Word Crunchers, Etc.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD WEBSITE?


Vicky Vickers

Anyone can build a website today! As website design software becomes more sophisticated, people can design sites without knowing any HTML (HyperText Markup Language) tags. While HTML will most likely remain the language of the web (at least until someone invents something better), you can now design a website without ever seeing the language which makes it work. And that's where part of the problem lies. New web design software programs are so easy to use they allow almost anyone to design websites. As a result there are a lot of very poorly designed sites on the Web.

Website design software is in its infancy. The new WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) software allows you to create small, uncomplicated websites, but may choke on any unusual tags which you try to add. These programs also add a lot of unnecessary code, which sometimes confuses web browser software. To obtain great results you still need to know HTML in order to tweak the code WYSIWYG programs produce, so you can achieve the desired results. Most serious web designers still do their HTML coding manually, or with the use of less sophisticated software (semi-WYSIWYG) which allows them to use keyboard commands to create the majority of the tags, so they don't have to type them all in manually. This gives the designer more control as they can still see the HTML tags or codes.

So What Makes a Good Website?
I like clean, uncluttered pages, with few graphics, which load quickly and don't have animated graphics which, like the battery bunny, just keep on going and going and going and going. . . so you don't know if the page has finished loading or not. Let's look at some of the main elements of a good website and decide on some rules to make it user (or surfer) friendly.

The Index or HomePage
The first page which most people see when they come to your website is your index, or homepage as it is also known. Some sites clutter up this page with a lot of complicated graphics, many of which are actually clickable links to the rest of the site. Unfortunately, you have to wait for these graphics to load until you can figure out which one you should click on to get to the information you need. On a busy night, even with a fast connection, this can mean waiting anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds, and, I've waited longer at times. A web surfer, who has an average 10 second attention span, has to really, really want the information to wait that long for the page to load.

So, the first rule for a good website is to keep your index or homepage simple. To be effective, keep the content to the following:

  • use a short descriptive heading which describes in less then 10 words (but preferably around five words) the main focus of the site;

  • repeat this heading in title tag so it appears in the title bar;

  • perhaps put your company logo, or another graphic related to your website's subject matter, beside, above or below your heading to catch the surfer's eye, but keep it small;

  • write a short paragraph or two explaining the purpose of the site;

  • add some fancy (but not too large or startling) lines or simple coloured lines to break up and define the different areas of the page;

  • below that, add the links to the rest of your site;

  • add a few other small graphics to create interest on the page, e.g. place coloured bullet graphics or miniature, related graphics beside each link (I use a small butterfly as a bullet on my own site);

  • and finally, at the bottom of the page, provide your company name (or your name) and contact information, e.g. address, phone, fax, e-mail address, etc.

Continuity and Consistency of Design
Have you ever visited a website where every page has a different background or background colour, where the text is one colour on one page and another colour on the next page and the next? This can be very confusing. Without looking at the URL (or website address), you can't tell if you are still on the same website or have been ported over to another site. What's happening here? Often, it's the website designer trying to show-off what great artists they are (aren't!). In other words, it's usually an ego thing.

The second rule for a good website is to have the same design features throughout the site. Use the same design elements throughout your website, e.g. background graphic or colour, text colours, logos, accent graphics such as bullets and lines, etc. Again keep these elements simple!

Simplicity of Design
I have visited sites where I can barely read the text, and sites where I can't read the text at all! The background graphic or colour washes out or blends with the text so that it becomes unreadable. I've also discovered sites where all you get when you print the page is the graphics and no or very faint text. The reason for this? Usually, the background is a dark colour and text is a very light colour or white. Of course, your printer doesn't print the background, so white or light coloured text doesn't appear well or at all on white paper.

The third rule of a good website is to keep your design clean and simple. Stay away from complicated background graphics as, while they look great on your computer monitor, they may look awful on others. Different monitors and different computer operating systems handle colours differently. It's best to use light colours for the background and not use background graphics unless they are very simple. Choose black or another dark colour for the text so the information is printable.

