Monday, April 18, 2005

[itsdifferent] Thirteen Tips for a Successful Web Master:

Being a successful web master needs much more than putting together jazzy colourful pages of information on the web. It's a lot more than painting pretty pictures that boost your website's image.What elements do all web pages have in common, regardless of the technology (database, scripting, HTML, XML) used to create the page? We spoke to several web masters and took the opinion of our own resident experts to put together the following list of thirteen principles. Though far from exhaustive, many of these fundamentals are true of any document that 

appears on the computer screen. However, these thirteen are the top considerations that govern our current web design work. 
For us, they form the basis of a design philosophy that allows aesthetic freedom while respecting the intrinsic nature of the web as a communications medium.

Visibility of the Site Structure

You have to understand that surfers or rather, most surfers, are already accustomed to another media-and in all probability the print media-prior to switching to the web. In books, there is always the table of contents in the first few pages, and indexes or glossary at the back. The author's name and the name of the publisher appear on the title page, which is always on a "recto" (right-hand) page in the first few pages of the book. The verso (left-hand) page coming just after the title page gives you more details on the age and provenance of the book, along with cataloguing and copyright information.

You can assess a book by its page size and number of pages. Book design is an art that offers a rich variety of aesthetic possibilities, but readers usually find unpredictable "innovations" in a book's editorial structure distracting and unhelpful. If you have not understood what we are trying to say, just check the magazine you are reading. The contents page comes in the first few pages, and the author (represented by our editor) comes next. You have at the bottom of the page the copyright information, which talks about the magazine, the page numbers etc.

Unfortunately, websites do not yet share a widely agreed-upon structure, and browsers of websites have long since become used to the dull friction of having to re-orient themselves with every new website (sometimes with every new web page). Documents on the computer screen inherently offer few contextual cues to the depth, breadth and context of information offered in other pages of the site.Individual Web pages also differ from print pages because they are not bound to a greater whole. Web pages are directly accessible without preamble-it's not necessary to come through a site's home page 
to get to a particular web page-all you need is the URL and the page arrives on your screen. If your reader is to understand the provenance of a document and how the information on the page relates to the rest of the web site, you've got to provide that information on every page of the site. Pages in a well-designed site should share a consistent, predictable design structure, a "blueprint" or design grid that fixes the terminology and location of landmark navigation and editorial links.
To make things clear, take the example of a popular portal like rediff.com. Rediff reads like a book. Check out the site to understand the concept better.

Stick to the Screen Size

Computer screens are windows to the larger world. The image area of the average computer monitor (13.5-20.4 inches) can barely display the equivalent of one letter-size page ( 8.5 x 11 inches). For example, the page you are reading would fit into two pages on the computer screen in the normal 10-point Times New Roman Font. That's why most web pages force you to scroll-there's only so much that can fit in such a small place. Even on a 21-inch monitor, it's rare to see a whole web page at once. Vertical scrolling is a great way to get around the problem of a small screen, but usability experts have long known that excessive scrolling can disorient users. Unformation that has scrolled off the screen is invisible and therefore harder to remember.Web designers speak of "laying out pages" but because display monitors are so small, most readers experience web pages as multiple screens of information. Thus the top of a web page is more visible than the bottom, because anyone who loads the page is guaranteed to see the top screen full of information, but many readers may not bother to scroll down to see the very bottom of the page. The reader's limited view also requires that you manage the vertical interface of pages, providing jump-to-top buttons, repeated navigation elements and other contextual and navigation cues to keep readers from getting lost while scrolling long web pages.

In addition, you have to remember where your audience comes from. If your audience is more likely to use 17-inch colour monitors, then design your pages for a 
17-inch colour monitor. Check out the website www.agencyfaqs.com. You can view this site on any screen size without any problem. However, you still need to scroll down quite a lot.

Navigation should be easy

Every page in your site should provide a navigation framework, but the relative position of pages within your site should dictate the overall complexity of the interface and navigation elements provided on each page. The small size of most display screens requires that most navigation elements be placed near the top of individual web pages, as that is the only part of the page the reader is certain to see. In a well-designed site, the top pages in the site hierarchy (home pages, major menu pages) should be dense with functionality but content pages deeper within the site should offer a simpler page framework that is less distracting to the reader. Take any portal, from Yahoo to Indya.com, and you will understand what we are talking about. The first page has a plethora of information, but as you dissect and go deeper, it becomes much more simpler and more focused.

