IF YOU PAID $1,000,000 to advertise on the Super Bowl and only viewers with a Sony 35 inch TV set could see it, would you be getting your money's worth? Probably not. Yet, this type of situation occurs on Web pages every day. And, many Web site owners and even some Web page designers themselves are unaware that this dirty little secret exists.
Less than comprehensible Web pages are becoming a widespread problem as a result of "optimized" Web pages and sites. Surprisingly, some page designers know this problem exists and think it's okay. They, in essence, feel the solution to this Web "optimization" problem is to emblazon on your site: "To correctly view this site, 'Buy a Sony 35 Now'."
Part of this problem stems from the inexperience of many Web designers: after all, how could many have experience? Commercial Web use has only taken off during the past 18 months. Moreover, experienced designers come from another world, the print media. In print, a designer's primary aim was to create the most compelling documents and images given the freedom and constraints of that medium. Although the print world has many similarities to the on-line world, also crucial differences exist.
In print, a designer's work is viewed from one common source: the paper it is printed on. You and/or your designer choose the color, size, and texture of the paper and the font size and style of the print along with numerous other variables. Control of many of these print variables on the Web no longer applies. Nonetheless, other crucial variables do apply. And too many Web page designers and site owners neither fully understand the lack of limitations the Web offers to them, nor the constraints the Web imposes upon them.
Unlike print, on the Web, not all viewers are "starting from the same page". Each viewer may be seeing a site filtered through a different CPU, operating system, graphics card, size and type of monitor, and display resolution size and color settings. Further, each may have a different brand and/or version of Web browsing software. Moreover, even those with the otherwise same equipment and viewing software may have their browser options set differently.
"Not all viewers are starting
from the same page."
Browser option settings can further diversify the way in which a page's text, background, and graphics will appear to each viewer. Some of the setting options include font style, size and color, header sizes, and background color and/or texture. Some browser software in use, particularly in the public and scientific sector, renders text only. Therefore, your pages' graphics will not be visible to this group. The vast majority of browsers, however, are capable of displaying your graphic images. Still, some users, to speed up page rendering, choose to view pages with the graphics turned off. So a page that relies exclusively or heavily on graphics to get its message across could, if not designed with alternative text, appear meaningless or blank to this portion of the audience.
Some Web designers, however, like they did when designing printed pages, continue to design in terms of how their pages look to them in one static environment -- typically the environment in which they develop with their specific browser and settings. Sites, therefore, often become "optimized" for viewing with one type computer, operating system, monitor size or resolution, browser type, version, and/or browser setting.
What does this mean to a Web site owner? Ask yourself: what if NBC or CNN "optimized" your TV ad for only those with a Sony 35 inch TV because Sony 35 happened to be the newest or most popular or most cutting edge TV? That would be great for Sony 35 TV owners. But, what about others who did not have a Sony 35?
One would hope that the "optimization" would cause no harm for others; therefore, no foul. But in many cases this type of "optimization" on the Web results too often in text misalignment, foggy images, collapsing of the layout, partial blackout of images, or in some cases, a complete inability to render a meaningful page for some.
To reduce client anxiety and to prevent clients from uncovering or at least focusing on this dirty little secret, some designers give clients, client's bosses and others, in essence, a free 35 inch Sony TV (in this case, the designer's favorite Web browser, set at the designer's favorite settings) from which to view their new "optimized" Web site. This ensures the site will appear wartless, at least to the client while at one particular computer. If that still doesn't do the trick, the designer will tell the client that the client will have to change their computers' color settings and/or screen resolution sizes to match the designer's specific set up. "See, now it looks perfect", say the designer. Later, the designer pulls up "Web statistics" indicating that nearly all that visited their site were set up as they all were anyway. "So, what's the problem?"
I'm sure it's already occurred to many of you, that one of the reasons nearly all who visited that site had a similar set up as was used by them was because others who visited the site either had their system crash or saw a site that appeared like Hebrew while on Acid to them. Would you revisit a site if it crashed your system or it were incomprehensible? It is no wonder that the "stats" showed that those who consistently visited their site were all set up as they were set up.
On a commercial Web site, however, one needs to be concerned with more than the way in which the cutting edge minority, or the leading edge majority, or oneself sees one's site. One needs to be concerned with the way in which everyone or nearly everyone sees one's page(s).
"Would you knowingly
send out an unreadable brochure
to a potential client?"
Would you knowingly send out an unreadable brochure to a potential client? How happy would you be if your newspaper or magazine ad were incomprehensible to a portion of the audience you were aiming to reach? But at too many Web sites today, a segment of the Web viewing audience is shut out or treated as second class citizens as a result of Web page designs that include less than Web-friendly graphics or proprietary Web markup language (HTML) according to a sample of the largest sites on the Web.
The more "Web designers" labor pointlessly attempting to force everyone to see their pages precisely as they see them (in their tightly controlled environments), the more often they fail to produce for others a fully comprehensible or professional looking Web page. The more they labor over one-resolution-only features, or try to "push-the-envelope" with the proprietary feature du jour, the greater the chances others will see their page ill-rendered.
Ironically, simple yet often overlooked techniques and universal standards exist that would allow a designer to satisfy not only their "optimized" audience, but also the rest of the audience in nearly all cases. And reaching and attracting a wider audience is one of the goals -- if not the goal -- of having a World Wide Web site in the first place. Isn't it?
The adopted standard language of the Web is HTML 2.0 with
HTML 3.2 a finished recommendation and HTML 4.0 now also a finished recommendation.
