested in Data Tables Generator by Supsystic?
This plugin is designed to make standard HTML
tableelements responsive. All you have to do is install and activate the plugin and any tables embeded in posts and pages will be magically liquidized (made responsive).
The settings page for the plugin does provide the option to specify the viewport width at which responsive settings take effect. So if tables are going to responsive mode too soon, or breaking the layout before switching to responsive mode, you can adjust the viewport width. In addition, if the plugin isn’t working by using
tableelement as the selector, you can also set the plugin to select tables by
What the plugin actually does is add
You might have noticed that the table caption was not picked up and displayed by this plugin. If you do use this plugin you will want to avoid using
captionsince it will not be displayed when the table is viewed in responsive mode.
Interested in Magic Liquidizer Responsive Table?
This super-simple plugin does exactly what it says it will do: automatically make your tables responsive. Install it, activate it, configure a few basic settings, and all HTML tables embeded into posts and pages will be rendered responsively.
After installing the plugin, visit Settings > Responsive Tables to set up the plugin. First, select the checkbox to make tables responsive, next set a breakpoint at which tables should switch to responsive mode, and then decide how you want the tables styled. Selecting the default styling options will produce a table that looks like this:
Pretty nice, right? How does it work?
Like Magic Liquidizer, this plugin adds
In addition, it’s worth noting that this plugin doesn’t render the table caption in responsive mode. So you’ll need to find another way to add a table caption or title.
Interested in Automatic Responsive Tables?
This plugin is designed to be used with fixed-width tables. If your theme behaves like TwentySixteen and automatically resizes tables as the viewport shrinks, then this plugin won’t do a thing. However, if your theme applies a fixed-width to tables, once that width exceeds the available space, the table will become horizontally scrollable.
To test things out, I added some custom CSS fixing the width of the table at 700 pixels. Here’s what I got as a result.
What you can’t see in that screenshot is that the table now scrolls horizontally independent of the rest of the webpage. That way you can view the full contents of the table without breaking the responsive layout of the rest of the webpage.
This plugin is a good option if you are dealing with very large data sets. In that case, it may be better to preserve the full-size formatting of the table and add horizontal scrolling rather than reformatting the layout to fit the available viewport real estate.
Interested in Responsive Scrolling Tables?
Which is the Right Option for You?
Well, that depends.
How often do you use tables? What sort of data sets do you present in HTML tables? Do you want a plugin that does all the heavy lifting, or do you like to be hands-on with your website’s code? How you answer those questions will help determine which of these tools is the right one for your WordPress website.
- Do you want a powerful table tool that you can use to create complex tables that are sortable and searchable? Go with Data Tables Generator by Supsystic.
- Do you like poking around in code and want a hand-crafted solution that is light on resources and looks beautiful? Try out the manual implementation, and tweak it to make it your own.
- Do you deal with large data sets and fixed-width tables that you want to make scrollable without breaking the responsive design of your site? Responsive Scrolling Tables is just what you need.
Tables don’t have to look terrible on smartphones and tablets. With a little forethought and effort, you can use HTML tables on your WordPress website and have them look great on every device.