Dr. Mark Humphrys

School of Computing. Dublin City University.

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Web page style

Many style elements are controversial. Not everyone agrees on what is usable and unusable. Here is my take.

Avoid, or use with caution:

  1. Page backgrounds
    • Like, WHY? It's not cool on paper - what makes you think it's different on screen?

  2. Frames
    • Using frames (e.g. for a menu) breaks the clean, well-understood Web model. It plays havoc with bookmarks and hyperlinks.
    • Why Frames Suck (Most of the Time) - Jakob Nielsen on frames.
    • Frames are useful for:
      • In writing about web sites, where you want to do, say, a side-by-side comparison of 2 different web sites.
      • Constructing a page with information coming from multiple remote sources.

  3. In general, Things that break the Web model.

  4. "Best viewed with X" (demands a certain browser, OS, screen resolution)
    • Before the Web it was hard to share documents with people on other operating systems, or on other networks, or people with same OS but different applications, or even just different versions of the same application.
    • Then the Web. HTML defined a common denominator for all machines, and information could be shared like never before.
    • People who say "Best viewed with X" are trying to return to this primitive, pre-1993 world.
    • There was a time in the 1990s (before the mobile Web) when it was popular to make websites that could only be properly viewed with IE on a Windows PC. This is a lot less common now. We have the mobile Web to thank for that.

  5. Small font size
    • Different style fonts are not a problem. Large fonts are not a problem. Small fonts are the problem.
    • There are many sites who set the tag:   <font size="-1">   or some absolute size:   <font size="10">   Often, I cannot read the text. It's too small. I have set my font to a size I can read. You should respect that.
    • OK, depending on browser, I can check: "Always use my fonts, overriding document fonts", or I can set a toolbar button to quickly change font. But hitting "Back" is attractive too. There are a lot of other sites out there. No need to spend time on yours if it involves work.

  6. Messing with the window.status line - takes away the user's ability to see the URL that a link leads to.
    • Every link you click on the Web is already an investment, a big gamble that there is something useful worth waiting half a minute for. You use lots of heuristics to try to guess if the link will be worth your while. One of the few guides we have is the URL, since link titles are so ambiguous. And now some people even take that away from you.
    • You could in theory use this tag to make the status line more meaningful, e.g. show the relative link instead of the absolute link, or even comment your links. But of course many web designers will simply use it to make the status line as ambiguous and useless as the link title.
    • This is no longer a problem, as by default now, scripts cannot change window.status. The user must change browser settings to allow this.
  7. Embedded audio/video with autoplay on (Unless this is what I was expecting)
    • When I want to see/hear it, I can play it myself.

  8. Embedded animation, Flash animations, Animated GIFs, Blink, Scrolling marquees
    • You don't NEED to "capture attention" on the Web. It's NOT like TV. People don't "Surf". They came to your site for a reason. They're already on your page. Don't force them to sit through a lengthy animation they never asked for, in order to reach the pages they do want.
    • Animation is fine for things you have asked for. But people must have asked for it.
    • Flash has many valid uses, from YouTube to Google Street View.
    • I'm just criticising its use for pointless animations, such as:

    • Flash: 99% Bad, Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, October 29, 2000.
    • Flash is Evil, September 1, 1999.
    • Animation is a niche, it's not the future. And it's not a niche I'm interested in, so keep your animated nonsense to yourself. I don't want to see it.
    • Guidelines for Multimedia on the Web - Jakob Nielsen on animation.

  9. Client-side programs that the user hasn't asked for
    • In the past, client-side code was often used to jazz up a page with moving parts and pointless animation. It was a technology in search of a use. This is less common now, because there are so many useful things to do with client-side code now.
    • Client-side code has built a whole world of user interaction. But remember your users may not want to interact - they may want to choose when they will begin interacting (if ever).

Other bad things

  1. In general, sites that only work on (have only been tested on):
    1. IE (latest version)
    2. Windows (latest version)
    3. PC (not mobile)
    4. fast PC
    5. fast connection

  2. Unstable URLs.

  3. Over-long, complex, cryptic URLs. See URL as UI.

  4. URLs where you cannot hack off bits from the RHS to move up a level.

  5. Periodicals not allowing direct browsing of each issue in the archive from its front page, but access only via keyword search.

  6. Travel sites where you have to fill in lengthy forms (enter start time, destination, etc.) in order to see the timetable (rather than being able to just browse the entire timetable raw).

  7. In general, Things that break the Web model.

Content (always useful, and often neglected)

Always useful:

Things like: For many years, the commercial web was full of "brochure" sites, which were basically ads, but would not tell you any deep information about the products. This is finally changing. People now have an expectation that all publically released information about the company and its products should be on the website.

ancientbrain.com      w2mind.org      humphrysfamilytree.com

On the Internet since 1987.

Wikipedia: Sometimes I link to Wikipedia. I have written something In defence of Wikipedia. It is often a useful starting point but you cannot trust it. Linking to it is like linking to a Google search. A starting point, not a destination. I automatically highlight in red all links to Wikipedia and Google search and other possibly-unreliable user-generated content.