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Web design Dos and Don'ts
by Joe Farace

Back when I was employed in the marketing department of a major metropolitan telephone company, one of the geniuses I worked with claimed to have a surefire way to increase attendance at our seminars at which we hawked new telecommunications gear. His idea was to enclose one half of a $20 bill in the invitation; the other half could be claimed when then invitee showed up.

How did the idea work? Only 20 percent of the invitees responded and of those who did, only 50 percent showed up for a seminar--the same percentage that responded without the free money offer. Go figure. It goes to show you that you can't force (or even bribe) people into going somewhere they don't want to go.

You also can't drive traffic to a Web site if it's not willing--or can you? Too many Web sites seem to be designed by artists who choose colors, fonts, and navigation schemes that look good to them, but not necessarily the people who use (or even own) the site. What do computer users think of flashing GIFs, banner ads, and multiple frames? Most hate them, but some sites can get by with more than one trick aimed at surfers who are just looking for entertainment and not necessarily information.

One way to check the effectiveness of a site is to conduct focus groups or surveys that reveal how people get around a site, what they like, and what turns them off. ComputerUser.com, for example, conducted focus-group testing for months before settling on a design that users liked. The result was far different from the initial design treatments, which were more eye-catching but less functional.

BASIC DESIGN TIPS        Lots of designers create beautiful home pages, but users may hate them because they load slowly, they're hard to navigate around, or they're not compatible with the user's browser. As in all good design, form follows function, and what is functional must be determined by the user--the real audience. That doesn't mean that a beautiful-looking site can't be functional, but a balance must be achieved for a site to be both attractive and useful. Here are a few tips (thanks in part to the suggestions of Paul Cimino, founder and chairman of Snickelways >www.snickelways.com<) to help your Web site perform up to your expectations.

Rule number 1: Make sure it loads fast. When designing graphics for the Web there is one overriding concern: loading time. All other design parameters are secondary to the amount of time it takes a page to display on-screen. For example, focus groups told ComputerUser that they hated waiting for graphic elements to load, so we deliberately limited the file size of graphics (such as my charming caricature on the Thursday daily "SOHO Synapses" column) so that they pop up in seconds. Since many surfers have the attention span of a Honduran water moth, if something doesn't display fast, you'll lose them.

Rule number 2: Choose the appropriate graphics file format. To make sure a site loads fast, avoid large, complex graphics and follow a few simple rules about choosing the right kind of image file format. There is some controversy over which graphics file type--JPEG or GIF--is best. As you might expect, not every format works best in a given situation. Unlike other compression methods, GIF was designed specifically for online viewing. A GIF file works better when there are a few colors in an image. If your graphic contains less than 64 colors, a GIF will be smaller than a JPEG file. If your site has hand-drawn illustrations, chances are it is using less than 256 colors, making it a great candidate for GIFdom. If you're using navigation buttons, they probably contain only a few colors, making the GIF format a good choice. The same is true if you're using splashes of color. Most of these decorative files contain only a few pixels and few colors.

Because JPEG is a "lossy" compression method, text can become blurry when displayed. That's why GIF may be the best choice if your graphic contains text or sharp edges. Use JPEG when displaying photographs. JPEG allows the use of more colors but that goes to waste if the viewer's graphics card isn't up to par. Also, it can take longer to display because JPEGs tend to be larger than GIFs. (GIFs have less on-screen quality but display faster.) Because of a the low contrast and similarity of colors required for a good background, the larger number of possible colors available makes JPEG a good bet for photos.

Consider interlaced files. If your image was stored in noninterlaced form, when half of the image download time is complete, you would only see 50 percent of the image. At the same time in the download of an interlaced GIF, the entire contents of the image would be visible--even though only one-half of the image data would be displayed.

An alternative to using interlaced GIF is progressive JPEG. This file format rearranges stored data into a series of scans of increasing quality. When a progressive JPEG file is transmitted across a slow communications link, a decoder generates a low-quality image very quickly from the first scan, then gradually improves the displayed quality as more scans are received. After all scans are complete, the final image is identical to that of a conventional JPEG file at the same quality setting.

Number 3: Use an appropriate color palette. The color scheme of a Web site is key to its overall design and attractiveness. For most sites, avoid dark colors like black and maroon, and harsh colors like bright red. Instead, use soft grays, pastels, and even light textures to make it easy on the viewer's eyes. One common design flaw is a lack of uniformity of color within a site. Far too many sites alternate between vivid and subdued color schemes, resulting in an unbalanced appearance that lacks a visual signature.

Number 4: Avoid busy or inconsistent visual presentations. Eye-catching design is a necessary attraction of any Web site and a way to keep surfers interested, but too many images make it difficult to navigate through and create longer download times. With the majority of surfers using dial-up connections between 28.8 and 56 Kbps, unnecessary wait times will not only drive them away, but also can quickly alienate potential customers at e-commerce sites. A proper balance must be found between download time, target audience, and design.

