Site seeing

The increasing trend for glossy publications on website design prompts Yolanda Zappaterra to look into what it is that makes a hot site really hot

Last year, an e-mail from John Birt did the rounds of the BBC on-line camp. The Great One was due to talk to the press about the corporation’s on-line strategy, and thought it would be nice to list ten favourite bookmarks on his browser. Problem was, he didn’t have any, so could anybody suggest any sites for his list?

It’s an amusing story, but one that it’s easy to have some sympathy with. It is, after all, almost a full-time job keeping abreast of what’s new on the Web, and then there’s the problem of deciding what actually makes a good site. Does a site which oozes off the screen and have lots of groovy graphics necessarily constitute a good site, or is a site which is content-rich, but visually lacking, more important? How much does the site’s structure and navigation play a part, or a database behind it that allows greater interactivity and information-gathering?

Obviously, all of these things play a part, and it’s the job of the Web producers, designers and their clients to figure out the emphasis each element should be given for any particular job. But it still puts the hapless surfer in the unenviable position of having to not only find the pearl among the millions of swine, but also recognise it as such. Which is why you turn to print. If new media is growing at an exponential rate, so is the amount of print literature about it.

The last six months have seen several coffee-table books published, the latest of which, Hot Sites, edited by Roger Walton and published by Duncan Baird at 30, claims to be “an essential source of reference and inspiration for professionals and students in this relatively uncharted area of design”. But the problem with these 2D glossy tomes full of lush graphics is that, by definition, they can only scratch the surface of a site, and show the graphic design that appears on each individual screen.

But if a site is more than simply the sum of its screens, what does make a hot site?

“My favourite websites don’t depend on great graphics or witty links… they’re just fun and absorbing. Unless you’re looking for a business application, most Web-browsing – or Web wading, which is closer to the mark – is for entertainment, so I guess what makes a good website is what makes good entertainment: a good basic idea, changing content (if appropriate) and clarity,” according to Seymour Powell partner and British Design and Art Direction executive member Richard Seymour.

What about that all-important business application? According to Steve Bowbrick of Webmedia Group: “Too many design-led sites ignore the business needs of the client and the experience of the user. Given that a website is the point-of-sale, often a vital link in the supply or distribution chain, this is shocking.”

So, in either case – Seymour’s entertainment sites and Bowbrick’s business applications – the design is only one part of a hot site – with communication, content, navigation and structure all playing important parts.

Adrian Talbot, senior designer at Intro, believes that “a hot website adheres to the same basic principles of good design in any form, but uses those features specific to the medium – interactivity and a non-linear construction. Until the next technological leap, complicated graphics and ‘real typography’ render a site frustratingly slow, thus forcing website designers to achieve more with less. It’s a struggle to find a website that illustrates all of the above requirements, but Web magazine Atlas (www. atlas.organic.com) comes close.”

MIT professor Philip Greenspun’s recent book Database Backed Websites (published by Ziff-Davis at 26.95) contains memorable headers such as: “Why graphic designers just don’t get it”. And there are pertinent quotes like: “If a user wanted a flashing computer screen and confusing user interface, I could stuff a CD-ROM into the drive.” His contempt doesn’t stop there. He’s swift to pour scorn on the warnings and technical requirements that many of the more technically driven sites carry: “Any site with a ‘user’s manual’, such as, ‘Best viewed with Netscape 4.0’ is guaranteed to be awful, the designers are presupposing that the reader has a huge investment in the site already and will be happy to download 13Mb of new software. This comes from the CD-ROM world where the reader has gone to the store and shelled out $50, so you can presume a high level of motivation to reconfigure the system.” While Greenspun wasn’t able to list any favourite sites, claiming he never surfs anymore, I’m left wondering what CD-ROM designers ever did to him.

Is there a middle way where graphic design, content and information design can all live happily together? Maybe there is, and, as Bowbrick says: “The starting point for a good website is some thought about the goals of the user. Start by making a satisfying user experience and this will return value to the client. As all websites – even public service websites – have users and are commissioned by clients, this is as near as you can get to a universal truth.”

So what use is a book like Hot Sites? Imagine that you’re head of a design group and you have a whole combat-trousered new media division sweating away in the sound-proofed techno-blasting basement. While this book won’t tell you anything about functionality, content and the users’ needs (although there are sites here that excel in all those categories) at the end of the day you could still use it to beat your Web producer around the head and say “Why don’t our sites look like this? First impressions matter.” So buy it for that if nothing else.

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