Web Informant #201, 1 June 2000
I still am amazed at how many poorly designed web sites I visit in the average day. It is easy to find garish color choices, odd jumbles of typography, important information misplaced off to the bottom or extreme right-hand sides of the screen. So here are a few suggestions.
It is somewhat personally ironic that I am writing this. After all, I am woefully deficient in the aesthetics department. I have tremendous color blindness -- to the amusement of my friends and family. I couldn't draw a straight line with a ruler under the best of circumstances, and even have trouble adding rules to my HTML pages. And picking out type fonts for my own web site was a chore.
If you have the funds, the best course is to hire a good web graphic designer to work with your software team full time and ensure that the quality of presentation is equal to the quality of the code. It may initially seem like an extravagance, but if your pages are cluttered and confusing, your message is lost and your site won't be effective.
"But if you can't afford a dedicated designer, the best thing is to at least train someone properly. Here is Strom's crash course. First, you have to pick the right person. I recommend finding someone in your department who is a Macintosh sympathizer. Mac users are notorious aesthetes after all, they have to do something to put up with all this abuse from Windows users, deal with a dwindling supply of applications software and tools, and suffer the antics of Steve Jobs all these years. Think back to when you hired your staff did anyone mention that they use a Mac at home or would like one at work?
Next, you need to hire a few experts. You could pay for a usability and site design consultant like Creative Good to scan your existing site and tell you what is wrong with it and how to make it better but be prepared to pony up $50,000 or more. If you go to their site at CreativeGood you can view some of their analyses of other sites that they have done.
Another idea is buy a few books instead. Here are four that will cost you a total of $150 and deliver tons of useful learning, along with the links to buy them from Amazon:
I put this collection of books together somewhat at random, and interestingly most of them are rather old, especially when considered under Internet time. This illustrates one important point: good design and site usability isn't something new. And once you learn the basics and what works, it is timeless. Sure, you should update your content to reflect current conditions, but a good site can withstand the test of time.
Nielsen, Tufte, Morris and Fleming all deliver the goods when it comes to setting up the right kinds of web sites. Nielsen is focused on the usability and the end-user experience, something that most designers tend to forget about. His site is filled with plenty of good ideas on how to simplify navigation and site structure and is popular on the lecture circuit as well.
Tufte has written several beautifully produced books that are chock full of examples of both how to obscure and elucidate information with graphs and charts. While directed at a general audience and not specific to the web, there is lots to learn from his work and just the illustrations alone should inspire even the most linear and pedestrian of site designers. His book is useful in taking huge data repositories and producing some graphical elements that can bring out relationships and insights into this data.
Fleming focuses on navigation and how to take some of the principles of Tufte and others and apply them in practice. If you have to get started and quickly pick up the basics, this is probably the best book of the bunch.
Finally, Morris and Hinrichs cover how to match your content to your audience, appropriate use of graphical elements and page structures, where to place navigational elements, and other layout considerations. They also show you how to evolve your site design over time, something few people talk about.
Granted, you'll need a highly motivated individual to be able to absorb all this knowledge from books and from surfing around to the better-designed web sites. But in the end this exercise will be worth it, and you'll gain customers and have happier visitors to your site.
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Web Informant copyright 2000 by David Strom, Inc., reprinted by permission
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ISSN #1524-6353 registered with U.S. Library of Congress.