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3 keys: Prepare, prepare, prepare

Second in a series

By JULES ALLEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 10, 1998


Qast year saw the successful installation of a garden sprinkler system at my house. When it was finished, it really beat the daylights out of manually moving hoses and sprinkler heads around.

The garden was sketched out on paper, sprinkler overlap was considered, and advice was taken on such things as water pumps, timers and pipe size to get the water to where it needed to be. After all the planning, it took one very long day to do the installation.

The other choice could have been to dig some holes, get some random hardware and throw it in the ground and see what would happen.

You'd be an idiot just to do that, right? So why treat a Web site any differently? Think about who may be using your site -- almost certainly your existing and future customers -- and ask them what they expect. What value can you bring to their relationship with you and what can you do to make their lives easier?

If you think on paper, sketch your ideas out, or if you've got the space on an office wall, those yellow sticky notes are a great way to visualize the layout. (If it's not your office, avoid drawing directly on the walls. Trust me, higher-ups have little sense of humor about that kind of thing.)

Keep it brief

A common, classic mistake with a first Web site is the brochure-ware iteration. You take your company's standard print brochures, type them in and save them on the Web.

We read text on a computer screen differently than we read text on paper. In both cases, the Western eye has been conditioned since kindergarten to jump to the top left of a page, which is where the similarity ends.

Computer screens have less resolution than paper and require more effort to read. Therefore, our eyes are less tolerant of the length of the material presented. The Web has also spawned a jumpy bunch of click-aholics who'll click first and ask questions later. No doubt the attention-deficit payback for all the voice mail in the '80s.

So, keep directions brief. When directing traffic around the site, don't fill a paragraph when a sentence will do. When you get your Web visitor to where you mutually want to be, you now have the issue of how to present the information and the reason for the visit.

A site to emulate

If you get a moment, fire up your browser and look at the way Cnet (www.cnet.com/) handles this issue. At the bottom of each slice of the article, there's a continuation link. If the user is in the right place, he will continue and appreciate being led around. If he's in the wrong place, helpful navigation is everywhere to lead them to where they might want to be.

The downside to this approach is that a lot of people like to -- gasp! -- print Web pages out. If you design your pages the right way, you can use a nifty trick called server-side includes.

For example, you break your page into four separate "thought" pages, each linked with a continuation direction at the bottom. If your Web server supports this, you can build one complete page from each of these thought pages. Then include a graphic or text link on each thought page offering a printer-friendly version. When your visitor clicks this link, the Web server combines all four separate thoughts into one cogent, printable article.

Some visitors will jump straight for the printer-friendly page. Others will follow your directions. Remember you're catering to many different ways of thinking, and the more logical options you offer the more value your site will be to your visitors.

You may want to consult with your Web hosting provider to see if it supports this feature. It's a neat trick and worth the effort.

Do-it-yourself?

If you're going to do it yourself, remember when you start building your site that you've got three versions of Netscape Navigator to consider, two versions of Internet Explorer and then browsers like Opera, Grail and the text-only Lynx to consider.

If you stick with the most basic hypertext markup language (HTML) and therefore the lowest common denominator, you'll have fewer issues than doing something more interactive.

If you do any kind of smart stuff with JavaScript, the de facto scripting language that runs in most popular browsers, you really have to pay attention to and build around the differences in the way each browser version handles the code.

For example, JavaScript that runs in Internet Explorer 4 may not run in version 3. And code that runs in IE3 might not run in Netscape Navigator 4. You can program around these differences, but, of course, it takes time.

A simple example of client-side JavaScript can be found at the Times' Web site: If you bring up the home page at www.sptimes.com/ and move the mouse over the links on the left, the orange dot image changes to yellow.

A more advanced JavaScript program might make sure your e-mail address is correct when you click the submit button on a form. If it wasn't correct, the browser would alert you to this error before the information was transmitted from your browser to the Web server.

The more smart stuff the browser does, the less smart stuff your Web server has to do. And as your Web server is not as busy, it's free to do other things faster like serve up Web pages. This makes for happier Web visitors who spend less time waiting to correct inadvertent mistakes.

Unfortunately, you can't always rely on JavaScript being able to run on your visitor's Web browser. Some people turn it off because they think JavaScript is insecure (it isn't). Some browsers just don't have JavaScript built into them at all.

This means that if you want your Web visitors to perform an action that relies solely on JavaScript, some will be disappointed and unable to use bits of your site. This is especially true with forms that gather information from visitors -- you wouldn't believe the amount of people that think their e-mail address is www.something-or-other.com!

If you want to please all of the people all of the time, you have to offer either an alternate page that doesn't rely on JavaScript or features that gracefully degrade to pure HTML. A good example of that is again on www.sptimes.com/ -- if you turn off JavaScript in your browser, you can still move your mouse over the links but you won't see the dots change color.

Ultimately, the trade-off is something you'll have to decide. If you want groovy features, you have to plan for visitors that can't take advantage of them. If you keep things simple, your site isn't going to be as whizzy as it could be.

The price is ... debatable?

Talk about sticking your tongue in an ant's nest. In last week's column, I mentioned that it could cost more than $2,000 to build a decent Web presence. We received some e-mail from Web-site builders claiming they could do it for as little as 10 percent of this estimate.

Conversely, I got some personal mail from friends in the industry asking how a site could be built with such a small budget.

You can't please all of the people all of the time, I suppose.


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