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<New Year’s Resolutions:
Web Peeves>

By Daniel Will-Harris

12-22-97 - Well, it’s almost 1998. Scary, huh? As we inch ever closer to the new millennium (pretty scary, huh?), somehow the new year seems more significant, even if it won’t really won’t feel any different.

Most people use this time to look at themselves (really scary) and make resolutions for the new year. As long as you’re making New Year’s Resolutions, here are a few web-specific resolutions for every web designer to make.

>I will always use ALT tags

There are only two excuses for not using ALT tags (those tags that display text before the pictures come in). The first is because you’re lazy and don’t care about your site visitors, and the second is because your software doesn’t add ALT tags to certain graphics (for example, I use NetObjects Fusion to create this site, and it doesn’t add ALT tags for its automatically generated navigation graphics--but the next version of Fusion will).

ALT tags are simple to add, yet really help your web site visitors. They can see what’s on your site, even before the graphics come in. This is vital because many users turn off graphics (to speed things up), or those with a slow connection just have to wait and wait and wait.

Remember: <ALT=A picture may be worth a thousand words, but complete ALT text can tell your visitors what they’re missing if they can’t see the graphics--even if you’ve set an entire paragraph as a graphic.>

>I will always use the best graphics format for each image

You may be able to trim your graphic file sizes by up to 50% in just seconds, which means your pages could load twice as fast. It’s true, and it’s surprisingly easy--yet surprisingly many people are still confused as to whether they should use GIF or JPG. Using the wrong format will not only make your files larger, they don’t look as good.

Here’s the simple rule of thumb: If your graphic has few colors, like text or line art (such as all the buttons on this page), use GIF. If your graphic has many colors, like a photograph or a painting, use JPG.

Of course, there can be more to it than that--like choosing the right color depth, using the web palette and setting your JPG compression correctly. But even if you never deal with these details, just choosing the right format will make your files smaller, and the image look better.

>I will always use link colors that people can tell are links

How hard is this, really? The “standard” link colors that browsers show (unless your HTML tells them otherwise) are blue for an unread link (which means you haven’t yet seen the page), and a red/purple (depending on your monitor) for pages you’ve already read.

While you can make link colors anything you want, try to use these colors unless they somehow look gross with the colors on your site. Why? Because people get confused. I know, you’re smart, all your friends are smart (well, most of them anyway), and they know that your very 60’s “harvest gold” means “unread” while “avocado” means read--but not everyone will figure it out.

It’s also bad to set links in too light of a color--such as bright green or yellow--because then you make your links unreadable. For a while msNBC was suffering from this--it may still, I just gave up on it because of the unreadable link colors!

But at least you could tell those were links. Some sites (dare I say Anchordesk--which is a site I otherwise greatly admire) seems to use black as a link color. You have to wave your mouse around the screen, watching your cursor to see if it changes shape (or, in IE4 you can set the browser to underline links when the mouse cursor is over them, a nice feature) in hopes of finding a link.

OK, you say, links are, by default, underlined. Well, not for everyone. I don’t like underlining, so I turn it off. Many others do, too. And for them, black or near-black links are invisible. Which just means people won’t link and see the rest of your site. You lose.

>I will not use frames unless they’re really necessary

I’ve been to a few sites that use frames really well. But just a few. On most framed sites the contents could just as well be displayed without frames. While you can do neat things with frames, studies have shown that frames can really confuse your visitors. The URL that’s displayed is rarely for the content page. It’s hard to select, print or save the right page. And there are still a lot of people with a lot of old browsers who just won’t see your content at all. It just gets messy. So if you are doing something where frames are vital, use them. Just don’t abuse them.

>I will avoid browser-specific HTML

Don’t let Microsoft and Netscape fragment the web with their different brands of HTML. Write only genuine HTML that’s accepted by all V3 and newer browsers. If you do want to take advantage of features specific to the V4 browser, use authoring tools that can create a single page that supports both Netscape and Internet Explorer.

>I will test (and demonstrate) my sites using a 28.8 modem

Many designers test their sites--and present client demos off a hard disk. “Gee, the site’s very fast!” they all think. Then it goes on the web, and everyone who tries to visit suffers the consequences.

The only way to avoid this is to test your site using the same speed modem as your users--most users are using 28.8 modems now. You’re still going to get a faster response, because you’re looking at a site that’s probably on the same server you are--so ask friends across the country (and world), to test the site and time how long it takes to load pages.

