Netscape and Mosaic to the contrary, HTML and the World-Wide-Web are not about what your information looks like, but how it is organized. There are still some folks out there who are using text-based browsers, or older graphics browsers, which simply do not support some of the layout features of the Netscape Extensions. One of the commonly overlooked side-effects of the "information revolution" or (shudder) "information superhighway" is that much of the software encourages a concentration on look-and-feel while largely ignoring content.
Almost any dedicated Web browsing session will turn up at least one page so overburdened with tiled backgrounds, server pushes, cgi-bin scripts, huge graphics, and tables that your system grinds to a complete standstill. ISDN lines are wonderful, but even with them I sometimes find a page that takes minutes to load, or simply so overburdens the system that it never completely loads without hitting reload once or twice. The only thing a page like this communicates is a sense of frustration.
The development history of the original HTML specifications means that when you dig down through all the layers of bells and whistles that have been added, what you find is a very simple document generating tool based on a hierarchical outlining system with the added ability to include pointers to other documents (or particular places within those documents).
Keep this in mind when you design your HTML documents. What matters is how it is organized. There is a reason that index.html is a default. The questions you must answer are: what are the main topics, what are the subtopics, what should be given special emphasis? I don't know about you, but I seem to remember spending a lot of time in high school learning exactly this method of organizing a research paper. (yes Mrs Barry, you were right all along)
Given that the vast majority of users browse the Web using Netscape, all of this is easy to forget. What is also easy to forget is that Web documents are not graven in stone. The nature of the beast is fluid at best, and any reasonable approach to Web publishing will acknowledge this. Concentrate first on the information you want to communicate. Place that basic document on your Web server. As you get more time, add features to it. But know when to stop.
More than a few teachers have decried the need to produce ever-more complicated multi-media events for their students. In essences, they find themselves competing for attention against such big-budget rivals as MTV and CNN. There is increasing pressure to make their information "fun" and entertaining.
To some extent, popular culture has produced a generation with the attention span of a gnat. Information is disjointed, non-sequential, and usually ranked according to its visual appeal rather than its actual value. To see confirmation of this, simply spend some time on the world-wide-web studying sites which are visually complicated. (clue: look for the slow-loading sites; there tends to be a negative correlation between depth of information and visual complexity)
Suggestions for Web Pages: (do as I say, not as I do!)
- 1: always include the URL of the top page of a sequence in the address block of all pages. Given that a Web Page that's here now could be gone tomorrow, I tend to print pages I especially like. It's nice to know where they come from if you ever want to go back to them and all you have is the printed page.
- 2: include a "last revised" date
- 3: include an e-mail address for person responsible for the page "Webmaster"
- 4: establish a regular habit of checking out your own page, especially checking out the links outside the area you control. Sites sometimes blink in and out of existence in just a few days.
- 5: with listings services, periodically check how you are listed and that the link works
- 6: avoid navigation buttons-they are rarely any more obvious than a text link, and take up more bandwidth. If it isn't information, why is it there?
- 7: don't use
(annoying, isn't it?)
- 8: tiled backgrounds are more trouble than they're worth
- 9: don't set the text type to white-printing is going to be a bother
Dale Austin 1995
Note: as of 2003, many of these items have been invalidated by software and hardware changes.
You might want to check out the work of Jakob Nielsen and other usability experts.
Dale Austin 2003
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008