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<Web Peeves>
By Daniel Will-Harris

Iím creating a new on-line magazine that Iíll tell you more about when itís closer to being open. This has caused me to do a lot of re-thinking about web sites, how they look and how they work (or donít). Normally, when I encounter bad web design I just kind of gloss over it, I look for the content I went to the site to see and ignore the rest. But the more I look at the actual design of many sites, the more bad design I see--design that could easily be fixed if people just used their heads.

I think the single biggest mistake web designers make is to take things for granted. They take for granted that their site visitor will know how to navigate their site, or understand what their weird section names mean. They take for granted that their web visitor has the latest browser or plug-in. They take for granted that their site visitor is so utterly fascinated with what they have to say that theyíll wait forever to download this Java applet or that ActiveX component. Take too much for granted and you can easily alienate your visitors, leaving you with none.

Here are some of the some of the things web designers (and browser manufacturers) are doing in record numbers that make me want to scream:

>Suitable for framing

Yes, I know i/us uses a lot of frames. But to tell you the truth, Iíd prefer if it didnít. I'm not a fan of frames for two reasons--first, it's very hard to bookmark the right URL when frames are used, and I bookmark a lot of pages that I want to get back to. It can also be hard to print framed pages--because even though you've selected the right frame, it's not always that frame that prints (at least not for me!). I know people either love frames or hate them--I love the idea, but in general, I don't like the execution under either Navigator or IE. i/usís site visitors tend to be technically savvy people, like you, so for them frames are OK. But for most users, frames are a pain.

>Useless applets

I think Java is a great idea, and occasionally I see applets that are really useful. www.behere.com has a wonderful little applet that lets you see 360 degree panoramic photos using a tiny download (a nice change from gigantic QuickTime plug-ins and downloads). www.emblaze.com has a very small, very clever plug-in to display real streaming video. Both of these are small, fast, and actually work.

But many sites contain truly useless applets--things that try to display changing advertisements, or show me animated graphics that would have been better off as animated GIFís. And for some reason, many sites manage to contain applets that just donít work, at least not for me. I donít know if no one tested them, or if they only tested them on one machine rather than several. Whatever the reason, I call these things ďbandwidth-junkĒ because they just suck up time and bandwidth and then deliver nothing.

Before you stick an applet on your page, ask yourself if itís really necessary. If itís not--lose it.

>InactiveX

Maybe itís just me. Maybe itís just my IE4 browser that doesnít want to use any ActiveX component even though my security settings say it should (more about this later). But they arenít working for me, and sites that depend on them are losing my favor.

Take msNBC (please). This site uses a clever, but unnecessarily large and slow ActiveX thingee that displays the section of the site, then pops out story items--much in the same way the Start button on Windows 95/8 pops out program choices. Itís a good idea, but even when it works, it takes so long to load that I stopped using msNBC in favor of abcnews.com and cnn.com and even the excite.com custom page.

Now my browser has inexplicably started to refuse ActiveX components, but it still makes me wait while it first downloads them. This makes sense--not.

Contrast this with i/usí own Java-based navigation bar--you see it when youíre in the forum, such as OpenWire. Itís small. Itís fast. Itís efficient. Itís useful. It works. If youíre going to use some fancy kind of navigation, at least make sure itís all five of these things.

At least the msNBC site is somehow smart enough to know when ActiveX isnít working, because when it doesnít, it then displays a GIF of the navigation buttons. Even so, you first have to wait for all the ActiveX junk to fail. I have better things to do with my time.

Of course, this is the same site that makes a lot of content inaccessible by providing it in streaming video format that didnít work for me, even when I viewed the page with IE4! Yes, I know that msNBC is a cable channel as well as a web site, but please, canít we just read a transcript on the web? Do we really have to suffer tiny, jerky, blotchy, in-other-words-lousy, video just because Microsoft is in some kind of multi-media turf-war with RealVideo? Not me. Iím not playing that game. Thatís how you vote--by not visiting a site that you donít feel treats you right.

>Stupid link colors

I donít mean to pick on msNBC (and Iím sure Iíll get e-mail from people who say I must be using a Mac and hate Microsoft, neither of which are true), but the last time I checked, msNBCís site used black text and black links, and somehow even managed to use CSS style sheets to make it so that the links werenít underlined! In other words, they achieved the dubious distinction of having made the links invisible! It doesnít require much more than half a brain to realize that this, as my mother used to say, is ďNGĒ (not good).

Before this, they used a green for links that was so light on Windows-based machines that it was virtually unreadable on their white background. I donít know who is designing this site, or if theyíre designing it on a Mac and not looking at it under Windows (which would be odd for an MS company), but theyíre making things far too hard on their visitors.

Iíve been to sites where links seem to disappear after you visit them, because they turn into the same color as the background. What good is that? Youíve seen it once and now they donít want you getting back there? Thatís good thinking!

>Sites that have names that are different than their URLS

i/us is a great site, no doubt about it. But why does the logo say ďi/usĒ while the URL is i-us? OK, I know that i/us canít be typed into a browserís address window, so their logo says i/us, but I donít care, I donít think itís smart to name a site one thing thatís close but not exactly like your URL. C|net is also non-standard. In both cases they could have created logos that were identical to their URLs. So why didnít they?

Chris Dickman, one of the founders of i/us says Iím making too much of this and that most people only type a URL one in a hundred times. He may be right, but I type URLs all the time, and I find it easier to remember those that are the same as the name on the site.

Obviously, this hasnít hurt either of these sites, both of which are doing very well. But before you try this, ask yourself if your site can afford to take the risk.

Youíd think that this rant would be enough to for one month, but no! Next column: More peeves.

 

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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 webís only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved