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Web Design: The Next Generation
by Paul M. Carhart

How many TV shows have you recently seen advertising their Internet address? How many talk shows invite you to participate via e-mail? How many companies are now pumping products, services, customer support and sales directly into their consumer's living room, bedroom or home office? A ton of them, that's how many - and many more by the time this you lay your eyes on this article.

There is no denying that the Internet is taking the world by storm and, just like black and white TV's, top loading VCR's and 8-track cassettes, the Web is improving, re-inventing itself into a something new and different. What it might become is up to those of us who are involved it's transformation.

Where It Came From: The Chicken or the Egg Syndrome

The more things change, the more things stay the same. It's an age-old adage that rings hauntingly true on the Internet. As most people know by now, the Internet and specifically the Web first started out as an information base for use between professors and universities that could be dialed into via modem. Sites did not need to be designed or even pretty. Users were looking for information and when they found it, they moved on. These people didn't need or want to be entertained, engaged or otherwise advertised to. The technology for viewing this information, known commonly now as the Web Browser was as sophisticated as it needed to be. It could read text files.

As Netscape Navigator rose to the forefront of browser technology, the user was able to view GIF and JPG images on the Web and information was able to be shared visually, usually as some sort of diagram, chart or an occasional photograph. Not surprisingly, it hasn't stopped there.

Now entrepreneurs, corporations, writers, designers, programmers, engineers, content providers, PR agencies, salespeople, ad agencies, print shops and a host of other contributors have added their two cents to the Web melting pot, creating a lot of diversity, tons of information and a myriad of very badly designed Web sites. Everybody wants in on the phenomenon and that fuels the phenomenon. It's a classic case of Chicken and the Egg Syndrome.

More examples of this syndrome is evidenced by the technology itself. When the Web was mostly text, the primary browsers supported text. As the technology grew and was able to view other kinds of files, the Web began to sport icons, graphical page headers and the genesis of advertising. These vestiges of advertising forced the technology into other directions such as the ability to read animated GIFs, sound and other forms of animation. Current Internet dazzlers such as Shockwave, Flash, Enliven, RealAudio, RealVideo, Java and Java Script add zing to a site and pizzazz to a page. These technologies are now often considered in the early developmental and conceptual stages of design for many high-tech sites.

Commercial Success

Just as any form of commercial art, designing for the Web requires a careful balancing between two completely different "clients." The differences on the Web may be more drastic than in TV, radio, and print - but the principle is still the same.

The first and most obvious "client" is the person, company, corporation or consortium who is paying for the site. This is who wants the site either dreamed up from nothing or re-designed for reasons ranging from a new corporate image/direction to theming a site to a particular holiday or season to satisfying the latest trend in a specific industry.

The other "client" is the consumer. In print, radio and TV it is the person who will view the ad and ultimately be persuaded, cajoled or otherwise hypnotized into some sort of action, usually spending some of their hard-earned dough. There are billions of dollars spent every year in determining who is watching, reading or listening to what in order for ad agencies to target the correct people on the correct show or magazine with their creative ingenuity.

It is much the same on the Web. However, the many forms of advertising on commericial sites aside, targeting the consumer is a little tougher. Web surfers are diverse, from all walks of life and searching for only they know what. In order to get these people back to your site over and over again, the Web site in question needs to be designed in such a way as to please the consumer as well as the client.

Learning Our Lessons

While whiz-bang technology of the week may be "cool" and may thrill a user the first time they come through, rarely will it bring people back a second time much less on a weekly basis. So what brings them back? The answer, more often than not, is content. There needs to be something there that the user needs or wants. It could be news, TV listings, press releases, or comic strips. It really doesn't matter what it is, as long as it is something of interest to your viewer. Often the content is left until last. We spend most of the budget on designing "cool" sites with innovative technology flashing around and we use whatever is left for content. As soon as we realize that content is the reason people surf where they surf, the sooner the "mystery" of a great web site will be resolved. Content needs to be king. The zippy technology is merely a means of delivering it. The cornerstone for all advertising is that there has to be a message that is being communicated, a story to be told. Without it, there is very little point to the whole venture. It winds up as merely moving images, flashing lights and pretty pictures. On the Web, content should rule the realm.

