The Myth of Electronic Publishing
The metaphor, "electronic publishing", to
describe the web, is simply wrong and the source of some of the
worst design on the web because the techniques that work to make
a successful printed page usually do just the opposite on the
When attempting to locate sites that are worth
emulating you should be looking for successful sites and not
sites that the viewer thinks "look good" based on their own
subjective opinion. It's very easy to determine which web sites
are successful - they are the ones with the most visitors. The
10 that I am going to examine are those listed on Web Pages That
Suck (a leading site on web site design, www.webpagesthatsuck.com)
based on Mediametrix's list of the top 50 web sites from July
1999. There are other lists but all they do is move some sites
up or down a few spots. No one can reasonably question that
these 10 sites are hugely successful.
When looking at these 10 sites there are a
number of characteristics that they tend to share; not
surprisingly most of these characteristics are discussed in the
literature on web site design. An excellent crash course on web
design was provided by CIO Web Business Magazine titled
"Must Haves" at
which discusses "12 essential" elements for a
successful web site.
The top 10 sites were:
On the web, traffic may be prerequisite for success but does not
assure success. While all top 10 sites from 1999 still
exist in some form, some have been acquired or merged and no longer
have an independent existence, have changed beyond recognition,
or not available to the general public in the form they once
existed. These are no longer linked to. None look like they
did in late 1999.
All 10 sites are almost entirely text
based with very limited use of graphics. The one graphic element
that every top 10 site uses on every page is the site or company
logo. The other graphics are limited to small navigation aids and
paid advertising. Only one, Geocities, has a full size banner ad
on its home page. AOL has 4 third to quarter size banner ads and
Angelfire has three similar sized paid ads. Yahoo, Netscape and
Lycos each have one tiny banner ad in a very prominent spot.
Yahoo sometimes uses this spot for promotion of its own services.
Other than Yahoo's use of its banner spot not one of these sites
uses any graphic to promote its own services. Only two sites
have any photographic image of any kind on its home page and
these are tiny.
All use white backgrounds. Anglefire used to
use a yellow so pale that off-white is a reasonable description;
they have switched to pure white with some significant blue
areas. Geocities uses some large pale yellow areas on a white
Yahoo, Geocities, Go, and Lycos use browser
default text colors and fonts. The others stay with very
conservative variations from the defaults, i.e. text and links
are blue to dark blue, dark grey or black.
All fit comfortably in a browser window that
would fit on an 800 x 600 monitor. Most would fit comfortably,
i.e. without horizontal scrolling, in a 640 x 480 monitor.
All top 10 sites have small home page sizes
ranging from 18K at Yahoo to 63K at Microsoft. Its interesting
to note that the two largest home page sizes belong to sites with
"captive" audiences. The next closest in size is MSN at 40K and
is much smaller than the two relatively big ones. AOL (62K) has
over 20 million members and when they install their software, the
AOL home page is their home page; many/most users never bother to
change their browser home page. Microsoft is the largest
software company in the world and if you want authoritative
information on their products, free downloads and upgrades or
free tech support you go to their web site.
Not one of the top 10 sites looks like it was
designed by a graphics designer. Everyone does look like it was
designed by an experienced software designer. When you compare
the appearance of the top 10 sites to any printed material,
including printed material from these same companies, the web
sites vary in look from plain to cluttered. Not one is "pretty"
or "attractive" when compared to typical print media.
The web has often been referred to as
"electronic publishing." This is wrong. Every web site is a
computer application system regardless of whether its purpose is
the delivery of information or the sale of products or services
or some combination of these. The publishing metaphor comes from
the days when web sites were made from a series of static pages.
Today every significant web site has a large portion of dynamic
content. Many important sites are totally dynamic in that every
page is drawn from information in databases and programs which
adapt to the users interest or allows the user to find
information of particular interest or purchase products or
Even if a site is entirely static, if it is of
significant size, it needs to organize its content in a manner
that makes it easy for visitors to locate what they are looking
for. Hypertext is inherently non linear in contrast to all print
publications. Every page needs navigation aids or a consistent
set of buttons or links to major areas of the site as well as
ways to easily move to the next and previous page where
sequential information is contained on more than one page. Every
page should have a direct link back to the home page; remember
one of the major ways that visitors find a site is from the
search engines which will often take the visitor to a page deep
within the site's structure. There is nothing analogous to this
in the print world.
If the publishing metaphor was ever valid, it
is now about three years out of date. All the experience and
training that a graphic designer brings to designing web sites or
pages works against creating a successful web design. A graphic
designer is used to working in a medium in which he or she has
total control of every element that appears on the printed page.