Uncomplicated Graphics
Most surfers are impatient, usually all they want is information, they are not interested in glitz and glamour. The use of graphic elements is where many website designers fall down. Often, their graphics are too large (width, length and/or memory), too complicated or constantly dance and twirl, or they may use large image maps or too many graphics on the page. Sometimes, you can't see the woods for the trees on some sites. I've seen sites where there are soon many graphics, it's difficult to find the information I need. Large image maps are one of my pet peeves, as you have wait for the whole image to load before you know where to click to go to the page you need.

The fourth rule of a good website is to use small, uncomplicated, quick-loading graphics. Use a graphic program (e.g. Adobe PhotoShop, Graphic Converter, etc.) to squeeze as many bits and bytes out of your graphics as possible. On the web, small is beautiful! Web graphics only need to be 72 DPI as that is what most Macintosh monitors run (PCs run at 96 DPI). Keep the size of your graphics as small as possible. You should be able to see some of the background and text on the page above and below, and perhaps to one side of the graphic . . .and that's on a 15" monitor running at 640 by 480, as a lot of surfers still use that resolution. I do, as my eyes feel strained when using the higher resolutions.

Short Page Lengths
Another of my pet peeves is going to a site where the information I want is a quazillion screens down the page. Often the page designer fools you by putting links to various information at the top of the page. However, when you hit the link, it only takes you further down the page. The most annoying thing about this is, if the page hasn't finished loading when you hit the link (and if it's a very long page, it probably hasn't), then the page reloads, taking up more of your precious time. It's also almost impossible to print off your hard won new information without printing off all the unneeded information above and below it, as it is very difficult to figure out which page the information may appear on when it comes out of your printer.

The fifth rule of a good website is to keep your webpages short! It is much better and even preferable to split the information among several pages, rather than have it all on one page. In designing websites, my philosophy is a rephrase of an old axiom - KISS - Keep It Short and Simple. Unless the page is an article (such as this one) divide the information into manageable chunks, place them onto different pages and provide a link (or links) to it from another page or pages on your website. I have even divided up exceptionally long articles into several pages for one of my clients.

A Website IS a Web
A website is not linear or even circular. Surfers visiting your site will take different twists and turns depending on their interests and even on their moods.

The sixth rule of a good website is to provide multiple links. The most important link is the one at the bottom of each page pointing back to your index or homepage so surfers can get back to their starting point, or find your homepage if they entered your site on one of your secondary pages. You can also put links on the bottom of the page to other major pages on your website. And it's a good idea to put related links on related pages. One example of this is a site I manage which, among other things, promotes three educational publications. Each publication has its own page, but they all have link to a common order form. On the order form, each of the publications has a link back to its description page. So a surfer who has read about one publication and followed its link to the order form, can follow links to the other two publications to see if they wish to order them as well.

Keeping the Website Fresh
There are a lot of sites on the web which contain really old information. It's sort of like old socks, it's so old, it almost smells. Besides which, the site seldom produces the information you're looking for and clogs up the search engines with useless pages which you have to wade through to get the up-to-date information you need. Of course, I'm painting the worst case scenario here.

The seventh rule of a good website is to continually update and add new material. If the information on your website is current, up-to-date, and constantly changing and being added to, then surfers are more likely to bookmark your site and return to it often. This is especially important if you are trying to sell products and / or services.

Making Web Surfers Happy
While there are many other things to consider in designing a good website, the above rules should give you a good start to great website that is easy for surfers to use. This will keep web surfers coming back to your site again and again. If you're trying to sell something on your site, repeat visits will hopefully increase your income many fold. Think of these rules as the "Lucky Seven", however, remember that it usually takes a lot of hard work to create "luck".

Acknowledgements
This article was published in the July 1999 issue of the Victoria Macintosh Users Group's monthly newsletter "MACtalk" in Vicky's column "VMUG On-Line".

Vicky Vickers is the owner of Word Crunchers, Etc. which specializes in website design and HTML training. She is a past-president (1994-6) and former webmaster (1995-8) of Victoria Macintosh Users Group (VMUG). She also founded and was the first president (1996) of the Web Enthusiasts Association of Victoria (WEAV).

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Call me today at 250-595-6593 to discuss your website design
or e-mail me at vicky@crunchers.bc.ca

Vicky Vickers, Word Crunchers, Etc.
3290 Shelley Street, Victoria, BC, V8P 4A5
Fax: 250-595-7384 (call first)


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