If content would be king, then navigation should be queen. Users will not only need to be able to get around a site effortlessly but will also need to know where they are, where they came from and where they are going. In the past it has been simple and sometimes redundant. Sites would start with a "home page" and then split off to an unspecified number of "sub pages." However, on the Web, a link can go anywhere and it isn't very long before a user doesn't know where he's been or what he's missed. Pretty soon hešs being asked for his Adult Verification number. Sites have been designed very much like a virtual Disneyland, spinning the user into areas of interest from a variety of places.This approach has been met with mixed feelings by both customer and client and everyone is left asking the question: "Is there anything more?" The answer? Only if we come up with it.

A more innovative approach might be to design a site as an experience that is meant to be viewed in a specific order. Instead of your virtual Disneyland, you design a virtual Disneyland attraction where the message is communicated through the succession of events that are pre-determined by the designers to communicate the desired message. This keeps navigation queen, allowing for less "lost" users at your site who click out after the first page. A site can be laid out in an exploratory manner so the user can find his own way through the site by using the signposts left by the designers along the way. Queen Navigation should be able help you find King Content without a lot of trouble. Give the user destinations but the user should be able to take many different routes to get there.

Now imagine the emperor and his queen without their clothes. This is how important the visual design of the site is. Just as it might be impossible to separate some queens from their clothes, navigation and design should be integrated almost seamlessly. Again, there is little new here. As browser technology gets more and more advanced, it is now possible to create Web sites that are just as dynamic as any print ad or TV commercial for that matter. Although the Web is a different medium than any other, traditional standards of design still apply. More often than not, Web designers began in print and have traditional artistic backgrounds. Designers rooted in the basics of communication design are able to take a message and communicate it in a visual way. A picture really is worth a thousand words. If you want to give someone three thousand words, arrange three pictures and apply classic rules of typography on your site to tell the same story. It will be much more engaging.

The web is an interactive medium, unlike print and TV. Using proven advertising techniques to engage your audience is a sure way to be certain your targets are engaged. In advertising, there are three key things to be mindful of. Make use of them as you look over your ad or site design.

  1. Does it make "Human Contact?" Is there some element present that your target audience will identify with and respond to? If your audience can't relate, they will not appreciate what it might be that you are offering them and it is unlikely that they will respond.

  2. Does it break the "Boredom Barrier." If your site just sits there with square pictures and block type, don't expect people to come back. You might have all the information and content in the world at your site, but if there is nothing to do or the site is actually plain, don't expect a return visit. Make it fun. A little humor will work wonders.

  3. Does it address the "What's in it for me?" factor. This is where content comes in. If you don't have anything to offer an audience, why would they come to your site over and over again? It could be a game. It could be a cartoon. It could be a newsletter. It could be a comic strip. You might give away something, a product or information, for free. Whatever it is, it has to be something your audience wants and is willing to go specifically to your site to get. There are plenty of other sites to surf to and your competitors will soon be online if they already aren't.

Using classic tried and true design and advertising techniques will start you out on the right track for designing a solid, effective site that accomplishes your goals.

What About That Technology?

There is no doubt about it. Technology is what makes the Internet so "cool." The idea that everyone can be a publisher is actually a little scary, but true. Internet technology changes and improves itself so quickly that it is hard to keep up, try as we might. What may have been an unstable technology a week ago might be state-of-the-industry today. Conversely, a cutting edge technology that isn't re-invented as the rest of the Web changes might become yesterday's news.

Technology is important but it is not the most important element in developing a site. Note that it is listed about fourth in this article under content and navigation/design.

