Sunday, January 22, 2017

Five Questions for Web Designers

If Frank Lloyd Wright were alive today I wonder what he would say about web designers’ mistakes. I get to see thousands of prospective clients and their competitors’ websites over the course of a year and although web design is improving I am still left thinking that 95% of web designers and web design firms just don’t understand the basics.

I have had to become an expert in diplomacy while explaining to prospective clients that the website for which they have paid hard earned money is (to put it politely) not as good as it might have been.

There seem to be five web design and build failures that come up again and again that require discussion with website owners. I rarely if ever get to talk through these points with the designers so I have listed them here as questions.

If you are thinking of having a new site or revamping your existing site you may want to make sure that these questions will be unnecessary before you appoint someone to carry out the work.

Here are the five questions for web designers:

1. Why don’t you learn what goes in the HEAD element?

Just because your client is unlikely to peruse the HEAD element doesn’t mean you should ignore it or fill it with garbage.

2. What’s so difficult about producing search engine friendly urls?

Dynamically generated urls can cause problems for search engine crawlers and may be ignored. Why not generate search engine friendly, human readable urls instead?

3. Why large logos?

Logos that take up 25% of the home page are a waste of valuable real estate. Users want to see what they came for not pictures of models staring up at the camera.

4. Do you leave blank alt tags for a reason?

Alt tags really do have a purpose. They are for the many users who use talking browsers, screen readers, text browsers or browsers on small devices.

5. Why don’t you use web standards like W3C?

Did you know that separating structure from presentation makes it easy for alternative browsing devices and screen readers to interpret the content? Or that using semantic and structured HTML makes for simpler development and easier maintenance? Or that less HTML means smaller file sizes and quicker downloads? Or that a semantically marked up document is easily adapted to alternative browsing devices and print? Or that if you use standards and write valid code you reduce the risk of future web browsers not being able to understand the code you have written?

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Information Architecture

Information architecture is simply the practice of structuring information and is most often put to use when designing large websites. It is a term used to describe the organization of a web site and includes aspects such as navigation, functionality, content, information, and usability.

Designers of large and complex websites are particularly concerned with information architecture and the formal processes that it involves. In fact most of the larger web design companies have established information architecture departments. However small business website owners/designers can also benefit from some elements of the process and here is an illustrative example.

Let’s say you are an up-market antique jewelry store owner and are planning a website.

The first thing you would do is determine your website’s goals. As a store owner this is quite straightforward because the goal is simply to sell your inventory of antique jewelry. However you can imagine that in a large organization there will be multiple goals. For example the human resources department will want to advertise vacancies, the PR department will want to communicate with the shareholders and so on for all the various stake holders within the company.

The next thing to do is determine who the audience will be (your target market). Given your experience in the store you may decide that these will be couples who are soon to be engaged or married, collectors and people looking for a gift to mark an anniversary. There will be other audiences but this is a simplified example.

Now that you have a clear idea of your site’s goals and who the audience is you can compile a list of what it should contain. That means simply write the headings not the content itself. When you have an exhaustive list of headings you can group and label them.

After you have decided on the content groupings and labels, use them to define the major sections of your site and the names of each section. The sections will become the basis for your site structure.

(Information architects will at this point produce architectural blueprints or visual representations of the site structure. These are simply diagrams showing how elements of the site are grouped and relate to one another. If the site is large they will make several architectural blueprints starting with an overview and working toward diagrams with a finer grain within the site).

Next create the site structure by arranging the sections from broad to narrow. Here is a simplified diagram of how it might look.

The idea here is that given the overall theme of the site (Antique Jewelry) you move from broad (Periods, Types, Makers, etc.) to narrow (Edwardian, Victorian, Regency etc.) to specific. Specific is in this case your inventory. The structure resembles a pyramid with your home page at the apex and your inventory at the base.

So for example the ‘Tiffany Co. three stone Edwardian engagement ring’ will be found easily and naturally by someone looking for Edwardian jewelry, or someone looking for an engagement ring or by a collector of Tiffany jewelry. Site linkage is done from top to bottom (downwards) with the minimum of linking across the width of the pyramid.

There are many other possible structures but ‘pyramid theming’ has many advantages, not least that if you add content to your site (which you should do regularly) it is easy to see where it should placed for maximum benefit.

Once the site structure has been determined you can see what sort of functionality will be required and then the site navigation will just fall logically into place. (At this point Information Architects will construct a model and conduct cognitive walkthroughs. This is simply a review technique where expert evaluators role play the part of a user working within the navigation system on particular ‘tasks’ i.e. they are ‘walking through’ the interface. Any problems with the navigation can be picked up before the site is built).

You may want to use some of these ideas when building your next website or working on a redesign.

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