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

December 26, 2000*: Fetch me a child of five

Within the framework of one of my various work hats I've been responsible for the (attempted) construction of a web site that showcases a project taking place in the elementary schools of the one Israel's cities. Though the eternal question "WHY ME" begged to be asked, the answer was obvious - I have experience with building numerous sites, and that experience encompasses numerous aspects of the building process: the conceptual, the contentual, and even the developmental. In other words, I have a good idea of what is to be done, I can write rather fluently, and I even have experience with basic HTML. There was no argument. I got the job.

A non-linked digression is called for here. In English, just about anyone can (and sometimes it seems, often does) build a basic web site. Graphic development tools are available that make the job incredibly easy, and most schools don't need anything particularly complex when they decide they need a site. Just adding Hebrew, however, makes this a gargantuan task. What's more, though I might, with limited difficulty and less limited time be able to build the basic HTML, access to more advanced tools: forums, bulletin boards and the like, demand (in this particular case at least) being attached to a more professional unit. And it's here that my problem started.

It turns out that just cooking up a few pages in HTML isn't the way it works with this unit. Because building an internet site is considered, for teachers at least, a difficult task, a user-friendly tool has been developed to make things easy. Or perhaps I should write to make things easy for someone other than me. Easy, in this particular case, means that instead of dealing with code, you're presented with an almost endless list of menus from which you can pick a particular pre-designed format. Because any page that you prepare must be based on one of these formats, more effort is devoted to the structure than to the content itself, and ultimately one gets the impression that what's really important is the structure.

This is more than just an impression. Because each page must be based on a particular pre-designed structure, it's very limited in its possibilities: One page can have a list of links, another can display information in two columns, yet another is a bar with links. But if what you want is a two-column list of links that follows a few paragraphs of text and is itself followed, at the bottom of the page, by a bar with links (which is, after all, a rather basic description of a standard HTML page) the effort required to actually prepare such a page (apparently as a conglomerate of the pre-existing components) is daunting. In other words, stick to what's available.

And a great deal actually is available. In addition to the numerous page styles, plenty of graphics are included, ranging from simple decorations no more than a few pixels in size, through medium sized icons, to rather large clip-art drawings. (Since almost no preview possibilities are available, one often chooses a graphic, only to discover that it doesn't fit well into the pre-designed format chosen.) And of course there are countless backgrounds and font colors to choose from, and someone so inclined can change these for each page that he or she prepares.

But these are digressions usually reserved for linked pages. My main argument here is that though this tool was designed in order to make the preparation of a web site an easy task, to my mind it actually only complicates that task. In the long run, preparing a page in plain old HTML is less complicated, and less time consuming than using a tool such as this. While trying to use this tool (or at least to learn to use it) I found myself returning again and again to Groucho Marx's famous statement:

A child of five could understand this. Fetch me a child of five.
Still, though there are a number of tasks for which I'm overtrained, whipping up a rather simple web site shouldn't have to be one of them. It's not only that I'm somehow offended by not being able to figure out how to get this particular tool to work (I'll admit that to a certain extent that's true) but that there's no justification for making a rather simple task so complicated. Even in Hebrew, preparing a page of text in a word processor, flipping it into web-recognizable Hebrew with any of a few handfuls of possible tools, and then adding some simple graphics and links just isn't that hard. What's more, when done the standard way the designer maintains control over how the page should look, rather than conceding control right from the start.

But it's more than that. The web site that ultimately gets built via this tool contradicts a number of web basics I've come to hold dear. The site makes extensive use of frames, a major Jakob Nielsen no-no. Actually, contrary to Nielsen's claim, rather than making the navigation of the site confusing, these frames make it redundant. Instead of navigation you get a Table of Contents. I admit that I am perhaps overly inclined toward the associative/hypertextual approach to web navigation, but even so (or perhaps as a result of my associative tendencies), I can well understand the attraction of a hierarchically organized site. There's something reassuring in a highly structured, hard-to-get-lost-in, site. Yet even in a hierarchical site is it really asking too much to find a bit of cross-linking, a hint, now and then, that there's something going on here which is beyond basic linear thinking? The web building tool being offered us may be so simple that only a five year old can use it. But the end result would be a web site that even a five year old wouldn't want to look at.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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