This Site and Web Æsthetics

Walt Crawford, June 1999

When this site first went live in April 1999, the home page carried a two-line disclaimer that essentially labeled it as boring but functional. Indeed, when I added the URL to my signature on some e-mail, it was labeled "Boring Web site:"

Then I had an odd experience, which caused me to remove both disclaimers. A co-worker (who spends some time legitimately prowling the Web for interesting sites in certain categories) looked at the May 1999 version of this site and had mostly positive things to say about it. It loaded fast and was clean and self-explanatoryóand it didnít burden her with backgrounds, animations or other Webcruft.

Well, yes. You could say thatís a result of two factors:

  • Iím a print person. I publish quite a bitómore than most people who have full-time day jobs and donít need to publish for reasons of their job. (This doesnít mean that I despise everything but print. I watch some entertainment TV, without apology; I listen to a variety of music, albeit mostly at the computer; I love good movies and some that arenít so good. It does mean that I like traditional print and appreciate the look of a well-designed book page.)
  • Iím not a "Web person" as such. I havenít studied HTML, CGI scripts, PERL, JavaScript, Java, or any of this stuff. Most of the HTML in this site comes either from Wordís "export as HTML" function or from Symantecís Visual Page, the Web editor I use only because it came free with Norton SystemWorks. I have yet to read any HTML manualsónot even HTML for Dummies (I assume IDG has published one of these?) I only do manual HTML because Visual Page almost requires it to get things working right.

Thus, what you have here is (in part) the simplicity that comes of ignorance. But thatís not all there is to itóparticularly since I do make most of my living working on Web-delivered services.

For A Good Site, Visit Eureka

If you want to see my idea of a well-designed Web site that serves a serious purpose, go to RLGís home page; click on the Eureka link; then find the "try it out" link. Youíll be able to do a real search session on one of the real Eureka files; the "sample file" changes each week.

Better yet, do this nowóthen come back again after September 1, 1999. The current Eureka on the Web is a solid designóbut the new Eureka on the Web is even better. Iím inordinately proud of both designs, and can assure you that the new Eureka on the Web will continue to improve over the months and years to come.

I canít take full credit for either version, but I do take credit for some the fundamental ideas behind both designs and for much of the analysis. Iíve been lead analyst ever since the first Eureka (the Telnet version) was developed. While Eureka/telnet has my personal stamp all over it, the Web versions are much more the product of collaborative designóindeed, very few of the new design ideas are mine.

I continue to be product manager for Eureka and coordinate the service team, but others (Bruce Washburn, Arnold Arcolio and a cast of dozens) have done most of the thinking, prototyping, and actual development.

All of which is a digression, except to say that Eureka on the Web does represent "good design" by my standards.

Keeping It Clean

I believe in growing complexity as a fundamental truth of human life and society, but I also believe in simplicity and clarity where thatís feasible and sensible. I also believe that the Web should be an extension of traditional design: the rules of good design have not been overthrown.

What that means for this site, and for what I prefer in other Web sites:

  • Space helps. While compact sites are nice, text needs white in order to breathe, just as music needs silence. (The July 17 changes to most of this site are to provide balanced white space while making the pages more "printer-friendly.)
  • You should be able to use your own favorite background color and text color. I find some foreground/background combinations almost unreadable, and I know how much different displays vary in colorspace. Thatís why you wonít find any background patterns or colors on this site and why text is typically in your default face and size. (Some pagesóthose I create in Word and donít edit heavily in Visual Pageówill ask for Arrus BT and Friz Quadrata; if youíre seeing text in something other than Times New Roman, thatís probably why. If youíre seeing text in a sans serif face, my regrets: thatís certainly not intentional!)
  • While graphics and icons can be useful, sometimes essential, thereís no reason to slow down a page load just to make the page fancy. I recently (6/6/99) reduced the size of the snapshot on my home page to improve load speed. At this point, the only pages that should take more than four or five seconds to load are my vita (itís long) and the publicity photo (which is intended for downloading).
  • "Seven plus or minus two" is still a good guideline for the number of areas on a page. Most people can scan a set of up to nine choices almost instantly; a more complex set of choices takes a lot longer. Iíve reorganized the home page to have a small number of section headersónever more than seven, if I can help it. If you want to minimize clicks, you can scroll down to the subsectionsóbut you can also click directly to a subsection, and from there to a document or set of documents. I donít expect any subsection to have more than nine links, but the rule starts to fall apart after the first level.
  • There are no banner ads here, and I get no income if you stick around. Itís nice of you to drop by, but you have other things to do. A few of you may find some of these essays and other items useful; a few others may find them mildly amusing. If it takes you more than a minute or so to find out whatís here, Iíve failed. (Will there be a site index? Maybe; AT&T provides for it.)
  • I find animations distracting when Iím trying to read textóand this site is almost entirely text. Thus the lack of animations.
  • I donít use "New" icons because I have no idea when you were here last: whatís new to you? An update date may be less flashy, but itís a lot more informative.

What Do I Know?

Am I saying "icons are bad"? Not at all, although I get awfully frustrated when a Web icon doesnít have an alternate text versionójust as I get frustrated when a Windows program uses icons without tool tips. I donít use icons because I donít need them for this relatively simple site; thatís not a general condemnation. (The new Eureka on the Web makes some quite effective use of icons.)

Do I hate graphics? Only when they make me wait half a minute or more for a page to load, and then donít add anything to the pageís value. The same goes for Java, Javascript, frames, Shockwave, etc. I donít use them here because I donít need them here. Eureka on the Web uses Javascript and frames (more so in the new version) because they make the site more effective. Different sites, different needs, different tools.

Then again, what I like and where I go arenít always the same. I visit ZDNet almost every dayóand, by my lights, itís one of the worst-designed commercial Web sites in the business. So it goes.

July 17, 1999: minor edits and layout changes