Get The Blurb Effect

Pick up a magazine. Or let's look at this edition of Developer IQ. What attracted you most? A hardcore VB programmer or coder wannabe would have witched to the Visual Basic pages. A web master logically would have checked out this page, or in case you want the CD you might have dropped the magazine and headed towards the PC with the CD.

What we are trying to say is that to attract the reader, it is important to give pointers or leads, or in the content manager's language-give blurbs. There's nothing unique about the "non-linear" way we use web pages; readers have bounced from one content point to another in reference documents since the dawn of writing. However, the fact that we typically use reference material in non-linear patterns of search-and-retrieval or browsing does not relieve authors of the need to structure documents in organized narratives. In fact, readers depend on the presence of conventional "linear" document forms to provide the cues they need to home in what interests them. Hypertext links only automate and speed up the process of moving from one point to another. Links do not create content, and are no substitute for logical narrative structure.
An example we can think of is www.theregister.co.uk, a favourite site of many, where with very clever, funny and sometimes plain vulgar footnotes, the readers are attracted to check out a link. Of course, creativity matters more than plain geek know-how.

Think Universal

Actually making a web page is a lot simpler than making a printed page like the one you are reading right now. This page is first written, then edited and then flown in a complex publishing tool, where text is aligned and colours changed to CMYK. Then the resolution of pictures and the page is changed. A four colour positive is made. The positive is pasted to a single plate. Finally, printing takes place in a complex multi-crore machine.
And in every printed page, there will be some minor problem such as colour not being correct or a typo, or some other issue. If you have ever designed a complex print publication, you know the special terror of finally letting go of the layout and graphic files, knowing that your printer may be about to make 30,000 full-colour copies of some mistake you didn't notice. But this static "limitation" of print is exactly its best asset: when you get it right in print, your careful assemblage of content and design stays right 
forever. It does not matter to the publisher, whether you are a MIS manager living in a flat or an engineering student in Mysore-both read the same magazine in the same format and almost all copies look identical. However. documents on computer screens are inherently unstable: the layout and content are rebuilt on-the-fly every time a reader loads the document. Screen size, color depth, the typographic resources provided by the reader's operating system and the characteristics of the reader's web browser all combine to assemble (or mangle) your work at each viewing. 

Clear Mission for Your Website

Why are you here?
To create a portal on new Bolly-wood movies.
What do you want to accomplish with this site?
To be the de facto resource for the internet surfer as far as new releases of Hindi films are concerned. 
What do you want your users to accomplish with this site?
Keep themselves updated on the news in the film industry, the 
scoop, rumours and trivia, share ideas and participate in chats.
What will keep a user on your site?
Engaging and in-depth content, tips, reviews, interviews, chats, active message boards, downloads and screen servers.
What will encourage a user to return?
Regularly updated content (news, daily photos and tips), active message boards, reviews of products and interviews with personalities such as filmstars and technicians. 

A good web master must understand this very truth regarding web publishing and make the web pages appear the same to a Linux user as well as a Mac user. Every minute detail has to be covered such as the fonts supported by the user's machine, the browsers supported and even the depth and colour quality of monitors. 

Maintaining a website is essentially a battle against entropy. The inherent instability of digital media requires active editorial and technical maintenance to maintain quality over time, a much more ac-tive program than the cataloging and conservation of printed material. Few managers currently understand or budget for the amount of time and attention required to maintain a web-based information resource.

Clear Mission for Your Website

Every site needs a basic purpose—a mission that will drive your team, give your site a focus and eventually attract your users. Articulating your mission is a significant 
task and one that can seem overwhelming, but you can kick off a productive brainstorming session by answering a few simple questions (see box above) for the purpose of creating a portal, say on upcoming Bollywood movies.

Build on the Mission Statement

Each question should spark off a dozen more specific inquiries. Write all of the questions and answers on a white board in your workspace. Encourage your team (or even a group of helpful friends) to connect ideas with specific actions ("create a community message board"). When answers involve designing another page, working with a new technology, or adding any content to your website, place that action into one of the three categories: Must have, would like and can sacrifice. Later, these priorities will be necessary if limited resources or time constraints force compromises. 