Information about these standards and recommendations
can be found at the World Wide Web Consortium site at
http://www.w3.org/. Some of the more knowledgeable Web
authors and designers think of the HTML 2.0 standard as the cake,
and certain useful HTML extensions and higher level recommended HTML
3.2 and 4.0 as the icing. They warn, however, one must place the icing on
the cake carefully and artfully, otherwise, one might ruin the cake
for those incapable of digesting this icing. If, however, one places
the icing on artfully, then the cake should be edible by all.
Still, too many designers practice proprietary and exclusionary
techniques blindly, that often render the cake inedible for some, even though
equally powerful, yet more universal standards and techniques would have
accomplished the same task without denigrating the clarity or usefulness
of the site for others.
Moreover, print image designers had few constraints placed on them with regard to the images they created. For the most part, the size of the image files and their corresponding image downloading and rendering times were irrelevant. Regardless of how large or complex an image, print images are viewable instantaneously by the viewer. This is untrue on the Web, however. Some designers by habit, lack of knowledge or for some other priority still focus too little on creating maximally efficient and speedy images for viewers. Slim and speedy images can be crucial to the success of a Web site. If a designer were to create a potentially award-winning image and only a small portion of the audience had the patience to wait to see it render, how much value would that image contribute to a site? At best it would contribute very little value. In fact, it could take away from the site's value. On the Web, in most cases, few will wait but a moment for a page and image to render!
"Few will wait but a moment
for a page and image to render."
Sure, one's relatives might wait, if they know they will see beloved nephew Johnny. Or others might wait, if they are guaranteed to see an image of their fantasy person performing their fantasy deed. Typically, however, long rendering times can significantly narrow a site's audience. And techniques exist (often unused) to squeeze the fat out of slow rendering, bloated images, typically without altering their appearance. Granted, your designer and those in the on-line business might have speedy, leading edge modems and special communications lines, but the general public does not. So if your site is aimed at the general public, they must craft images and image sizes for viewing at the basic 14,400 BPS modem speed. Many seasoned Web page builders recommend keeping images below 20k on a page unless you warn viewers in advance. No one appreciates staring endlessly or repeatedly at a blank screen waiting for an image to render.
Lastly, awkward navigational aids also can cause a site to lose viewers. These aids are the means by which visitors travel from page-to-page and within a page at a site. In print, movement is simple: readers turn pages with thumb and forefinger in a linear fashion. Web site navigation, however, can be more complex and, therefore, usually requires built-in design techniques that allow viewers quickly and easily to discover what is available to them at your site and allow them to be able to get at it quickly and easily. Efficient navigational techniques, therefore, can keep viewers at your site and prevent them from leaving prematurely.
If "non-world-wide" design techniques are causing you to lose 33%, 15%, or even just 5% of your potential audience unnecessarily, are you getting full return on your Web site investment dollars? Moreover, exclusionary or limiting-audience HTML tags and techniques at your site, may come back to haunt you in other ways. Suppose your boss or boss's boss were to view your site from their "unoptimized" home computer and your site's warts were to show to them there? Suppose they were to find the same situation on their friend's "unoptimized" home computer? Then later, they also found it to be true at the computer at the public library? They would begin to wonder about the value of that Web site to their business? A major concern would be that the exclusionary nature of the site was not only causing visitors to turn away from the Web site, but also causing them to be turned off to the company itself.
Many who are aware this problem exists, do not realize that many of these "non-world-wide" design techniques are avoidable about 90% of the time without losing "optimized" features for those capable of viewing them.
Some designers will opine (due to lack of knowledge or experience), that if one wants the best and most advanced site, a "small" portion of one's audience will have to be excluded in whole or in part from the presentation. Do 3,000,000 Web viewers sound "small" to you? This is a number that is excluded as a result of one widely used Web markup tag and technique. And in this case and similar cases, equally powerful, yet more universal techniques would allow more visitors to receive the intended message.
Even at the largest and most technically advanced sites, site owners could widen their audience by using more universal techniques instead of using ill-crafted exclusionary or proprietary techniques. Why exclude and/or offend a portion of your audience unnecessarily? Moreover, if such a site is left as is, eventually, someone "important" may fall into the cracks of the site enough times, come away bruised, and want to know, "who's responsible?"
To the credit of some Web designers, they attempt to solve this problem by creating two versions of each Web page, a "low-tech" version and a "high-tech" version. Multiple page versions, however, mean higher development and maintenance costs. Again, in about 90% of cases, one well-designed page could serve both audiences.
So, contrary to popular belief one does not have to lose a portion of one's audience to use advanced design techniques. To ensure you're not excluding a part of your audience and you are catering to the widest possible audience, use non-proprietary Web markup language (HTML) whenever possible, use slim graphics with alternative text descriptions, and machine validate your Web markup language (HTML). Moreover, do not stick your head in the sand: view your Web pages on a variety of platforms (Windows, Mac, etc.), on various browsers, at various display resolution sizes and color settings. Browser software in wide use on which you may want to view and check your Web pages includes: the America On-Line Web browser, CompuServe's Browser, Netscape's Navigator (versions 1.22, 2.x, 3.x and 4.x), NCSA Mosaic 3.x, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.x and 4.x, Opera, and Lynx.
The author, Stephen Traub, owner of Web Page Re<p>air, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com, or by phone at 978-462-4347. Mr. Traub has a B.A. from Harvard University cum laude in Social Science, and is a member of The HTML Writers Guild.
We'd like to help you get the most from your Web page(s). If that's what you want as well, contact me, Stephen Traub at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're undecided, see my other articles, "Designing for Multiple Browsers Without Being Bland", and "What You See is Not What Others Get", or see my background information or comments from those we've helped, then contact me. I guarantee that you will be satisfied with the results.
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http://www.shore.net/~straub/wprwiden.htm, was last updated March 3, 1998.