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What is web design?


The following interview with Amy Gahran, was conducted via email, in October, 1998, by 'Your Guide to Art and Technology'.

What in your experience, guided you in your particular focus on Web site content? 

I'm a journalist and editor by trade, so doing Web content work is a natural extension of my professional background. I've been intrigued by Web content work, and its possibilities, since about 1994, but I've only really been focusing on it for the last two years.

I guess my particular focus, with regard to Web content work, is simply my firm belief that the quality of Web content matters a whole lot... often, even more than design, programming, and other issues, that typically take center stage in the Web development process. It seems to me that often Web content is treated as an afterthought, or at least it isn't executed with the same professionalism and skill as design or programming. When I see that, it really disappoints me, because I've seen how thoughtful content can make a site really shine. 

If, for example, Web users spend an average of 25-seconds on a Web site, before moving on, why do you think they will spend the time to engross themselves in content? 

People want content... that's the main reason why they turn to the Web in the first place. Sure, chatting and online shopping are interesting, but they aren't the driving force behind the Web... not from the perspective of most users, anyway. The real question is, what kind of content do Web users want, and what kind of delivery/presentation do they find most palatable? Web users are notoriously fickle... if they don't get exactly what they want, the way they want it, they'll move on quickly.

Getting people to explore content on the Web is like getting them to board a boat. First, you have to let them know where the boat is going, so they know whether they want to board at all. Then you have to bring the boat right up to the pier for them. You can't expect that they will want to wade out to the boat, no matter how interesting the destination is.

Offering rich, high-quality content does not mean spewing forth volumes of text. Careful editing is crucial. You have to let readers know right away, what's in it for them.

In general, effective online content provides users with immediate orientation and a summary: 

  • What is this page about?

  • What is this site about?

  • Is this material intended for someone like me?

  • How much information will I find here?

  • What kinds of information will I find here?

The best strategy usually is to answer those questions right up front, and then present the meat of the page/site, in the most effective way possible. 

Effective content is carefully edited. Usually, that means getting to the point, using as little unnecessary language as possible, and minimizing or eliminating hype... but without sounding too choppy.

That said, brevity and clarify are not always content goals. For instance, tight, clear language might not be appropriate for a site that publishes fiction or humor. There, the most effective approach probably is to engage visitors right away... with a gripping first few paragraphs or, for art, a gripping first image. Then, it's a matter of maintaining that interest level throughout the work. 

You have a section of your zine called, Contenders and Fluff, in which you offer your reader detailed insight into the makings, both good and bad, of a content-rich Web site. During your review, you also bring attention to the issues of usability. What is usability? What is its impact? 

Usability is a discrete discipline. There are usability issues in Web development, but also in software engineering and product design... for instance, some doorknobs are easier and more intuitive to use than others.

With regard to Web content, usability usually refers to how easy it is for the user to grasp the nature and extent of a site's content, and then how easy it is for users to explore, digest, and in some cases, interact with that content. 

If the main content of a site is, say, a searchable database or a product catalog, the usability considerations are fairly obvious. However, image and sound content also has usability issues. For instance, how long would it take users with dialup modem connections to download your content, and once they get that content, will they be able to display/play it? ... are plug-ins required?... could the image height/width pose problems?... etc..

Even text-based content has significant usability issues. Most of these are editorial in nature:

  • Is the text well-organized?

  • Is there some kind of summary or index at the beginning?

  • Does the text remain fairly understandable, if not read from the beginning?

  • Are the words selected to become hyperlinks well-chosen and intuitive?

Navigation comes into play as well... not only within the sections of a larger piece, but also among various text-based works.

Copyediting text to improve tightness and clarity, while avoiding choppiness, is also a usability consideration. Well-edited text carries the reader along, and makes absorbing information an effortless affair. Poorly edited text is literally difficult to read.

There has been much talk, but only moderate action taken by Web designers, on the issue of usability by the handicapped. Do you feel that this issue is important in Web design? 

Absolutely. There are many things that can be done to make all sorts of content accessible to handicapped users. They range from simply including ALT tags for images, to providing the same information in a variety of formats, to writing headlines and section headers... and choosing link text... that are intuitive and that stand on their own.

What many people don't realize... especially many Web designers... is that making a site accessible to the handicapped also expands your potential audience among non-handicapped users. Most people still use dial-up modem connections, and downloading large files can be painfully slow. 

Consequently, many modem users surf the Web with image autoloading, turned off. If your site doesn't use ALT tags, or present key information in a non-image-based format, you'll lose those readers.

This consideration is especially important for sites that hope to attract visitors from outside North America. In most parts of the world, people pay for local phone service... which means that even if they have a flat-rate Internet service provider, the meter is ticking, and they may well browse without images for the sake of efficiency. An international site that contains lots of huge images will face a huge problem.