Number 5: Are you compatible? While it may seem obvious, designing an incompatible site happens when a designer has his head in the sand. One of my book publishers recently updated its site and designed it so it could only be viewed with Microsoft Internet Explorer. As I was finishing this story, using Netscape 6 still gave me an error message stating that any visitors should use IE--the site even provided a link to the Microsoft Web site. I guess the publisher doesn't want to sell any of my books to Netscape users. JavaScript errors also can be an irritation for Web site visitors, as well as a problem for the legions of AOL users.

Number 6: Don't be gone in a flash. Macromedia's >www.macromedia.com< Flash technology can produce a sharp-looking site, but slower Internet connections, especially from users of free ISPs that cannot always support this medium. Although you can give visitors a choice to view a site with Flash, the introduction splash screen providing this opiton takes time to download. If the page itself is designed with Flash, users may abandon the site instead of waiting for the page to load.

Number 7: Be aware of search choices. Internal Web site search engines can be effective tools at an e-commerce site to help visitors locate a specific product, but these searchers commonly yield results that are far too broad, leaving customers frustrated and uninformed. Some photographic e-commerce sites have narrowly focused search functions that rarely produce a result that potential buyers can use, yet a site like KEH.com >www.keh.com< users conventional tabbed menus and lists to help buyers find the specific products they want. The search may take longer than a conventional text-based search, but you know you'll find what you want. If you decide to use a search engine, make sure that the results are easy to read. Users need to see results quickly and easily on the screen. Some sites only offer keyword searches--one option for displaying results--and don't allow broader searches that can be narrowed through filtering.

Number 8: Watch out for abandoned shopping carts. Many e-commerce sites lose return customers because of a flawed checkout process. According to a Bizrate.com study, the average online buyer abandons between two and three carts over a three-month period. Each abandoned cart costs merchants an average of $175 in lost sales. On some sites, customers select an item and add it to their shopping cart, but don't see the price until the end of the checkout process. Another common pitfall occurs when the price is available, but shipping costs aren't revealed until after customer-billing information is provided. Worse yet, shoppers often are not informed that an item is out of stock until attempting to check out.

Number 9: Cater to individual users. One way to make sure that your site is geared toward its target audience is to allow users to customize their site access through portal-based design. Anaconda Partners >www.anaconda.net< provides "portal in a box" products for Web enthusiasts as well as professional webmasters and corporate intranet managers. Products include Foundation Directory, Foundation Clipper, Foundation Search, Amazon Search, and Foundation Weather. With these products, webmasters can add a variety of customizable services including comprehensive search capabilitites and news headlines, as well as catch-all searches for the Web's best book, music, job, and auction sites.

A CASE STUDY        Courage Cards and Gifts is a key revenue source for Courage Center, a nonprofit organization that helps children and adults with disabilities. Its Web site >www.couragecards.org< features original fine-art greetings and distinctive holiday gifts created by people with disabilities.

Its first site, created in 1999, was not e-commerce enabled and was difficult to use; all orders were taken by telephone or fax.

Courage Cards and Gifts wanted to make its site more efficient and user-friendly, especially during the holiday shopping season.

To accomplish these goals, it hired Wizmo Inc. >www.wizmo.com<, which provides e-business services for small and medium-sized businesses. In small and medium-sized businesses. In six days, the Wizmo consulting team built a customized online catalog and the new site was launched in mid-September to coincide with a direct-mail campaign that prominently featured the site's URL. Courage Cards and Gifts' site now offers customers the choice of personalized custom print orders online. Consumers are able to purchase 12 verse selections or create their own personalized verse to be imprinted on their holiday cards.

From a sales standpoint, the results were impressive and sales during the first two weeks of operation were higher than its total sales for 1999. Courage Cards and Gifts has seen a steady increase in Web sales and a significant decrease in fax orders. Check it out yourself; it's for a good cause.

HOW DOES YOUR SITE PERFORM?        Not everbody can afford focus-group testing, but there are other ways to see how your home page (and even your ISP) is actually functioning. One of the problems is that a Web site can have so many components that even its webmaster may find it difficult to know if each function is performing properly.

If you're looking for a way to keep an eye on your site to make sure it's doing what it's supposed to do, visit @watch >www.atwatch.com<. Its Web Shepherd engine performs five critical watches that simulate a surfer's visit to your site, including checking average response time and peak respone times.

This information lets you know if your ISP is providing consistent service or your servers may need upgrading. Content Watch identifies missing content before visitors are affected, and @watch will immediately notify you if it identifies content problems; Up/Down Watch sends alerts by e-mail, fax, or pager if your site is not up and running; Link Check Watch find broken links, saving you the time and trouble of running link-check software; and Hacker Watch protects against unauthorized changes to the home page or crucial URLs. Naturally all this isn't going to be free, but @watch has a free structure that starts at less than $20 a month after a setup fee.

Best experienced with Netscape and Internet Explorer
Created on April 13, 2020.
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