Vol. XXIII, No. 1
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April, 2010

Designing Scholarly Web Sites

Harrison Eiteljorg, II
(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)

CSA Newsletter Comment

Evrydiki Tasopoulou recently translated some of the Propylaea web site pages into Greek for the CSA Propylaea Project's web site. In the course of working on the site, Ms. Tasopoulou made some very cogent comments about the design of the site, pointing out that, having got to the home page with a search, users might well fail to see how much material was available. As a result, the home page was re-designed in part.

When discussing with the CSA Board that re-design of the Propylaea home page (and ultimately all the other pages at the site), there was a lively exchange between myself and Director Sam Francis, a very technically savvy member of the board. We debated with some vigor the design choices. At one point Mr. Francis said, "The web is an art form, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder." (It would be fair to infer from Mr. Francis' phrasing that we were not in complete agreement at the time.) I responded: "I would argue that the web is an information dissemination system rather than an art form." Mr. Francis, of course, was being cryptic and clarified, ". . . there's a real art to graphic design for the web (which means not just design of graphics but also the layout of web pages)."

The points at issue, the layout and appearance of our web pages, particularly navigational aids, were settled in a variety of ways and after not one but two lengthy email exchanges. Mr. Francis was particularly persuasive with his point that consistent navigational aids are needed, and the new headers on virtually all the pages are testimony to that. They should make navigating the site more obvious, simple, and direct. These changes reflect the important point that much of design is about utility, not just appearance.1 The result, I hope, is that the Propylaea site is now easier to navigate (and changing the navigation is also easier for me). (See propyleaea.org to check out the navigational aids that have been added.)

In the process of doing the redesign, I forgot just how important it is to test operations in multiple browsers -- and what it takes to make sure that anything out of the ordinary works well in all the "normal" browsers. As a result, there was some rather frantic work to correct coding errors that made pages fail in one browser but not another. (Navigation in some browsers was all but impossible in the interim.) That process reminded me why Susan Jones and I, years ago, retreated to very standard approaches to web design that eschewed the "latest and greatest" in favor of the tried and true.

The resulting changes in the web site do not make it contemporary, as I think Mr. Francis would prefer, and Ms. Tasopoulou commented that a friend, looking over her shoulder as she worked on the translation, said the Propylaea web site looked, to be kind, dated. That is certainly correct, but I am not persuaded that looking contemporary -- especially when that means changing with some regularity -- is particularly desirable for a site with the scholarly aims of the Propylaea site or the CSA site. But looking modern is not the same as being useful and well laid out. We have tried to keep all our pages simple and stable, but even paper journals change their looks on occasion. What do you think as a user? Should we try to look more au courant, or does that matter? Are there other things that should be reconsidered, e.g., the width of the window that opens routinely, chosen to permit two, sometimes three, images to be placed together side-by-side? If we should change more often, who/what is the proper arbiter of taste? For a scholarly site, how should effectiveness be measured?

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II


1.  One of Mr. Francis' comments -- about the use of one web page within another (implemented here with a technique called Server Side Includes) -- provided a key for me. Starting from the idea of building a web page for navigation that could be incorporated in other pages, I used a somewhat non-standard approach to provide navigational assistance that, in my view, is more useful than the typical pull-down menu that I so often find to be nearly useless. (In fairness, the small size and static nature of the Propylaea site permits this approach. A larger, evolving site could not use such an index/navigation aid/site map very well.) Return to text.

An index by subject for all CSA Newsletter issues may be found at csanet.org/newsletter/nlxref.html; included there are listings for articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities and Electronic publishing.

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