Sites for sore eyes demand a dose of simplicity

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Their designers may think they’re masterpieces but many Web pages are actually as ugly as a bucketful of hammers.
A couple of times this year I have written about innovative Australian Web design companies. On each occasion I was deluged with emails from other Web designers. Now, I can’t write about everyone, but there are a lot of people doing some very good things with Web design. But there are a lot of people who aren’t. I surf the Web a fair bit, and I’m also in the middle of editing a book about e-commerce and the use of the Internet for business. It amazes me the number of lousy Web sites there are, many of them from large organisations capable of much better.

It reminds me once again that with software there is no relationship between price and quality. Indeed, this is generally true of the information industry generally. And when you are using software for design, as is the case with building a Web site, it is doubly true.
Web design is a comparatively recent art. It combines elements of publishing, graphic design, knowledge management and software engineering. Like many things, it appears simple, so much so that many amateurs think they are as good as professionals. Some of the results are not pleasant.

When desktop publishing became popular in the 1980s, through the power of the Apple Macintosh’s graphical user interface and the availability of low-cost laser printers, enormous power was put into the hands of many people who had never had anything to do with publishing before. The result was a spate of poorly designed documents, many of which are still with us today.

The primary example is “ransom note” publishing, where a dozen typefaces are all mixed up on the one page. Quantity does not equate to quality.
You see much the same thing with many Web sites. The tremendous range of variations that are available, and of tricks that can be used, tempts people into believing they should use them all. The result is gaudy Web sites that are hard to navigate or even understand, constant reminders of the victory of form over content that so often blights the modern world.

One of the contributors to the book I am editing is Tim O’Brien (www.webstrategy.com.au), who recently wrote a book called the E-Commerce Handbook, which is freely available from the Victorian Government if you are a business operating in that State (from www.mmv.vic.gov.au). Tim is a fan of good Web design practice, which he has employed to good effect in some of his own Web sites.

Tim’s three golden rules of effective Web design are short page load times, effective navigation and good aesthetics. The first of these is one of the most important. “Web users regularly cite slow download times as their No1 complaint about the Web,” he says. “Most people still connect to the Web using a 56Kbps modem, at which speed the average download time of a typical Web site is around 16 seconds. That’s too slow.”
The major cause of slow download times, says O’Brien, is the excessive use of graphics on a page.
“On the Web a picture is definitely not worth a thousand words. Web designers should remember the Web is a hypertext system in which users tend to look for words to direct them, rather than pictures.”

Navigation is also important. This covers the organisation of content and the placement of standard functionality and the site map. “The key to designing effective navigation is to think from the user’s perspective,” says Tim. “Content should be organised into simple and logical groupings, which will help users to find their bearings on the site quickly and will enable the content manager to add new content easily. The navigation menu should be positioned at the top of the browser window or along the left-hand side, because the reader’s eye scans the page from the top left-hand corner to the bottom right-hand corner.”

This is where aesthetics starts to come into play a few standard fonts, consistent page design throughout the site, clever use of colours (not too many of them), and the like. The rule, as often in life, is to keep it simple. “Simple page designs are not only the fastest to load,” says O’Brien, “they are usually the most visually appealing and the easiest to use. It is particularly important to ensure that each page retains the same look and feel, with branding and important identification information in the same position on each page.”

The world’s premier guru on Web site design and usability is US consultant Jakob Nielsen, who was in Australia recently for a series of seminars. He publishes Alertbox, a free newsletter on the subject (www.useit.com), which I strongly recommend.
We now know enough about what makes a good Web site and what makes a bad one. Even though it is a comparatively new field of human activity, there is absolutely no excuse for poor Web design. Whenever you see a bad Web page, it is because the person who designed it is too ignorant or lazy to go to the trouble of finding out what people want, or to learn from others.
Unfortunately, there are far too many such people, and far too many such Web sites.