From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

October 26, 1999*: for the sin of bad page design

Yom Kippur is already well behind us as this is finally getting written, and the previous column already made reference to that holiday. So it's not as though I'm in a particularly penitent mood. Yes, parts of this column deal with finally getting around to various tasks, but being behind doesn't mean, in this case, that I'm only getting around to my own personal Yom Kippur just now. Whatever, this seems to be the proper time to confess to a few sins, especially since Jakob Nielsen only recently published a column dealing with what should and shouldn't appear on a web page. So I'm taking this opportunity to admit to a number of design decisions that apparently should put me in designer's hell. But don't go thinking that I intend to make many changes. I may admit to my sins, but I also intend to justify almost all of them. I'm guilty - and proud of it.

Jakob Nielsen's column has a substantially larger readership than mine. That's not only due to the fact that he knows what he's talking about. After all, I enjoy the idea of reading somebody who's unsure of him or herself much of the time, and know it alls aren't the sort of people I like to hang around with. But Nielsen has a great deal of internet experience mixed with a common sense approach to what basic internet format should look like on the page (screen). I've learned a lot from reading his columns, and I'm quite sure that I've referred to him in these columns at least once in the past, but with more than a small amount of embarrassment, I have to admit that I can't seem to find when that was.

The particular column that triggered this column was from October 3, 1999: Ten Good Deeds in Web Design. In that column Nielsen did precisely what his title suggested it woud: he listed ten positive things to do on your web site to make it functional for the user/reader. Though I'm not exactly on trial, I suppose that the best way to defend myself is to review Nielsen's suggestions, point by pont.

Place your name and logo on every page

Guilty. No Boidem page is ever farther than two clicks away from the main page of each column, and each main column page is only one click away from the main contents page which has the name and logo of the Boidem. But that's close enough for me. I can't really figure out why someone who would really want to know who I am wouldn't be able to click twice or three times instead of only once to get that information. And if they don't want to go to the trouble, well then maybe they're the sort of people whom I don't want to know me.

Provide search if the site has more than 100 pages.

Guilty. But I've already admitted to this particular sin.

Write straightforward and simple headlines and page titles

Guilty. Anyone even slightly familiar with the Boidem knows that this is among my most favorite sins. Frequently my titles and headlines are not only different from each other, but have to be read together in order to make sense out of them. I see this as my own personal game since I have no proof that my readers actually pick up on the playfulness I permit myself with titles of pages. But if a pattern is beginning to emerge, one of its major components is the titles and headlines. Nielsen assumes that his readers are looking for the fastest and straightest route to particular information. Thus web pages that these readers encounter should be straightforward and to the point (is that the same thing?), and their titles should let the reader know what he or she will find on that page. I, on the other hand, am often more interested in the route than in the destination, and I like my titles to be teasers that only suggest what might be yet to come.

Structure the page to facilitate scanning

Guilty. Though I have to admit to a bit of jealousy on this one. Run-on and wordy sentences have always been my style, so even if I'd like to facilitate scanning I suppose that I'd find it hard to do so. The change in the main contents page is, however, an attempt to make life for the reader a bit easier. Along those same lines of making life easier, I've also tried to limit the extent to which my hyperlinks branch out to other Boidem pages, present or past. I do this, I think, as a sort of Siag laTorah. Knowing my tendency to branch out and interweave, and in general lose my, and my readers', way, I figure that I should limit myself in advance. Only on rare (and special?) occasions do I let my links run free. So I can't say that I'm against facilitating scanning, only that it doesn't come to me very easily.

use hypertext to structure the content space

The verdict is still out on this one. I certainly use hypertext, but not exactly for the purpose of structuring the content space. What Nielsen means on this particular issue is that readers should be able to click over to what interests them from a particular page and get the specific information they need, rather than have to read a lengthy page that contains the desired information mixed in with other (and in this particular case) unnecessary information. Hyperlinks in the Boidem often fulfill the function of footnotes. They thus allow the reader to stick with the main topic and only check out the additional material if they want to. There's something similar between the two, though once again they stem from different goals. As stated in the previous paragraph (I admit it, an uncalled for trick) I try not to allow my tendency to run wild run wild. And sometimes I even succeed.

Use product photos, and
Use relevance-enhanced image reduction

These two points are well taken, but are essentially irrelevant to the Boidem.

Use link titles to provide users with a preview of where each link will take them

Guilty. Actually, I have nothing against link titles which are quite cute and pleasantly techno. What I don't like is letting people know where each link will take them. To my mind, it ruins the fun. Another problem with link titles are the fact that they're available only in certain browsers. Like Nielsen I prefer to aim toward the basic browser capabilities of all of my readers.

Ensure that all important pages are accessible for users with disabilities

Sadly, guilty on this one. There isn't much in the way of multimedia in the Boidem, but it's not really for reasons of accessibility. Rather it's because I still hold on to the outmoded idea that words themselves have real value even without their having to be enhanced by pretty pictures. Graphics, and even sound files, do find their way into the Boidem (well, at least I link to sound files), but on the whole it's text and more text. And I admit that I don't know what to do in order to make lengthy texts accessible to blind users. On the other hand, I continue to remain rather oblivious to the upward mobility of browser-mania. Except for rare occasions, even someone with Netscape 2.0 can have access to all of the Boidem, and that's rather purposeful.

Do the same as everybody else

Frankly, I think the jury is still out on this one as well. I've already admitted that I try not to push the envelope, and what Nielsen means by this particular directive is essentially: "don't innovate yourself into being inaccessible, incomprehensible, and useless". On those terms I'm finally quite fully not guilty. On the other hand, with quite an extensive amount of web-surfing experience behind me, I'm all too aware that words, more words and just words aren't what everybody else is into at the present. So maybe by default I'm guilty on this count as well.

Jakob Nielsen's columns aren't, of course, directed toward me. I am, after all, not trying to seel anything, and I tend to think that I'd be more pleased if people got lost while wandering around in the Boidem rather than simply stepping in, finding what they need, turning around and marching right back out. There's only limited fun in that, and I still would like the web experience to be fun. And maybe (I hate to admit to it) there's reason in the madness. Nielsen's Do's and Don'ts are directed toward enhancing a particular sort of web experience. My web design sins are also directed toward that end. It's just that we happen to have in mind a different sort of experience.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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