>I will include a link to home
on every page

Remember that people may enter your site through any page--especially if they’re reaching it through a search engine. Not providing a link to home on every page means people may leave, rather than exploring.

>I will ignore anyone who tells me that viewers don’t scroll

I wrote about this in a previous column, and now I have even more proof. The book titled Web Site Usability: A Designer’s Guide and Microsoft’s own internal “user-testing” department have both found that users do scroll. Of course they do, they scroll in all their apps--why wouldn’t they also scroll on the web?

>I will ensure my site includes an e-mail link so people can contact me

The web is a two-way communications medium. Don’t just throw out information to people, let them respond. You’ll learn from it, your site will improve, and your visitors will feel more involved.

>I promise to answer my e-mail

If I can do it, with 40-50 messages a day, often from strangers who’ve visited my site and have questions, then you can do it. It’s part of your responsibility as a citizen of the web.

>I will keep my web site up-to-date

This is a hard one, I know, and I myself am guilty of this on my own site. Sometimes weeks can go by before I update things. If your personal site is a labor of love, as mine is, then sure, you have to attend to business, first.

But if your site is commercial, then make sure it’s current. Just today my wife went to abcnews.com trying to find the URL for a story she’d just seen on TV. The anchorperson specifically said, “Go to abcnews.com and click on “Weekend” for links to the sites shown here.” Well, first there was no “Weekend” link. None. Next, when she did go to a page about some weekend shows, it only had information about the previous week’s programs. A new site with week-old news? That’s about as bad as a commercial site with last week’s prices or specs.

>I will design my web site at 256 colors and I will use the web-safe palette for my backgrounds and solid colors

Most people are viewing the web at 256 colors (8-bit), but designers are used to their own graphics being set in the millions (16 or 24-bit). Force yourself to design in 8-bit, and the results will look better for most web viewers.

Make sure to use the “Browser-Safe” color palette. Some software includes a special palette with these colors. If not, take a look William I. Johnston’s ColorCube site, the best I’ve seen for explaining and demonstrating browser-safe colors.

>I will design my site for 640x480

Unless you are sure that a vast majority of your users are viewing the web at 800x600, design your pages for 640x480.

Even 640 x 480 is deceptive--the area inside most browsers is really more like 600x350!

>I will not color text that isn’t a link

When you set text in a color, people think it’s a link. It’s that simple. Set a heading in red and you’re asking people to click on it. Yet I see this all the time--it’s really confusing. I even see pages with text set in so many colors you really can’t guess what’s a link. If your text is in a decorative setting that’s clearly not body text, then colors are OK. But if it looks like browser text and its in a color, people will click.

>I will not use backgrounds that are too busy

This has gotten a lot better--but with so many PhotoShop plug-ins designed to create tiled backgrounds, I still see too much of it. Backgrounds should always be low-contrast, otherwise you can’t read text on top of them. If you want a high-contrast design, use it only on the top, left or right of the page--then make the background area behind the text a solid color (or low-contrast pattern). If you don’t, people won’t read. It’s really simple. If you still want them to link away to another site, then please, by all means, use that big ugly patterned background that makes text unreadable.

>I will set my text with enough contrast from the background

Text on web sites should be black, or another very dark color unless your site background is dark, in which case your text should be light. I see sites with text that’s almost the color of the background and that’s just plain stupid--OK, there, I’ve said it.

>I won’t overuse black or dark backgrounds

People seem to love black page backgrounds. I’m not sure why, they don’t seem to be wild about them in print. And studies have shown that light text on a dark background is more difficult to read than dark text on a light background. Use it if you must for effect--but don’t force your visitors to try to read a lot of light text on a dark background.

>I will not copy anything from anyone else’s site and use it on my own

Well, this is just plain common sense--but it’s so easy to forget when you see a nice graphic on someone else’s site and think, “It’d be so easy to save this to disk and put on my own site.”

Also avoid calling someone else’s graphic on your site using an HTML tag (rather than copying it to your web server). No, you’re not physically copying it to your server, but you are showing it on your site, and it’s not your intellectual property.

>I will continue to be amazed by the web

As the web becomes more work (with less time for play), it’s easy to forget what an amazing medium it really is. Anyone with a computer and a few bucks a month can put up information that the entire world (or anyone else with a computer and a few bucks) can read. There has never been anything like it.

And while the web may seem to be increasingly focused on large sites from “brand name” publishers and companies, anyone who can visit one of those big sites can also visit yours. There has never been anything like it.



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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved