Web page designers must remember their audiences' PC abilities

John McCormick

Many government Web sites started with good, simple designs because agencies had no time or budget for fancy tinkering. I'd like to thank those first-generation webmasters before they quit designing and leave it to the whiz kids.

Hot new designers forget that most of the public still connects at only about 28 Kbps, the average real-world throughput of 56-Kbps modems. A page that loads quickly over a designer's 1.5-Mbps T1 connection will drive the 56-Kbps audience away. Citizens are not going to wait 90 seconds for an opening screen.

The most successful commercial sites open in 10 seconds. Any site with complex JavaScript and lots of .gif images will be slow. I stopped counting at 65 separate .gif files on one particularly slow site. It looks nice when it's done, but only to the few viewers who are willing to wait.

Agencies that redesign their sites ought to take the precaution of testing any new format from a portable computer over a home or hotel connection.

Another important test is to try the new design using Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers at a 256-color setting. Look at how the colors are displayed. I've seen pages where the background was dark blue, the lettering a slightly paler blue, and the hyperlink buttons yet another blue.

The site designer, who was probably running 1 million-plus colors, saw a subtle yet legible page. But everyday visitors'even those with fancy graphics cards'probably have set their Microsoft Windows systems to display 256 colors, sometimes only 16 colors, in the interest of speed.

Not so clear

If you fail to design in basic colors, many viewers will see a blur instead of legible pages.

More and more people surf the Web via WebTV'the latest Sega Dreamcast video console with surfing capability. The video quality these visitors see will be worse than on any monitor in your office.

Now for the content. After waiting to load your first page, does the user find nothing more than an agency logo, a welcome message and, loading last at the bottom of the page, a button to click to enter? Remember, citizens are looking for information. Give it to them right away and perhaps they'll be less tempted to try cracking your server.

The best pages put an identifier and a fast-loading set of navigation buttons near the top. Visit www.gcn.com for an example of this style. The cleverly illustrated www.irs.gov page takes the same approach and has a text-only display button near the top.

Provide real-world contact information. Many people surf the Web looking only for a telephone number or mailing address, which ought to be easy to find.

As for the fancy ticker-tape information scrolls or animated logos some Web
sites carry, forget them. They only annoy people and waste bandwidth. I've installed a shareware utility, AdsOff from www.intercantech.com, specifically to block them.

Need to design a professional-looking page fast? Go to a Web site that achieves approximately what you want and study its design. Remember, whether you browse with Explorer or Navigator, after the page loads the source code is usually only a right mouse click away under View Source.

Fancy Web sites try to convey a sense of design. A few of them are even works of art, but a federal agency's site ought to focus on providing information. Don't make people work too hard or wait too long to get it.

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com.

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