Size, proportion, color and even paper stock are either specified
by or known to a graphic designer.
None of these are knowable or controllable by
a web page designer. Though all modern browsers allow the display
of images and sounds the browser user can and often does turn
these off. The browser user can override all color, font and
font size specifications provided by a web page. Monitors range
in size from 640 x 480 to 2000+ dimensions. Especially on larger
monitors, browsers are rarely used in full screen mode and the
browser window can be either horizontal or vertical in its
orientation. Colors available range from 16 to millions.
In the print world, color costs more to
produce, but except for this difference a magazine reader can
flip past any page at the same speed. The designer must find
ways to get the reader to stop on the page he or she is
designing. The designer can apply every ounce of creative effort
to catch the readers attention and there is no difference in
delivery time of the most complex visual experience the designer
can create and a single word in black on a white page.
music, video and book cover design the graphic designer needs to
do anything that works to get a potential buyers attention. A
designer of brochures for direct mail or display racks has to get
the viewers attention so the mail piece does not land in the
trash unread or the brochure is picked up from the rack or table.
Just about every thing that works for you in print works against
you on the web.
What you need from the graphics design world
is an understanding of basic color theory and some very basic
typographic principles. These are that all uppercase is harder to
read than mixed case, serif type faces are easier to read in
large blocks of text than sans serif faces, good design resists
the desire to use a wide variety of type faces, styles and sizes
on one page and that you need to be very careful if you plan to
use a light color text on a dark background. That's your instant
course in graphic design for the web.
Every person reading this document is a
computer user and each of you knows that one of the most annoying
aspects of using computers is waiting for the computer to do
something while you sit there. It doesn't matter if it's loading
a large program on a slow computer, retrieving a really large
word processing document, waiting for a report or large
spreadsheet recalculation or especially waiting for the computer
to reboot after a crash. Any time the wait is over 10 seconds
the user is likely to start doing something else. At a minimum,
attention starts to wander but the longer the wait the more
likely the user is to do something else. For example, in a
windowed environment, you might read e-mail while waiting for a
report to finish.
Waiting for web pages is no different except
the normal reaction to a really slow web page is to hit the
"stop" button and go elsewhere. On a 56K modem the top ten sites
home page load times range from 5 seconds for Yahoo to 19 for
Microsoft, the slowest of the top 10. Microsoft has a
massive amount of content relevant to the large majority of
computer users and not available elsewhere; if you want this information
you have little choice but to wait for Microsoft's home page.
The American Association of Critical Care
Nurses, http://www.aacn.org, conducted a study of its member's
internet access in mid 1999 and found that 30% were still
connecting at 28K. Following their study they realized they had
to make their site much faster. Their previous site looked like
a very well designed association web site while their redesigned
home page looked much like the top 10 web sites and not like a
typical association web site. (Since this page was written in
late 1999, AACN has reverted to a "pretty," graphics intensive,
home page characteristic of most associations.)
The largest ISP is AOL and AOL is a slow service
provider. If you've had a chance to compare web access from AOL
and a fast ISP with similar equipment you will know that web
pages download much faster through a fast ISP than through AOL.
A reasonable estimate is that a 28K modem on AOL will take about
three times as long as a 56K modem on a fast ISP.
Despite the growing availability of cable
modems and xDSL, most web sites will not be able to ignore the needs of
modem users for a number of years. International Data
Corporation has predicted that by the end of 2002 one third of
homes in the U.S. will have high speed Internet connections.
This means that two thirds will still be web surfing with modem
connections (or still not connected?)
Another factor to keep in mind is that in-house
web sites appear much faster to the association staff than
to the outside world. Typically an in-house web site will be no
more than 3 hops away and connected at Ethernet speed or faster
is about 7 times as fast as a T1 line that typically connects
the association to all the rest of the world. Even when
association members are fortunate enough to have a "fast"
internet connection (T1, DSL, or Cable with speeds from 200K to
1.5MB) they still see the web pages significantly slower than
staff do because in addition to their slower line speed they
typically going through 8 to 15 hops (routers, proxy servers,
firewalls, computers) each of which adds a small delay. Also the
bigger the web pages are, the sooner a T1 line will be saturated
requiring a faster and more expensive connection to the Internet.
Regarding the use of plugins the book Web
Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites
by Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton, Yale University Press, 1999
says 'Do not produce web sites that depend on one browser
technology or browser plug-in ("This site designed for Netscape
4.05, and ShockWave"). Such notes on the home page of a
corporate or enterprise Web site look sophomoric and will drive
away most users old enough to drive.' Generally this book is
quite serious in its tone but the authors obviously have some
rather strong opinions on home page plug-ins.