Identifying Users & Their Likes

This is critical and many web masters fail to understand it. Once you have identified the user community, you should understand their likes and dislikes. Coming back to our example, take the user community of a Bollywood new movie site. Of course, the theory is simple and will tell you that anyone can visit the site. You should make a small but thorough list on the classification of users and then take design from there.
In all likelihood, it will be the young yuppie crowd which will take interest in your website. What do they like? What kind of colours do they like? What kind of language? Are there any other likes? There is no one answer to these questions. You will have to find them yourself or through a team of organized researchers.

Once the audience is identified, it becomes easier for you to design a site. Suppose the site is targeted at corporates instead of a young crowd, then the colours change, 
language changes and the mood of the site changes. Understanding all this is very important.

New Medium in an Old Context

You will have to understand that the best web design "innovations" are only careful adaptations of existing document conventions and genres. It thus pays to respect the lessons of communications history. Under-standing the above statement naturally means that the web master pays importance to the content.

The Print is Still Strong

Readers use online documents in two distinct ways and these should govern the design of web pages:

  • As a direct online experience, where the utility or content of the page is experienced directly from the screen. 
  • As a delivery medium where more complex documents are either printed or saved to disk to be read from the screen at some later time. 

Each experience requires a different design approach. Pages for online use should be relatively short, with text content that has been carefully edited to allow fast scanning. In general, "online" copy is broken with more subheads, bullet lists and pull quotes than the print equivalent. But the web is also a great distribution medium for more complex fare.

Most readers will simply print long documents and read from the paper version. Both approaches are legitimate. Slate, Salon, The chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times websites prove this wrong every day. Good content wins every time. Just be sure you know which experience you are crafting for your readers (online, print) before you plan your pages.The best option is to have a Print-this-Page option. So that 
the conservative stick-to-paper class can have the feel of paper as they devour the content on your pages.

The New Mantra of Web Design

The current web design mantra that the design form of a document should be clearly separable from text, graphic or multimedia content is a chimera dreamed up by technologists who have never designed a publication or been responsible for persuasively communicating with a general audience.True media effectiveness requires tight integration of structure and presentation. Every medium is unique; one size never "fits all." Attempting to divorce "form" (how a document looks graphically and typographically) in a particular medium from "content" (the text and illustrations) reduces documents to the lowest common denominator of communication. If you need to effectively reach readers on their Palm Pilots, design for that medium. Insisting that your home page produce an equally meaningful experience for users of computers, WebTV boxes, Palm Pilots and cell phones is just silly.

Cascading style sheets (CSS) are the great hope for a "one-size-fits-all" solution that automatically adapts content to whatever medium is required by the reader. My personal opinion is that every serious web designer will be adopting CSS over the next year, but that few designers will ever use CSS the way its creators envisioned.
We'll use them to "gracefully degrade" from one medium to another so that our sites don't break when viewed in a medium they were not designed to address. We'll also use CSS to handle readers with special needs, as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) forces mainstream web media toward greater inclusion of these readers. But designers mainly use CSS as a powerful tool to manage editorial and graphic consistency across complex websites.

Create the Right Balance 

In the last few years, there have been quiet wars raging across most large enterprises, battles for domination of the public website and corporate intranet. Public relations departments struggle with the information technology department for control of the high-visibility sites, "unimaginative geeks" battle "fuzzy-headed designers" over the home page and customers looking for product information puzzle over sites that are 
little more than illustrated homages to the corporate organization chart.
Effective websites only grow from a healthy, balanced information ecology that acknowledges and welcomes contributions from communicators, technologists, designers, editors, management goal-setters and customers who need information. Dominance by any one element in this equation always leads to trouble. Like it or not, the web is new business, and a new expense line in everyone's budget. 
The web master here has to play the 'chanakya' and balance different thoughts.

Be Flexible in Every Sense

As mentioned before, the web is an everchanging, everevolving media. Change drives it. And hence the web master must be ready to make the right changes, any time and every time. But a decision today can be proved wrong tomorrow and vice-versa. 
Hence, while designing your first web page, be prepared for something really drastic tomorrow. It's all part of the attempt to edge closer to that elusive 
perfection.



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Thanx , Group Co-Ordinators



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5 comments:

Anonymous said...

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