Thursday, October 22, 2009

Thoughts about Web Design

I like pages that have excellent content, are pleasing to the eye, are well thought-out, and load quickly. One reason is that I use dialup, and a poorly-planned page will cause my connection to time out before it finishes loading. If I haven't lost interest (or patience) and try again, the same portions of the page usually fail to load. I'll never see those photos (the problem is usually photos) unless I make a special trip to a place with broadband.

The other reason is that there is no excuse for a slow-loading web page. Even if I had broadband, I could tell a slow page from a fast page, and know the creator of the slow page was either inept or careless about his work. A modicum of common sense and forethought applied to a slow page could make it fast. For a measure of your pages' speed, along with ideas for making it faster, search "page load timer". (without the quotes)

First, think. What slows a page most? Actually, it's videos, but those will never be worth downloading over dialup. That's not to say you can't use them, but use them sparingly, and realize you are limiting your audience, however slightly. Dialup users are not evil Neanderthals. They are frugal, or at least broke, and some of them are more intelligent than you. They may also be more numerous than you think.

Second is photos. That's not to say you can't use them, but use them sensibly. If you have a story to tell in photos, usually a thrilling event, be selective. Don't dump the entire contents of your memory chip directly to the Web. Choose your best shots. This makes you look like a better photographer than you actually are and, in this digital age, costs you nothing. When you have selected your photos, don't send them at full resolution. (Do, however, keep full-resolution backup copies.) Few people have their displays set above 1024 x 768, so there's no point in sending more pixels. In the context of your page, they will almost never be shown full-screen, so 800 x 600 is plenty. Often 640 x 480 is arguably enough, but this depends on what you're trying to show, and how much screen you have to work with.

Spread your photos over several posts or pages. Your host dictates the order in which data is sent, and it often chooses badly. Limit the data on each page so your reader isn't left staring at an annoying ad, wondering whether your scintillating commentary and outstanding photos will ever appear. Better to leave them wanting more than bore them till they click away.

Third is background. Think of it as the breading on chicken-fried steak. Good meat doesn't need it, and bad meat isn't helped by it. It's amazing how many bits are wasted on backgrounds that add nothing to the content. This isn't to say all pages should be plain white. But unless artistic expression is the main reason for your page and you have a lot of time on your hands, you would do well to stick to one of the simpler default backgrounds. If you decide to design your own background, stick with simple color schemes. All text should should have a solid background in a contrasting, but easy on the eyes, color. No purple on black. No red on blue. There's a reason most books have been printed in black letters on white paper for hundreds of years.

If you decide to include a photo at the top of the page with your title, choose one photo, and keep the resolution reasonable. Remember your readers have to wait for that same photo to download every time they visit before they see any content. I quit reading one of my favorite blogs because I had to wait for the same eight hi-res photos to download every time I visited. I tried using Reader, but gave up when the author put eleven photos in one post, at close to 1 MB each.

And remember, nothing says "amateur" like an animated background! Speaking of amateurs, I sincerely hope you aren't one of the six people who still think background music makes your page jazzy and up-to-date. You can link mp3 files and even MIDIs for your readers to click on, but if they like background music when they read, they probably already have some on. Not to mention how annoying it is to hear the same music repeated over and over and...

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