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The digital magazine of InfoVis.net

Website design: who cares?
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 14]

In the previous article we spoke about the fundamental questions that must be answered before beginning the design of a web site. Why, for whom, where and with what type of structure (see ). In the present one we'll review other concepts more closely bound to technology, such as the existence of multiple platforms, the downloading time, navigation and graphics.

Designing for multiple platforms.

One of the basic problems that we have is that, even if we don't like it, we are designing contents that will be seen from very different platforms. There's not only Internet Explorer (IE) and Netscape Navigator that interpret the same HTML code in different ways, but there are still many old, functional versions of both Browsers that do not support the latest enhancements to HTML. The arrival of WAP, generalised use of PDAs and mobile phones, mean that our web can be reached from browsers operating in ways that we haven't even imagined.

So it's vital to make sure that the information is visualised in the same (or at least in a consistent) way for the different browsers and platforms.

Response time

Regarding this it's worth remembering that

  • the time limit for a person to keep their attention on a page while waiting is about 10 seconds.
  • the longest time to consider that a system is reacting instantaneously is around 1/10th of a second.
  • one second (1) is the time limit to interrupt the flow of thinking of the user.

Taking into account that a great deal of the users is accessing Internet with 28,8 to 56 Kb/s, a page should not exceed 40K. This is about 10 s of downloading time.

More important than the overall size is what part is text and what graphics there are. If there are graphics it's a very good practice to specify the size (with the tags WIDTH and HEIGHT) in order for the browser to calculate the layout and download the text first. Equally fundamental is to include information on the nature of the graphics with the ALT tag, that will let the user decide whether to finish the download or to proceed to another page. This is especially important if the page is completely made up of graphics.

Navigation and Standards

There's nothing so entertaining and common like getting lost in a web site without knowing how to come back to the main page or even to the previous page. Consistency is a fundamental principle. When things always work in the same way, the people know what can be expected and how to move.

Our users spend most of their time in other web sites. If our navigation system is completely different to the 'de facto' standard, we'll only lead them to confusion, and force them to learn yet another fancy navigation scheme.

What is important about our web site is its message, the contents and the service that we provide to the user or customer. Creativity in this aspect only makes sense if it really simplifies the way the user finds things and navigates through the web site. If it doesn't adds something, consider sticking to standard practices.

The minimum standard practice today is to provide a link to the home page in each one of the pages (except, of course in the home page itself) and a line indicating the path that leads from the home page to the current one, with links to all intermediate pages. For example InfoVis.net>Library>Books. Consistency: navigation information should always appear in the same place in all the pages of the web site.

Technology isn't information

Today every web site has impressive graphics, splash pages made with the latest technology, Flash, Shockwave and other technological wonders that sometimes make us to think if the page has been made to demonstrate how skilful the design team is or to really offer something valuable to the user.

Splash pages with luxury animations do not contribute anything to those who look for something more than special effects in a web. Typically they are slow to download, stop you during a precious amount of time and generally don't give you any information that you couldn't find inside the web site. In this, like in many other things, there's an abuse of technology for its own sake.

If somebody really wants to see how flash technology can be efficiently used, just surf to the excellent explanation of what e-ink, the digital ink, is. In this page you find a link that allows you to see the explanation in a very attractive graphical way, so even the dimmest people can understand it. A very good example of Information Visualisation. In case you don't have flash, you can download it in the same page, but who is in control is you, the written explanation has already been read by the time you reach the link. You decide if you want to enhance the understanding with the flash presentation.

Summarising, we have to convey our message through many platforms, with the shortest downloading times, in a familiar and intuitive way and using the technology to serve the final goal of achieving the understanding of the message.

*Miller, R.B. (1968). Response time in man-computer conversational transactions. Proc. Fall Joint Computer Conference 1968, AFIPS Conference. Proceedings Vol. 33, 267-277. You can find it also in Jakob Nielsen's book Designing web usability.

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