The following article originally appeared in the September 1995 issue of Videography - the magazine of professional video production, technology and applications. The article was updated in May 1996.
THE CHALLENGE OF WORLD WIDE WEB DESIGN
Christine Collie Rowland
Creative Director, Blue Cat Design
Note: this article is copyright Christine Collie Rowland.
The "Internet", "Net" and "Web" are destined to be the buzzwords of the late 90's as surely as "Information Highway" and "500-Channel Universe" were the buzzwords of the early 90's.
Most corporations now have e-mail addresses for staff, and if they're not yet on the Web (World Wide Web or WWW), they are certainly aware that competitors have set up WWW storefronts making them accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week to an Internet-connected community estimated to be 35 million worldwide.
There are many reasons why companies should be on the Net. Manufacturers should think of a Web site as analogous to a trade show exhibit with the potential to: enhance their image, generate leads for followup by sales staff; and enable direct sales through online ordering. Professional publishers have already recognized the Net's growing importance as a vehicle for distribution and every major newspaper and magazine has launched a Web site.
The broadcast industry as a whole has been slow out of the gate. Some networks and stations have a Web presence but many are dull, uninspired sites, out of step with the medium. Broadcasters would be well advised to look very closely at the WWW because soon, with better Web authoring tools and more bandwidth through fiber optics, it will be their future.
It's no wonder corporations without a WWW presence are scrambling to figure out "this Internet thing" and throw up some Web home pages. Some are hastily putting up Web pages with less design consideration than they'd give a one-color leaflet. In doing so, these companies are seriously underestimating the sophistication of the Internet and its community of Web surfers.
Channel surfing, the bane of television broadcasters and advertisers, is a penny-ante challenge compared to Web surfing. Try to imagine a world in which every program encourages surfing with hot links to other programs on other stations and other networks. Then imagine that world with tens, even hundreds of thousands of "channels". How do you hang on to your audience? That's the design challenge on the Web.
Because of the nature of the Internet and its millions of hypertext links, when you start at one WWW location, clicking a link to another location and another, you inevitably end up at unexpected destinations, discovering and browsing through locations you may never find again unless they capture your interest enough for you to pause and write down their URL (internet address) or bookmark them in your Netscape browser in order to return to them later.
This means if you don't want your Web site to be bypassed and forgotten, your pages had better look good. Darn good. And the site had better have fascinating and genuinely useful content. Because the competition isn't just a mere 500-channel universe, it's a lively collection of 200,000 multimedia hypertext destinations all clamoring for attention. And this number is increasing at the rate of over 2,000 new sites per week.
Web surfers are a fickle lot, always looking for the newest and coolest site, and if your new site is a bore, it won't get a return visit.
A Web site needs to sparkle at its debut. If that means making a choice between putting up a few rushed, ho-hum, pages or waiting a few weeks or months longer and putting up pages that will be noticed, reviewed and returned to, then the choice should be clear - wait. Get it right the first time and make a splash with your Web launch. This is rule number one of WWW publishing.
Rule number two is that Web sites need to be regularly updated and refreshed. You could say that's the whole point of Web publishing. Don't expect return visits if you leave your newly launched site static.
Some sites, such as news media sites and online catalogues with frequent product promotions, need to be updated daily. The launch of your Web pages online does not mean "There, that Internet thing is taken care of". Instead, the work has just begun.
The good news is, revisions are quick and easy to make. And it doesn't require on-location expertise. Companies often assume that they'll have to hire staff to manage their Web site after it's launched. In many cases, this isn't necessary. For the average company, HTML revisions to Web pages need take no more than 4-10 hours per month and it's usually much more cost-effective to out-source.
It can all be handled remotely. The HTML files (the programming specifications that make up Web pages) can be revised and sent via modem and FTP (File Transfer Protocol) software to your host computer site from anywhere in the world. All it takes is a couple of minutes and your revised Web pages are up and visible to the world.
What's involved in designing a successful Web site? The criteria are much the same as in designing any successful interactive multimedia production: interesting content organized in a thoughtful and accessible manner; creative visual design; ease of use through navigational elements such as clickable buttons and graphic elements and a healthy helping of fun and entertainment.
It's not always easy, or possible, to achieve all of the above within the HTML structure, given the current limited Web authoring tools available to designers and the current generation of Web browser software. But things are about to change.
Today (Sept. 1995), Netscape is at version 2 (with a beta version 3 available). We're still stuck with only one font style but now Netscape is able to display different colored backgrounds and colored text, even patterned backgrounds, based on any GIF or JPEG image that you specify in your accompanying HTML programming. Patterned backgrounds can be an enhancement to a site - or a pox, as anyone who has witnessed the proliferation of truly ugly backgrounds on the Web can attest.
The biggest browser advancement has been the adoption of third-party "plug-ins" which add functionality and new features to the browser software. This has made possible animation and interactive multimedia through plug-ins like Shockwave (from Macromedia Inc the makers of Macromedia Director) and Sizzler from Totally Hip Software in Vancouver.
As a multimedia designer working with Macromedia Director, this has been an exciting development. Now past and current multimedia productions are not only playable on stand-alone Macintosh and Windows platforms but also on the Web. As the bandwidth of the Internet continues to expand with such innovations as cable modems and new compression modes, complete multimedia titles created with Director will be seamlessly delivered over the Internet. The early days of static grey Netscape backgrounds have become a distant memory.
The next major development we can expect to see is Adobe's PDF (Portable Document Format) becoming a rival to HTML once Adobe overcomes the unwieldy file sizes of PDF files and hence their slow downloading. The reason why PDF presents a challenge to HTML, and why Internet designers and publishers are eager to embrace PDF, is that it gives the author/designer precise document control. It will allow Web pages to retain their original look and feel across different platforms - something impossible to do with HTML and the current crop of Web browsers. This means that elaborate page layouts created in QuarkXPress or similar programs will be displayed exactly the same way on the Web whether the user platform is Unix, Windows or Macintosh.
If you don't yet believe that the future is the Web, here's some statistical food for thought. Computers outsold television sets in North America for the first time ever in 1994. People who have access to the Internet and its World Wide Web in their homes spend more time on the Web than they do watching television. Imagine the added draw the Web will have as bandwidth increases for full multimedia playback.
As the Economist intoned editorially in spring of 1995: "The Internet is not a fad." It's clear the World Wide Web will continue to be the place to be for corporations - and Web surfers.
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