Has the introduction of portals, some with an emphasis on providing content-rich arenas, perhaps started a trend towards providing Web site visitors with a more rewarding experience? If so, when, and if, portals fade away, will the emphasis on content remain? 

I really haven't studied the portal issue much, so I can't offer significant comments here. It seems to me that the portal concept focuses on consolidating access to content... mainly in order to boost ad rates... rather than on actually providing content.

As to emphasis on content, I think that users have always been focused on content... the difference today is that there are more and more Web users, and they're becoming more sophisticated and demanding. Site owners and developers, and online marketers, are only just now starting to catch up and figure out that users want content. 

Amy, obviously, having put so much time and effort into creating and maintaining a Web zine dedicated to content, you must feel that today's Web lacks valuable content. Why do you think the Web developed, or how did it develop, into such a low-content housing arena? 

It's not that the good stuff isn't out there. Actually, I think there is a wealth of excellent, thoughtful, worthwhile content on the Web. The problem is, there's an incredible amount of drivel and fluff, too. That's to be expected in a medium where there are virtually no gatekeepers, where self-published material is theoretically as accessible as content from CNN. We're all just figuring this out. Gradually, the general level of content will improve.

Also, it's not that I think the people who publish drivel and fluff simply don't care about quality. OK, sure, some of them don't... and those people will be consigned to a very special Hell... heh heh heh... But in my experience, most people and organizations that publish poor-quality content on the Web simply don't understand what constitutes good content, and/or they don't know how to achieve that goal, and/or they don't have the resources to achieve that goal. It's not easy. You can't just pluck great content out of thin air.

I do think that one thing that will improve the general quality of content on the Web will be the raising of content consciousness among Web designers and site owners. I think that can't help but happen. Once they realize how important content really is, once they realize that sites actually compete largely on the basis of content, they'll shift their priorities. If they only have so much money to spend on a Web site, they'll scale back on the design and programming budgets to hire writers and editors. 

Of course, I'm biased about that, since I'm a content creator. But why not be optimistic? 

Many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide not only hosting services, but roll-your-own-site software. For fledgling companies and beginning entrepreneurs, what advice would you give, regarding content on their new sites?

Again, I'm not terribly familiar with this kind of software. But from what I've seen, commercial sites that use some kind of template, often end up being nothing more than online brochures. That's informative for people who happen to be looking specifically for information on your company or organization, but it's not likely to attract a wide audience or even many repeat visitors.

Regardless of the tools you're using to create your site, whether your coding HTML in a text editor, using a what-you-see-is-what-you-getpackage, like FrontPage, or using roll-your-own software from your ISP, the key to a successful site is careful content planning. Before you create a single Web page, think hard about these questions and answer them as specifically as possible... vague answers are useless:

  • Why do we need a site at all? What purpose will it serve?

  • What are the goals for this site?

  • What target audience(s) do we want to reach, and why?

  • What kinds of content, including services, will interest our target audience(s)?

I'm always dumbfounded at the number of sites on the Web that have never given any of these questions the slightest consideration... and it shows!

Both small and large businesses and the self-employed have Web sites which offer some information on the company and usually head straight to the sale. To some viewers, this is a negative aspect of the Web, too much Buy me! What type of content could assist businesses, or others offering products for sale, in making a Web site visitor enjoy their business site? In essence, what constitutes good content?

I've been covering these issues in detail in my column series, How to Think Like a Publisher. The specific content solution is different for each site. However, as long as the site owners/developers have taken the time up front to answer the basic questions I listed above, user-focused content will be the natural outgrowth.

That's the philosophical answer. In practical terms, it's important to provide information that, while applicable to your company, isn't necessarily sales or PR-oriented. For instance, a regular column on a topic highly relevant to your company/organization could attract repeat visitors. So could a collection of backgrounder or how-to articles. A searchable database can be a big draw, as long as the data is high-quality and up-to-date. Industry news also can be a big draw. Or even humor. The possibilities are endless, once you stop looking at your site strictly as a brochure or online store.

If you're not sure what your target audience wants, ask them!Preferably before you've sunk a lot of resources into developing a site that may or may not appeal to your target audience.

When I did a search for Web content, I came up with only a few listings. Obviously, this wouldn't surprise you! Being the amount of valuable content, on Web site content, is so limited, how should a designer of a Web site, business or personal, resolve the issue of content? Should they hire a consultant, i.e., a content writer? Or should they just read your zine, and locate any other available sources, then make a go of their Web site?

You definitely do not need to hire a professional writer or editor to develop great content for your site. That said, for many organizations, large and small, it's a pretty good idea!! I'm constantly amazed at companies that without hesitation will spend thousands... even hundreds of thousands... of dollars on site design and engineering, but balk at the thought of hiring a writer or editor. That makes absolutely no sense.

