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PERSONAL COMPUTING
Dressing Up a Web Site Without Overdressing It
by Reid Goldsborough
Link-Up Digital
December 1, 2002


Whether you’ve created a sophisticated business Web site or a home-grown site for the family, you undoubtedly can do more with it. Just don’t do too much.

Striking a healthy balance between making a Web site quick to navigate and enhancing it with bells and whistles has always been a key challenge with Web design. I’m a firm believer in the Jakob Nielsen school of Web design, which espouses the view that simple is better.

“Use the KISS principle,” says Nielsen, who’s principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, author of 10 books on computer usability, and the world’s preeminent expert of Web site design. In other words, keep it simple—silly.

Yet there are times when you want to dress up a site and make it stand out from the crowd. As long as you keep in mind that the user experience is paramount (otherwise you won’t have users), there’s no reason not to incorporate such enhancements as an attractive “theme,” clip art or photos, and JavaScript interactivity.

A theme is a set of graphically designed page headers, footers, site navigation bars, columns, and tables. Themes are not only dressy, they also keep your pages consistent, which helps users get around more easily.

Programs such as Microsoft FrontPage come packaged with plenty of themes, but you still may not find anything that is quite right. The FrontPage Stars WebRing, at http://www.dwwd.com/graphics, is a gateway to not only additional themes, but also other add-ons and tutorials. PixelMill, at http://www.pixelmill.net, offers themes and other add-ons for both FrontPage and the presentation package PowerPoint.

If you’re just starting a site, a template can automate the process. Templates are complete page layouts onto which you add your text and other page elements. Most of today’s Web authoring programs come with templates, but here too you may find them limited.

The templates in Macromedia Dreamweaver, like Dreamweaver itself, are more sophisticated than those in Microsoft FrontPage. If you don’t find the templates you want in what comes with the package, you can download additional ones at the templates area of Macromedia’s Web site: http://www.macromedia.com/software/dreamweaver/download/templates.

Artwork, used judiciously, can dress up a Web site or, used overeagerly, can bog it down. Microsoft provides a large collection of free drawings and photos at its Design Gallery Live, at http://dgl.microsoft.com, which you can use with any program, provided you’ve bought at least one Microsoft program. You can browse or search for what you want by keyword.

Whatever artwork you use, make sure it’s sized appropriately. Low-resolution images work better on the Web than slow-loading high-resolution ones for most purposes. Most image editors, including Paint Shop Pro and PhotoShop, provide tools for image sizing.

If you put up lots of images online, you may find Ulead Systems’ Smart Saver Pro, at http://www.ulead.com, worthwhile. It specializes in optimizing images for the Web. 

JavaScript is another tool that, when used intelligently, can enhance a Web site. Without needing to learn programming, you can plug in JavaScript code for such tasks as creating dynamic menus, validating Web forms, and optimizing users’ experience by directing them to specific pages depending on which browser they’re using.

You can download a wide selection of scripts from Webmonkey’s JavaScript Code Library, at http://hotwired.lycos.com/webmonkey/reference/javascript_code_library. Other good sites for JavaScript include C|NET’s Builder.com [http://builder.cnet.com/webbuilding/0-3882.html] and Internet Related Technologies [http://tech.irt.org/articles/script.htm].

Once you’re finished with your enhancements, you should at least test them out on your own machine with Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. You can automatically test your site’s underlying code for compatibility with different browsers with free tools such as those provided by the World Wide Web Consortium, at http://validator.w3.org, and Web Design Group, at http://www.htmlhelp.com.

NetMechanic’s Browser Photo service, at http://www.netmechanic.com, performs more comprehensive checking by sending you images of your Web site using multiple browsers and multiple screen sizes on Windows PCs, Macs, and WebTVs.

You should also periodically test any links to other sites that you include in your site. Microsoft FrontPage can do this for you. With other software, you can automatically test links to make sure they work with tools such at LinkAlarm, at http://www.linkalarm.com, and Watchfire, at http://tetranetsoftware.com.

These automated tools are helpful. But don’t neglect to test your site with real people. Even if you’ve created a small site and can’t conduct formal usability testing, you can still observe how people are able to get around your site, and you can ask them whether they find it useful.

Make it worth their while, and people will honor your site with return visits.


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or http://www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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