Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Netskills Corner: Redesigning Your Web Pages?

Brian Kelly gives some sensible advice on designing (or, as is more likely, redesigning) Web pages.

How many organisations, departments, groups and individuals throughout the country do you think are planning to redesign their Web pages during the Summer? Are you? Is your university? What is the best design for your Web pages? If there isn't a "best design" how do you avoid a bad design - and anyone who has spent any time surfing the Web will know there are many examples of bad pages around.

The History

There has been an evolution in the design of Web pages. Institutions which made an early commitment to the Web tended to go for a simple text based interface for their entry page (now widely but incorrectly known as a home page - the expression home page originally meant the default page displayed by a browser). Indeed in early 1993 it was not possible to include inline images on Web pages. Once NCSA released Mosaic For X (in autumn 1993) with its support or inline images, organisations started to make use of images in a number of ways. We began to see home pages (I feel I'm forced to admit defeat in my battle for this term to retain its original meaning) containing university or departmental logos, and the use or coloured balls for bulleted lists.

In October 1994 the Netscape browser was released, which provided greater control over the layout of documents. We began to see documents with centred headings and text with a variety of sizes. We also saw blinking text on pages. A little later the user interface began to change with the advent of the FRAME tag. Microsoft's belated entry into the browser market saw the continued development of layout facilities, with pages containing background sound and inline video clips on display at the Microsoft Showcase pages (for the patient!)

With the advent of Java, and Netscape's support for Java and JavaScript, we began to see interactive pages, containing tumbling characters and advertisments scrolling across our screens. With the release of VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language) and plug-in components for Netscape (such as Shockwave) the amount of interactivity and variety on Web pages continued to grow.

Haven't We Been Here Before?

All of this new technology looks very exciting. But before we start writing Java applets and VRML logos for our home page perhaps we should reflect a little. Remember when the Apple Macintosh first became popular. Who can forget those newsletters and posters? For the first time it was feasible for end users to begin desktop publishing. It was possible to use a wide variety of font faces and sizes - and many people did. The end result was not attractive. Using all the new technologies on our Web pages will similarly not guarantee a pleasing result for the viewer. Even worse, unlike paper technology, it can result in the Web pages not being visible by end users who do not have the plugin software to view the pages.

So What Should I Do?

If you are thinking about redesigning your Web pages, the following checklist may be useful.

  1. Produce a written specification for your WWW service, stating why the redesign is needed.
  2. Define the target audience for your WWW service, and the target platform. If you are providing a internal intranet service, and your users all have a powerful Pentium system and access to the latest version of Netscape, you will be in a good position to exploit the new technologies. If your end users are located around the world, perhaps using PCs which support only 16 colours, you should think carefully before using 256 colour images (such as photographs) on your home page.
  3. Identify the strengths and weaknesses in the group responsible for implementing your Web pages. If you do not have any programming expertise, you may find it difficult to implement Java applets. If you do not have design expertise, will your home page look cliched?
  4. Consider using external expertise, such as the graphical design expertise which is likely to be available in your audio-visual services department.
  5. Carry out an evaluation of the redesigned pages. If possible ensure that external users are involved in the evaluation, as well as your friend from the next office.
  6. Define the maintenance procedures. If the home page includes a Stop Press feature, who is responsible for updating the information? What is the underlying directory structure?
  7. Keep abreast of style sheet developments. Style sheets provide control over layout in a way which will minimise future maintenance.
  8. Have a look at a variety of pages on the Web. Make a note of pages you like and those that you don't like.
  9. Use a validation service to check there are no errors in your home page.

If you get it right, who knows - you may win one of the UCISA Web Awards!