One of the problems with relying on the latest in technology is that new Web technology can come from so many places. It really is hard to keep up. Browser technology changes very frequently as the two primary browser company (Netscape and Microsoft) battle it out for dominance. These two companies virtually decide what types of files that you will be able to see on the Web and how you are going to see them.

If your browser doesn't see a certain type of file, never fear, there is probably some third party out there somewhere who has developed an alternative form of sound or animation delivery that is going to "innovate the industry" and create the "new standards" in a medium that just now really beginning to establish standards. All you'll need is their plug-in (a driver-like file that is installed into your browser) and you'll be able to view more things. Of course, you have to wait to download the plug-in and then wait for the these files to load. It's a pain, but a small price to pay to have the latest innovations.

Since plug-ins are sometimes viewed with disdain for their loading time and the fact that not everyone has the right one at the right time, some third parties have also developed technology of the "no plug-ins required" variety. We've all seen them. These technologies usually rely on server-sided software. That is, software that is installed on the server wherever your site is hosted will take care of the extra duties that are being performed in order to bring the latest and greatest technology to your browser. This server software is usually expensive but many companies are willing to shell out the cash to provide a smoother experience for their audience. Regardless, someone pays the price somewhere.

And let's not forget about hardware technology. Processor speed plays a part as does the speed of the connection. Every time you turn around Intel has a new number attached to it's Pentium processors. There are cable modems, ISDN, T3, T1 and phone modems get faster too. Despite the 56kbps modems flooding the market now, 70% of the Web surfers are still dialing up on 14.4 or 28.8kbps modems*. That is 70% of your audience that you cannot ignore when designing your site.

Of course, some of these technologies don't last. If your site relies too heavily on technology, it may look dated in a few months. An example: The animated Disney film "Sleeping Beauty" was created using the latest technology of the age, yet remains a classic to this day. It doesn't seem dated at all, in fact it could have been made last year. On the other hand, television shows like the original Star Trek look cheesy. Why? I'll tell you. Star Trek was created using the latest in technology but it was ABOUT technology which dates it. Many of the sophisticated devices used on that show (which takes place in the 23rd century) have already been invented as we move into the 21st century. The moral of the story? Don't rely too heavily on a technology. Instead, come up with new and innovative ways to implement existing technologies in a way that might not have been widely used before. It's really about being creative, not about being a rocket scientist.

Where It's Going: Third Generation Web Sites

Let's not make predications but rather look at how sites are now beginning to be developed. Instead of the text-based or icon-riddled pages of the past, sites are now being designed to deliver the message first. Production really doesn't need to be considered until it has been decided what it is that is going to be said. The design can then reflect this message and can be delivered by whatever means deemed necessary by the designers.

Front pages are no longer scrolling down to find icons on the bottom of them. Instead, sites are utilizing unique navigational tool bars that do not require the user to scroll the page at all. Clear passages are marked to tell you where you are, where you have been and where you might be going on these sites. Graphics are processed to be at optimal color depth to preserve the look and feel while still loading quickly. Secondary pages are designed to compliment the front page or cover of the site and quickly loading splash pages are devised to entice the audience when they least expect it. Information-based pages are still thoughtfully designed and organized to provide the information in an orderly way that can deliver only the content that the user wants rather than having the user sift through all of it.

These kinds of sites are what Web author David Siegel calls "Third Generation" sites in the recent second edition of his best-selling book, "Creating Killer Web Sites." These sites rely heavily on design and innovative thinking and use technology as a means of delivering the content much as warhead uses a missile for delivery. They are well designed, correctly targeted, have the technology and the content. Without any of these factors, the mission is a failure. However, if your site utilizes these tried and true principals of design, advertising and marketing saavy your site is sure to be an unbridled success.

* Creating Killer Web Sites - second edition by David Siegel, 1997

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Related Information

This article was originally written for Toshiba America's 1997 "Guide to the Internet."


  © 1997 Paul M. Carhart, all rights reserved, all media.