If, however, your organization does not have the resources to hire a writer or editor, there are ways to learn more about creating effective content. Contentious, of course, is one resource... and I try to make it as useful and specific as possible. But there are others, like the Online-Writing list, which I co-host.

In many ways, learning how to write and edit well, for print or broadcast, will help you write and edit better, for online media. There are differences, of course, but many of the most basic skills and techniques are the same.

If you were going to create content for a site whose main emphasis was artistic, what questions would you need to ask, to ascertain your potential audience's content needs?

Well, with an art site... or a fiction site, or a poetry site, or even a music site... the artist's expression and intent is a very vital consideration. There's much more at stake than simply attracting an audience. Still, for most art sites, it seems to me that attracting an audience is a consideration... or else, why publish on the Web at all?

I think it all comes back to the goals of the site. If the paramount goal is to create an audience and a following for an artist's work... hopefully so that the artist will either sell more work or the value of his/her work will increase... then it's pretty important to make the site accessible and understandable.

This does not mean the art presented on that site has to be blatant and obvious... in fact, the work might be quite esoteric, subtle, or obscure.However, the content that introduces and surrounds the artwork should be accessible... it should explain what the artist seeks to achieve, or it can even pose questions that would frame a context for the work.

For visual art, there is always the issue of how faithfully the work will be displayed on the Web. Different browsers use different color palettes, and resolution can be an issue also. It's helpful for artists to be aware of these considerations/limitations, and to explain how these might affect how their work is displayed on the Web.

Now, on the other hand, it's possible that the paramount goal of an art site is to create an experience of puzzlement. If that's you're goal, then it's OK to create a confusing or chaotic site that offers little context or guidance. However, don't expect this kind of site to draw a huge audience, unless it is somehow entertaining or sensationalistic.

You sub-title your magazine, The Web Zine for writers and editors who create content for online media, do you feel that your magazine offers worthwhile information to graphics-intensive and graphics-dependent Web sites, such as art galleries or 3D design?

Actually, I've just changed the Contentious tagline to mention writers, editors, and others who create content for online media. Yes, I do think there's a great deal of worthwhile information in Contentious for designers, marketers, programmers, site owners, usability professionals, etc..

At the most basic level, this zine can help increase their contentawareness. Also, it offers insight into how to evaluate a site's content, and how to create great content for their own projects. Most ofContentiousdeals with text-based content, but I do often bring design and other issues into the mix, and I will be profiling a Fluff andContender pair of art sites in the near future.

Also, more and more Web developers and designers are working with writers and editors on Web projects. Surprisingly often, this is the first time many of these professionals have ever had to work with a writer or editor, and they don't know how that process works. Contentioushelps explain that kind of interaction and collaboration, to foster more effective working teams.

Do you believe that in the future, people will have to pay to view valuable content? Or will webmasters, possibly under pressure from their users, provide it for free?

I think that there will always be a lot of free content on the Web. Some of that will be great... but I think for much of it, users will get what they pay for... low quality and/or biased information.

Users aren't stupid... they understand that. This is why I firmly believe that as micropayment systems mature and proliferate there will arise a stunning array of high-quality, targeted content available for a negligible fee... say, a few cents to read an article or search a database. This offers a special advantage to users... content that is not tainted by the influence of advertisers or sponsors.

Subscription systems haven't had a lot of success so far, but I think they have a lot of potential for certain types of content. Basically, wherever there is a need for very specialized information... medical, scientific, business, academic, educational, engineering, and so on... there's a potentially viable market for a subscription-based online service. Basically, in this case, password-protected sites, or e-mail publications, can serve as a more up-to-date and far less costly alternative to printed journals or newsletters.

If we create an analogy between Web content today and television content of the fifties, what prediction would you make regarding content on the web, 30 or 40 years hence?

I do think that the Web represents a convergence of media. Currently, bandwidth limitations constrict the amount of video and audio that can be used effectively on the Web. But in time, those limitations will fade.

Right now, people turn to magazines for one kind of content, books for another, television for another, radio or audio CDs for another, the movie theater for another. It all depends on what kind of content they want, and also how they want to experience that content. As the Web evolves, aesthetically and technologically, a variety of types of experience will become equally available through the same conduit.

Look at it this way... when the telephone first came out, it was mainly viewed as a new conduit for conversations. But, combined with information technologies, now virtually every business or organization has extended the role of the telephone... through voice mail, through automated response systems, even bank-by-phone.

To sum all of that rambling up, I think the point is that people always want some kind of content. Right now, they have to use different conduits to get different kinds of content. But ultimately it'll simpler, more efficient, and even more effective to have one main conduit. Then you can concentrate on the content, not the delivery.

As an ending statement, or possibly a beginning trend, what summary advice would you give to Web designers?

It's pretty simple: design is only one part of Web development. It's an important part, to be sure... but content is at least as important. A great Web design enhances content and communication. Sites that are designed only to impress other designers won't impress most Web users.