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The Question: What Do You Love and Hate About a Website?

BCC News’ Newsnight is having second thoughts on their web design recently and asked a very important question:

Web designers should ALWAYS remember: just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done.”

Stung by that challenge we’ve resolved to enter a period of rationalization.

Let us know what you love and hate, what you visit all the time, what you never visit but are glad is there. Some of you have said – is your forum a forum or is it a blog, and vice versa? Does it matter what it is? Tell us what would make it better.

Author Peter Barron is right. Just because it can be done on a web page, doesn’t mean it should. I’ve seen plenty of examples of that in web page design.

Still, inviting criticism is quite daring, and informative. What is really interesting is the comment feedback. There are some very knowledgeable folks viewing their website with a lot to say about its design, layout, content, and mechanics under the hood. Here are a few juicy highlights:

Please, Please, Please don’t use tables for layout on your main page. Its inaccessible and a bad use of standards. Please consider using CSS for layout and making your markup more semantic…

…If you’re going to redesign it, don’t just rearrange the pieces. Think what new features could be incorporated, and treat it as a coherent whole.

…I often find it hard to navigate around the Newsnight website, mainly because things that should be linked together often aren’t.

…If you’re looking for a web developer’s views…

* Move away from tables and into CSS/Div format. This will allow you more flexibility in future designs and in the long term make changes easier in the future. Also, from the standpoint of a dynamic site, less coding “overhead” to pass along. And it’s more accessible for screen readers and others.
* Too much on the first page tends to confuse rather than lure in the visitor. A common problem with news sites today is they think more is better. In terms of information, yes, it is. In terms of items on a web page, it’s not. Allowing one to choose the information through collapsible areas and subcategories could prove quite useful on this site. Perhaps like the recent implementation on the front page of the BBC News site?
* For heaven’s sake don’t go the route of most American news outlet sites and put adverts. Especially the blinking, flashing ones all over the page. Less motion is much, much more.

…Let’s see there is no doctype HTML 4.0 transitional, it’s 4.01. Your links are using unencoded ampersands. You’re using blank img aligns. You have duplicate accesskey entries. You’re missing alt tags. Your CSS is almost good, except that your @import seems to be more a case of “let’s cover everything” rather than actually write anything specific for each media type. You might want to actually try checking it against WAI too for accessibility.

…The homepage needs more structure so that repeat visitors gain some sense of familiarity, and the main navigational menu (currently on the left) needs to be re-thought so that it is both more understandable (as shown by user-testing) and more prominent.

…The page does look awfully cluttered. I’m pleased that it is not full of Javascript pop-ups or Flash, as those things can really annoy visitors. How could you improve things?

Firstly, ditch the tables and go for a CSS-driven layout. Change to two columns (three if you really have to). Centred pages are better and more popular than left-aligned pages. Go for a liquid design that is usable by both larger (1200px) and smaller (800px) monitors. The techniques are easy to find and use. Aim for real accessibility rather than just an accessibility badge. Organizations like the RNIB will probably be only too happy to offer advice. Put your links in a clearly defined area, rather than all over the place as they are at the moment. Maybe colour-code areas of particular importance.

…I agree with Jack Scribbs, post 21, when he says “The design is a nice [thing] to have, but after the first few visits, it’s secondary”. By the same token, if you keep the design simple and straightforward enough, then it can be easily changed, refreshed from time to time. Think of small things, like not having always the same pictures of your presenters there, or even just changing a background color occasionally, details that don’t affect functionality and structure, but help break a monotony of one and the same layout all the time.

There are small technical glitches and bugs. More people have noted that comments are posted double sometimes due to a way your cgi script handles posts, and a somewhat misleading error message suggesting that one should try and re-post a comment later. Following this advice usually results in same comment popping up there in duplicate. Another example is a “Back To Top” at the bottom of sometimes lengthy comments pages. Clicking on it gets you nowhere. These are just small details, but as this project and site grow in volume and complexity, there will be more of such bugs, and it would be handy to have a kind of technical error reporting feedback channel.

Over and over in the comments, please are begging for technical issues to be fixed that plague them, but also two issues covered downloadable podcasts and videos.

People want easy access to podcasts and videos. What they are asking for is either a quick link on a specific post or article, or a full page listing the various podcasts and videos available for download, putting them all in one friendly, easy-to-access place instead of spread out. A combination of both on posts and download page is a good idea.

They also asked for more than just “last night’s program” to be saved for downloading. I have to agree. Limiting the length of time a podcast or video is available for download hurts a program. If I make a habit of viewing a program and go on vacation, I make a point of setting the VCR to catch the programs I will miss. I can’t do that with a radio, and I certainly can’t do that automatically with online downloads, but I want to. So why not hold the audio and visual files for one to two weeks, or even a month, before removing them from the site. I think it would make a lot of viewers very happy.

The second issue that came up repeatedly involves technology, but specifically the inability to access podcasts and video in the format they desire. Keeping up with popular browsers, computer systems, cell phones, handheld computers, music players, and other media is hard work, especially since standardizing things is still a challenge, is hard work. It’s a tough road to walk, but people are asking that one video file be playable on anything, or that multiple formats be available for multiple needs. That’s a lot to ask, but they are asking.

I also have to admit that I was surprised at the backlash against the site’s designers for using tables in their design. Tables are so 1999 and not web standard, so why would designers who just created this new design within the past year even consider using ten year old technology? It boggles the mind.

Unfortunately, it’s amazing how many so called “professional web designers” are designing with 10 year old technology. I recently did some consultancy work with a university and found that their computer/web design school was in charge of the university’s web page design and development. Yet, the entire site was designed with nested tables and broke every accessibility standard and violated United States accessibility and equal access laws. This doesn’t speak well for the university’s educational program, does it?

There is much to learn from the comments in that request by Newsnight, and things to consider as you design, redesign, and develop your own web page design.

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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen, member of the 9Rules Network

Member of the 9Rules Blogging Network

One Comment

  1. Posted September 12, 2006 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    I think Newsnight’s exercise was an interesting one and it certainly generated a lot of well-informed comments. They launched the revamped website at the end of August and a post on the Newsnight blog at the end of August said: “Many [comments] raised similar themes and we’ve tried to incorporate or reflect most of them. The result is, we hope, less cluttered, clearer and much easier to navigate. And, as many of you requested, we’ve killed the GorDaq”.

    The two-week turnaround from inviting comments and launching the site seems very quick to me and makes me wonder whether they already had a very good idea of what changes they were going to introduce before inviting the feedback.

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