WEB design has come a long way since the dark days of 1994. Or has it? The supposed broadband revolution – where every household would be linked via a video-quality connection to the Internet and we’d be watching Trevor MacDonald on the ITN website – has yet to happen. Five years on, website design is still as much about allowing people to find information quickly and easily as it is about looking good while doing it.
The drawback has always been bandwidth. In print, the economies of scale mean that using more paper or larger paper sizes adds only fractionally to the cost of the overall project. But every single bit of bandwidth costs money – the more a website uses, the more you pay. Big graphics for site interfaces need more bandwidth – but in information design, the aim is to allow access to the site fast. On the Internet, the more multimedia the users experience, the more bandwidth required. Bandwidth costs money for the user on a website and the content owner sending it to them, and also costs time. Bandwidth is measured in bits and bytes – the more bytes, the longer something takes to download. It is not for nothing that the Web was long ago jokingly renamed the worldwide wait.
It was under these constraints that the design community entered in late 1994, blinking into the harsh light of new media. At first, websites were text-based – resembling typed pages of Courier font text. Graphics were secondary, and tree-type site structures predominated, enabling users to burrow down into ever deeper content. In 1995 there was a rash of sites with garish colours, superfluous graphic elements, and the legendary flaming logos – immortalised in IBM’s TV campaign satirising early Web design. (A businessman asks a designer: “Can I sell my products on the site?” He replies, “No, but I can make your logo look like it’s on fire.”)
This period was characterised by often heavy graphics, which – because they had a large file size – sometimes looked good but took an age to download. At this point many ordinary users literally turned off – disabling their Web browsers – “surfing with the graphics off”. Going on-line was expensive enough to begin with, without having to spend even longer waiting for someone’s logo to download.
In 1996 browser plug-ins – software added to a browser to play animations or sounds – came into vogue. Like heavy graphics, these too failed to enthuse users, and sites built entirely with plug-ins are still rare three years on.
The following year things settled down a little, and the emphasis was now not on interface design created to suit the user, but on information or navigation design where structure is key. Perhaps the best exponents of this have been the search engines, or portals, as they have come to be known. These information-rich sites are designed as the starting point to a Web session and offer a host of services, from search, to games to free e-mail addresses. They have to be highly structured in their presentation, as they are designed to be all things to all people.
Microsoft network’s start site (www.msn. co.uk) launched in May last year, and is © designed to be the first page users hit when going on-line. From there they can literally start their on-line session. Sara Cromie, programme manager for the MSN’s UK portal MSN Start, says any project to design a portal starts with the user. “We have to think about who the audience is. MSN has several different types of user, from novices to advanced users,” she says. By employing a simple blue strip above each page with relevant links, the user is able to navigate through the site without getting lost.
Many sites adhere to the maxim that 80 per cent of users only want 20 per cent of the content. This has led to the development of multiple entry points for sites – the creation of a flat structure: core content is just below the surface of the opening page. “Carrying too much content on the site’s opening page is a common mistake. What’s needed are devices which draw the eye to the priorities, perhaps using text in a different colour,” says Cromie.
In today’s on-line market, portal or gateway sites carry the most traffic of all sites, serving millions of users a month. Any new project must, therefore, be designed from the ground up. Cromie explains: “It’s no use adding on content areas at a later date, as this undermines the overall structure of the site. If you outgrow your existing design you need to start again.” User feedback is crucial to creating the right navigation. Even small sites go through user testing, enabling designers to understand how users find their way through it. “I can’t stress how important this is. No matter how many good designers you have, they will never be able to predict how someone uses the site,” she says.
Modern sites are not just interfaces to information, most are commercial entities. If a user cannot navigate, the site will not be able to sell advertising or products into it. Judith Hoffman, European product director with Excite UK, says portal site design is about delivering exactly what the user wants, click by click. “Interface design is not subservient to navigation, but it has to complement it.” There is a delicate balancing act between presenting the desired information, while allowing users to reach other commercially critical parts of the site.
“Where are the ad banners going to go? Where to put the sponsors? Information sites have the advantage of context. Often when a user is doing a plain search or navigating through Excite’s channels, the ad which accompanies the page will be exactly what they are looking for, so that needs to have profile,” says Hoffman. The old issue of bandwidth is never far away. “Page ‘weight’ [how much each page contains in data] is in a constant tussle with look and feel,” she adds.
