Vol. XII, No. 3
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Winter, 2000

Web Design: What is the Purpose of a Site?

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

Web design has become a problem for me - not designing our Web pages, but dealing with the fussy, slow, picture-filled pages so often found on the Web. The CSA and ADAP Web pages may or may not be effective - I must leave that judgment to others, and I recognize that I am asking for criticism with these comments - but the designs I keep running into on the Web are often infuriating. My favorite is the dark blue background with yellow text - almost totally unreadable!

Having spent some time recently trying to browse the Web with images turned off to gain speed, I have been astounded by the number of sites that simply cannot be used without the images, even though the images are only used as links. Again and again I must turn on the images - and suffer the time lag while more files are downloaded - in order to see images that are used only as pointers to other things, even though words would be equally efficient.

The pointless animations (are there some with a point?) are equally annoying. I find the animations distracting; they catch my eye and cannot be ignored. In addition, my computer must spend a part of its power dealing with such nonsense, or I must spend some of my time to select the menu item to stop it.

I would like to suggest the following to academic Web designers:

  1. Check your designs at least with Internet Explorer and Netscape to make sure the features work with both - preferably with versions that do not require frames. (I admit that there is a limit in terms of the number of versions of browsers that can be kept around for checking, but the only research I have seen suggests that most users are still working with surprisingly old browsers, even though the updated browsers are free.)
  2. Access your site from a computer linked to the net by a slow modem to see how it functions with slow access.
  3. Access your site with an older, slow computer to see what happens. (Our new home computer, purchased at Christmas, made an unexpectedly large difference in access speed.) If either the modem or the computer makes your pages crawl, you can rest assured that many of your site visitors are experiencing the same urge to kick something.
  4. Keep the backgrounds light and the print dark. If the print is too hard to read, the readers will only stay a short time.
  5. Avoid unnecessary images. OK, I know that we all use images to spice up things, but keep it to a minimum, and make sure there is a reason for every image.
  6. Do not use animations unless they really serve a purpose.
  7. Never use images as buttons to make links unless there are ways to access the same links without the images. At CSA we normally put descriptive text beside the button, and there is an HTML command to replace the button with text when a browser is not showing images. The latter process, though, yields quite different results with Internet Explorer (a very small font that is almost illegible) and Netscape (a larger, legible font).
  8. Avoid images with nothing more than pretty text in them. If the text in such images is necessary for understanding, not just title-pages or headers, do not use the images. Let text be text.
  9. Use the smallest images (in file size) you can. GIF files are best for line art, text, and, in general, images with few colors and gradations. JPEG images are necessary for more complex images, but use the higher levels of compression where possible.
  10. Give your Web pages titles. If you do not, readers will see no title in the browser headline (the very top line of the window). Equally important, a bookmark for the page will have no title.
  11. This point may not be necessary, since academic sites rarely use cookies, but cookies should never be used. There have been enough problems with improper and unethical uses of cookies that many people will not use them at all, and they are an annoyance for those who understand how to set browsers to intercept them. In addition, they are likely to distress the more sophisticated readers.

Now to a couple of examples. These are not academic examples; no need to go looking for enemies. For illegible text, try http://www.principal.hu/index.html. Load the following pages without images. The page at http://www.warehouseclubfocus.com/ has what appears to be one image on the left side (it is actually 5 or 6) for navigating. With images turned off, navigating is virtually impossible. There is also a very large image lower down on the page that serves as a link (for sending email) but would be just as effective, and more clear, as text. Compare that to http://www.richardfenton.com/. Each of the images that works as a button has underlying text so that the images are not needed for navigation. (The animation on that page, though, serves no purpose.) Saving the best for last, try http://www.risingstarpromotions.com/. Can you tell what this site is about? All of these site designers may have had reasons for their choices, but the same kinds of choices in an academic setting are very hard to justify.

Although it would be safer not to do so, I should also provide an example not from the CSA/ADAP site that I think is good. Here I think the example should be an academic one, and I suggest http://classics.lsa.umich.edu/PRAP.html, the site for the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project. I find it to be clean and clear, easy to understand and to use.

Design of Web sites is greatly a matter of personal taste, but the result is intended to be useful. That is the important thing to remember. Useful is, in fact, the primary requirement. Everything else is truly secondary, and anything that makes use slow or difficult should be eliminated.

Although this article is about Web site design, one last word on a related issue is required. Web sites that purport to offer information, as opposed to entertainment or commerce, should include explicit statements about authorship and related matters so that users can decide whether to believe what they have read. Anyone can put up a Web site; readers need to know why a specific site deserves to be taken seriously. This was written about here, in the CSA Newsletter, years ago ("Scholarship and Electronic Data," Vol. 8, No. 4, February, 1996), but there is still a great deal of material on the Web - good information prepared by reputable people - that is effectively anonymous. A wary reader, knowing nothing about the author or the author's credentials, will not take such a site seriously unless he or she can verify the content elsewhere, in which case, what purpose is the site really serving?

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

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For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities consult the Subject index.

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