what's wrong with web sites?
part 3 - getting it right

by Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA


useful sites follow simple rules

part 1
why give it to me if I cant' use it?

part 2
how about 
some useful information?

 

To be useful, a web site must have the following characteristics:
  • Clear organization
  • Fast loading
  • Useful content

organization

These are not unique requirements, but are found in any good source of information. Encyclopedias, maps, telephone directories - all are used frequently because they are easy to use, and offer quick access to useful information.

One of the problems facing suppliers is that they must sell to more than one type of client, each of whom wants something different. The specifier wants to know what it is and how it performs, the architect wants to see what it looks like and how it works with other products, and the owner wants to know that someone else has already used it.

Many suppliers have not learned how to successfully respond to all of these demands. This is evident in many product binders, which contain a wide variety of pictures, reports, details, and other literature. Because the binder is supposed to serve all clients, it doesn’t serve any one of them well. It is possible to create a variety of binders, each suited to a particular type of client, but production and maintenance costs make this solution untenable.

A web site allows a supplier to offer all of the information available in way that is most useful to each client. Unfortunately, many web sites are essentially electronic versions of the supplier’s printed data, and the user has the same problems finding specific information.

All that is required is a home page with clear links to the information that each client needs. For example, a link titled “specifications” should be available to take the user to an area that contains master guide specifications. Other links should lead to examples of installed products, details, and so on.

speed

Although some offices now use high-speed Internet connections, many people still use modems with speeds of 56 kbps or less. A recent survey showed over 30% of users connect at 56 kpbs, another third use either 33 or 28 kbps, while less than 20 use speeds of 1 mbps or greater.

Other surveys show that we are an impatient lot, expecting instantaneous response to each mouse click. Anything less than one second can be considered instantaneous, but many web sites are glacially slow, with significant delays loading each page. One can reasonably argue that a person who is looking for information, rather than casually browsing, will tolerate longer downloads in anticipation of finding useful information. Even so, a page that takes longer than ten seconds is often enough to drive someone on to another site. At 28 kbps, a ten-second download is about the same as a 30 K file. A file that size can contain a lot of text, but even a simple picture can be larger than 30 K. (A web page is really a text file with embedded code, so a page without pictures loads very quickly)

Unfortunately, many sites include large numbers of graphics, some of which can take minutes to load. On to another site! A useful technique is to show only thumbnail images, each of which is a link to the same picture at a larger scale. Rather than clutter up their pages with lovely pictures, site designers should minimize graphics, at least on the home page and those pages that serve as introduction to each major subject area. Animated pictures take up even more space, often with little effect.

Another way to increase loading time is to use java script, sound, video, and other gimmicks, bells, and whistles. Each of those cute effects, like pictures that change as the cursor approaches them, makes the page load slower.

useful content

This seems like a no-brainer, but there are far too many sites that offer little beyond a glitzy home page. As noted in last month's column, those who decide a web site is necessary aren't always the ones who deal with a company's customers, so the first information that appears is rarely useful. Instead, we see pictures of the company headquarters, pictures of the CEO, historical information about "who we are" and "what we are about", stockholder reports, and so on. It isn't that this information shouldn't be available, but it is certainly of less interest to the design professional or contractor than is product information.

A good web site will offer information to all potential visitors. Logical division of that information will make it easy for the specifier to find what materials are used in a product, how it is built, performance reports, and so on. Others will be able to quickly go to pictures of installed product, drawing details, color samples, distributors, installers, and financial information.

Some manufacturers have web sites with all of these features, and others are well on the way. There remain, however, even more potential benefits. Very few sites take advantage of one of the most significant advantages of the Internet - the ability to provide truly current information. It is now possible to make the latest information available the same day it is received, yet much web site updating is done according to the schedule used for printed material. Interactive sites will soon make it possible to make product selections based on user input. Instead of searching through static documents, you will be able to get the information you need by answering a series of questions or following a series of links. Information will also be available in the form of an interactive database or spreadsheet, allowing you to use your own search criteria and reorder data to suit your own needs.

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© 1999 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA
on the web at www.NorthStarCSI.com 

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