Taking Your Talent to the Web | 3
Taking Your Talent to the Web
CLARITY BEGINS AT HOME(PAGE)
In developing GUI elements, web designers will frequently begin with the brand: funky elements for an entertainment site pitched at 20-somethings; somber, restrained elements for a news or medical site; and so on (more about branding in a moment). As each site presents a visitor with new GUI elements, those elements have the potential to brand the site while offering visitors a sense of identity and place. These elements also have the potential to confuse the heck out of people. As with the operating systems they mimic, GUI elements should be as clear and easy to use as possible. Clarity and ease of use are especially crucial factors in the development of iconic interface elements and site structure labels.
I Think Icon, I Think Icon
Graphical devices (icons) guide viewers through the site experience. For ward and reverse arrows are common ways of navigating from page to page. Graphical buttons are often used to trigger certain actions. For instance, a Play button may be used to trigger a recorded sound or an embedded, streaming QuickTime movie. A pen or pencil icon may link to a message board, or a book or newspaper icon can guide the visitor to a downloadable, printer-friendly version of the pages content.
Printing in the Browser Wars
Why aren't web pages themselves printer-friendly? It is because too often browsers are rushed into production as the latest assault in the "Browser Wars," instead of offering carefully considered and usable features. By the time this book is released, the worst of the Browser Wars will be behind us.
Icons, with or without text labels, frequently serve as quick, visual cues to the site's offerings. They also support international visitors for whom English is not a first language. Sites with massive amounts of content on their home pages, such as portals and magazine sites, can use icons to better organize and clarify sections (see Figures 3.11 and 3.12).
Figure 3.11 The icons seen here help draw the eye to the sec- ondary menu, and some of them even communicate in ways a non-English speaking visitor might understand. Designing icons that communicate is difficult. Competing ele- ments must fit within the narrow width of a lowest- common-denominator monitor, leaving little room in which to develop legible imagery (www.eloquent.com).
On the Web, as in talking to a policeman, clarity is a virtue. While it is tempting to get really creative with such elements, the most creative solutions are often the clearest.
Say you are designing a site for a chain of Wild West theme hotels. In visiting the hotels and studying the chain's promotional brochures and advertising, you can't miss the fact that Western paraphernalia is used to brand the franchise from the bronze horse head coat hooks in guest closets to the cowhide couches in the lobby. Thinking like a brand steward, you decide it might be fun to use lassos rather than arrows to indicate "previous page" and "next page" on the site. To you, as a visual person, it is readily appar ent that the rope at the edge of the lasso "points" forward or backward.
Well, cowboy, test that design on some users before you fight for it. If users are confused by your branded iconic elements if the lassos strike users as meaningless ornamentation rather than functional GUI elements be pre pared to rustle up some traditional left and right arrows, even if it chaps your spurs.
Figure 3.11 We are clearly in the land of the recreational web- site, as denoted by the tagline "professional martini consumer." Few sites would devote all screen space to a simple menu structure. Indeed, this the site recently went offline for a redesign (www.drymartini.com).
Adding "invisible" text labels to an icon via the ALT attribute of the HTML image tag or the TITLE attribute of a linked image can help explain the icon's purpose to inexperienced users. In modern graphical browsers, these ALT and TITLE attributes generate popup "tool tips" or help-balloon-style blurbs, enhancing the page's interactivity in a meaningful and user-friendly way.
Such tags also make the content more accessible to the visually disabled, to those using non-graphical browsers or Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) such as the Palm Pilot, and to folks using conventional browsers who surf with images turned off. (As mentioned in Chapter 2, accessibility makes good business and moral sense. Besides, it's U.S. law.) When invisible text labels are not enough, consider adding visible text.
Structural Labels: Folding the Director's Chair
In the early days of the Web, designers and copywriters frequently had fun coming up with creative labels for menu bar sections and other navigational items. For instance, the home page of a video editing company's site might be labeled "The Director's Chair," while downloadable video clips would be found in "The Screening Room."
Today, most web agencies find it better to err on the side of clear copy than cute copy. After all, if the visitor does not immediately grasp what "The Screening Room" means, she could leave the site without having discovered one of its most important content areas. While alternatives to traditional labeling may be appropriate for some types of sites (gaming sites, fun sites for kids), many corporate sites depend on such traditional labels as HOME, ABOUT, and CLIENTS to facilitate easy user navigation. Dull as dishwater, we know. Be creative clearly, and it need not be dull at all.
The Soul of Brevity
Back in Chapter 2 we recalled David Siegel's three hallmarks of good web site design:
Because most web users have little time and less bandwidth to waste, good interfaces are rarely overwrought. Given the choice between a simple, functional design and one that is ornate, most folks prefer the simple web layout that loads quickly and is easy to understand. Web users don't tell you this by peering over your shoulder; they tell you this by visiting the site or neglecting it.
Even when bandwidth is not an issue, quick, clear communication always will be. Users lucky enough to have T3, cable modem, or DSL access may not be slowed down by a cluttered interface, but they will be just as baffled by it as dialup modem users are. Regardless of the user's access speed, your communication must be fast and clear, or users will retreat faster than you can say "failed dot com." It's a peanut butter and jelly scenario: By focusing on functionality, you will develop low bandwidth interfaces; by focusing on bandwidth, you will develop interfaces that speak quickly and clearly.
Many web designers initially feel constrained by this. Some feel they cannot truly express their vision unless every page sports a 128K background jpeg, an animated menu bar, and a series of spinning logos and pulsing photographs. We've all had that feeling. It passes as you discover the joy of communicating richly while using a few elements well, or it never passes, and you locate clients with tastes as baroque as yours. When citizens avoid visiting the resulting sites, your client and you can toast your superiority to the rest of humanity and then hurry on to the next failure.
When bad web designers die and go to Hell, they will spend eternity searching for the Heaven option on an endless menu bar of purgatories. (That is, if they're not simply stuck waiting for an infernal intro to finish down-loading.)
Created: May 07, 2001
Revised: May 07, 2001