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This document is intended for a dual audience: association decision makers who are responsible for determining the directions of an association's online presence and association software developers who need an overview of the technologies that are used in developing web sites. It does not assume that the reader possesses any particular technical background. As such it necessarily covers a number of web basics.

There is an emphasis on some problems that are of special importance to developing web sites for associations. More specifically, it is intended for associations with a significant membership or donor base relative to the staff size. If there is an emphasis, it would be on problems specific to professional associations because that is where most of my experience is. Though much of the content is applicable to any web site, very little of the association specific content will have much applicability to trade associations with small numbers of corporate members which pay high membership fees.

To the extent that geography matters, it assumes the reader and their association are located in the United States of America and is written for this audience. It does not cover any problems related to making a web site available to an international audience.

Most of the document is devoted to examining the functional role of the various components of a web site and the pros and cons of various choices and their contexts. A variety of issues that have no right or wrong answer but on which decisions must be made are addressed.

This document is based on several premises. First and foremost a web site is a computer application system and often a very large and complex one. A web site is the first computer system that an organization builds primarily for the direct use by members, customers or the public rather than staff and as such may be the most important system built by an organization. It will surely be the most visible.

This document does not deal with any issues specific to an intranet but does frequently deal with a web site as an extranet. These terms are defined in Types of Networks in The Basics section.

A web site is a client server system delivered primarily via modems to an increasingly diverse and largely uncontrollable client population. A web site must be considered from the perspective of graphical user interface design. Web sites undergo continuous change and growth but this is normally of an evolutionary rather than revolutionary nature.

The author has a clear point of view on several important topics. He believes that the widely used metaphor that describes the web as "electronic publishing" is one of the most inaccurate and misleading notions ever to gain widespread acceptance. If it ever had any applicability, it was obsolete by 1997 when dynamic web content was becoming common place.

Because the author firmly believes that every web site is first and foremost a computer application system even when the primary purpose of the site is the delivery of information in electronic form, it should be developed like any other software system. Therefore this document covers some of the basics of the software development life cycle.

Regarding the "debate" between those who believe the focus of web page design deals with structure versus those who believe it deals with appearance, the author believes there is no debate. Though there is likely to be some time in the future where high speed connectivity can be taken for granted and esthetic issues can be given a much greater importance, this time is years, perhaps many years, away. The growing diversity of devices accessing the Internet and especially web sites may preclude ever being able to approach web site design as primarily a visual design problem.

Those who think they can design a web site based on a print or television oriented, graphic design background should withdraw from the web development field and return to what they know. Web site design and construction is properly the province of computer professionals who have the relevant training and experience. Where web sites require the type of graphic content typically provided by graphics design professionals, it should be fit into a framework provided by computer professionals. Most mistakes made in designing web sites that are the result of a deliberate decision, are a result of confusion caused by the "electronic publishing" metaphor.

Nothing here is meant to suggest that web sites should be ugly or that design does not matter. Rather, the design that matters is graphical user interface design. The reasons for these beliefs are examined in detail at the beginning of the section, "The Web Site As a Software System."

The author does not particularly like these conclusions and is not unaware of esthetic issues. Prior to a seventeen year career as computer professional that has included all phases of software analysis, design and development, the author was a professional freelance illustrator with a Summa Cum Laude Commercial Arts degree, and an award winning academic art training past that includes nearly four years of college level fine and commercial arts courses. These conclusions regarding the relative importance of esthetic versus functional issues are simply an acknowledgment of the diversity of client systems and the current and near future reality of Internet connections, especially modem connections, and the simple fact that computer users don't like to wait for their computer.

Throughout this document when "web site design" is used, the actual appearance of web pages is only a small part of what is meant. Because the author understands a web site as a computer application system, the design of a web site includes the visual appearance, the organization and structure of site navigation aids, the development languages and tools used to create dynamic content, programming and style standards, the directory structure and naming standards, the methods used to maintain and update the site and everything else that is planned systematically for the entire site. Almost the only thing that it does not include is the individual page content. A fundamental problem with many web sites is that there is no design for significant components of the site.

Some of characteristics that differentiate associations from other organizations have an impact on web site design. While associations must maintain a revenue stream to remain in business they are typically not driven by a profit motive. Besides their publicly defined mission, associations are often subject to volatile political agendas of their elected leadership.

Associations are typically diverse and complicated organizations when compared to commercial organizations of similar staff size.

Associations may have an audience that is quite different than the general web surfing public, especially where the association's web site is used to deliver member benefits in private member only areas. The security needs of an association web site may be especially complex when the site is used to deliver benefits that may depend on different membership levels, chapters, sections, special interest groups or other sub divisions within the association.

A core function in many associations is to facilitate communication between members. These communications may need to be kept private from the public. At a minimum the member only communication facilities need to be restricted to current dues paying members. Access to some or all member communication areas may also depend on specific membership criteria.

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