How much data each page contains is crucial. A site has to accommodate millions of users – more users means the site requires more bandwidth and therefore more cost to the site owner, so every page needs to be as slim as necessary to satisfy the user and keep the site economical. A common practice is to keep graphics files below 10Kb. Portals are also designed to keep users rattling around inside the site.
But there is a danger of losing the user once they’ve found what they are looking for. What’s required is not “deep”, but “sticky” content, like horoscopes or sports results. The designer’s challenge is to keep those suggestions in front of the user’s nose as much as possible.
Portal site design has its critics, however. Mike Bennett, creative director at Razorfish believes portals baffle the average user. “Carrying 15 different methods of entry into the site isn’t the best way of going about it… most users don’t know what they want, so asking them or presenting myriad options is not a solution,” he says. He cites the BBC.co.uk site as a poor example. It doesn’t make enough of its key features, unlike the BBC News site which directs the user to its core content up front.
Another challenge to the information site designer is the menu driven system. Sometimes, as on the EasyJet site, the menu for bringing up desired pages is a Java applet (a small application which, once downloaded into the browser, can operate the site like a remote control). Then there are frames, on which there are two schools of thought. The first is that they enable other frames to be loaded into the browser without duplicating the navigation menu or toolbar. The second is they are technically obsolete. The latter view tends to hold sway. Frames make sites unnecessarily complex, and introduce practical problems: it is very difficult to audit a site with frames for the purposes of selling advertising.
Could new developments in technology affect information design, or is this irrelevant in the narrowband world of the Net? The latest browsers support DHTML (dynamic HTML), which allows for more animated sites using relatively low bandwidth. However, the real changes in browser technology have already come with the last three versions of Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer. The next generation of new media designers will have a plethora of platforms to deal with. Bennett points out that new media designers need to be prepared for the distribution of information among a number of appliances, from the TV to the hand-held PC.
The grand-daddy of all the portal sites, Yahoo! (www.yahoo.co.uk), has barely changed since 1994. UK business development director Ralph Averbuch describes its spartan look as a design signature. “The biggest change recently was adding a right-hand side box carrying news. Our minimalist design gives us the edge on the low bandwidth Internet and that has fed through to our large traffic figures. As a hierarchical directory Yahoo! almost had a structure before it had any semblance of design,” he says. So we are back where we started, in a narrowband world where more than one click to reach what you want will just not do.
This month Excite redesigned in order to emphasise its personalisation service. This enables users to start from a page which they have effectively designed themselves. It might incorporate favourite links, or a special news service. From a gateway to search, Excite now emphasises not just search, but user registration – bringing the key strengths of the site to the fore. This is as much a hard-headed commercial decision as one based on design, since the more users who register, the more Excite can use this information to leverage its position among advertisers, retail partners and the financial markets. ‘We also wanted to give more options for searching both outside on the wider Web and inside the site. We refreshed the channels to highlight content likely to be more important to the user, allowing the UK content to bubble to the surface,’ explains Judith Hoffman, European product director with Excite UK.
Excite UK has dropped the full-sized banner ad on its front page in favour of a half-sized banner. ‘It was a trade-off with our sales people – we wanted more room on the splash page to display more features, so they agreed to go down a size on the banner,’ says Hoffman. ‘Besides, in my humble opinion, good banners look like information, not advertising.’
To scroll or not to scroll? That is the question many sites face. Excite’s original front page needed no significant scrolling down for the user to see the whole page. In the redesign, content has been added, meaning one or one and a half scrolls is required. ‘Usually with a directory or a search engine, the user expects a little scrolling, especially on a search results page,’ says Hoffman.
Budget airline EasyJet had a website for just over a year which didn’t do a great deal other than promote the free-phone number. Traffic to the site was so substantial that the decision was taken to redesign the site for e-commerce in order to take bookings on-line. The first site was so successful that the introduction of on-line booking was brought forward by six months. Darren Sheffield, IT and new media director with Tableau Design & Marketing, which revamped the site, says the ‘easy’ theme fed through to the site redesign. ‘There are only three buttons on the first page – news, information, and tickets, obviously the prime button. We also re-organised the menu structure, upped the level of branding and created a text only version of the site,’ he says. Plug-ins were avoided and the menu bar was developed as a Java applet, which (once downloaded) remains a constant navigation interface, minimising the amount of clicking required to get to the desired information.
The structure of the site was changed to allow internal promotions and cross-selling of flights to take place. If EasyJet mounts a new promotion, ad banners go into the site and a new mini-site is created quickly to carry that content, a little like adding a spoke to a wheel.