None of the top 10 sites use proprietary
technology or plugins. Even the two major browser vendors,
Microsoft and Netscape, have developed their sites so that they
are fully functional with their competitor's browser; some of the
scripting used on Microsoft does not work in current Netscape
browsers but the site is designed so that these are only a
convenience and not necessary. All of the top 10 sites have
stuck with technology that will work with almost any browser from
the past 3 or so years.
Today's web graphic tools make it very easy to
do fancy graphic tricks such as buttons with bevels, highlights
and drop shadows; all of these "cool" effects add significantly
to size of each button. None of the top 10 make any significant
use of any of these "cool" effects.
Readers may think that the top 10 web sites
are so different from an association web site that it's not
reasonable to make comparisons. Lets examine what the top 10
sites are. Seven are portals, two are free web hosting sites and
one is the worlds largest software company. Microsoft could
probably use lousy web design and still have a successful site
though perhaps not in the top 10. They actually exceed their
own recommendations on web page size.
What's a portal? It's a web site that
attempts to organize the entire world wide web experience so
effectively that web users will make the portal's home page the
home page in the browser so that it is the first page the user sees.
In addition to providing a hierarchical categorization of the
web, each includes a search engine and at least some ability to
personalize the portal home page to each user's special
interests. Most include free e-mail, plus different kinds of
chat or online forums. Basically these sites have nothing to
sell but organization of the web but they do it so well that
seven of them are in the top 10 web sites; who better to study
for how to organize a web site.
Yahoo used to have direct links to major
online vendors but not anymore. Now they have a shopping area.
You can buy just about anything that's sold on the web through
Yahoo but its not easy to get out of the Yahoo site. Yahoo is so
big that if an online vendor wants to be included they have to
partner with Yahoo. You might actually buy a book or tape from
Amazon.com but you're still in Yahoo pages and Yahoo gets a cut
of every sale made through it. Even if you do find the link
directly to Amazon, I'd bet there is tracking so that Amazon
still gives Yahoo its cut if you came from their site. Yahoo is
so big that its virtually essential to be included if you want to
be commercially successful on the web. They have done all this
by being the best guide to finding other things on the Internet.
They have always stayed a step or two ahead of their competition
and I don't think it's any coincidence that the number one web
site has about the smallest home page of any web site you can
Its interesting to compare the last 10 of the
top 50 web sites to the top 10. These sites tend to be more
focused on a single subject than the top ten but most of their
design principles are pretty much the same. What separates 41 -
50 from 1 - 10 is that they tend to have a lot more graphics and
have an average home page size that's almost twice the size of
the top 10. Their average home page size is just a little
smaller than Microsoft's home page. Still not really bad but
these sites are typically among the leaders in their specific
area and have lots of substantive content that appeals to a large
audience. The www.websitesthatsuck.com page that used to discuss
these is no longer available.
Another metaphor that's fundamentally wrong is
"browsing the web." This suggests some casual meandering without
any specific focus. My personal experience and observations of
others is that nearly all web activity is purposeful in nature.
There are five ways to get to a site: 1) type in a URL, 2) use a
search engine, 3) follow a link, 4) select a favorite or
bookmark, 5) select from your history list. The first two are
clearly purposeful suggesting a deliberate action to go to a
location that the user hopes has a particular type of information
or product of interest. The fourth and fifth are even more
purposeful because a user is deliberately returning to a site
that they have been to previously and know what to expect.
The third is the only one that might take on a meandering quality.
This occurs when the user clicks on a link that appears to lead
to something unrelated to the user's original purpose. Even in
this case, while the big picture may be one of not clearly
directed action, each time a user selects a specific link they
are making a choice to go to a location that they think has
something of interest to them; it's not really relevant that the
user has become side tracked from their original goal.
If you think about what "browsing the web"
implies, why would any web site want casual browsers except to
increase advertising revenue based on impressions? Traffic that
has no interest in the content offered by the web site but only
the site's appearance is of little value to the site. You should
want visitors that are interested in your products, services or
point of view. These are potential customers, members or
I hope I have succeeded in convincing readers
of the need to make web sites clean and functional and to forget
about trying to make them pretty or "designed". Every
organization can choose between a site that staff and leaders
think "looks good" and one that provides the maximum
functionality for the members and the public that come to the
site looking for information. It's the choice between a
collective ego trip and making a site that compares well with the
best that the web has to offer. I discuss the specific steps to
make a site that will attract visitors, encourage return visits
and build the audience versus an approach that drives away
potential visitors in the "Web Site Layout and Organization"
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