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Making sites easy for visitors
One hundred years, even thirty years ago, public buildings and churches were built with no thought for people with any disability. Sweeping flights of steps up to an imposing main entrance, more steps inside, no amplification. A lack of easy access excluded many people. Easy accessibility to public buildings is now mandated by legislation in most countries.
“Content is what you say, design is how you say it,” says Warren, a web evangelist. Both aspects are a key to the overall accessibility of a website. There are several interlocking aspects which contribute to accessibility. A book on website design suggests that we need three skills in order to create an accessible site - those of:
- graphic designer
- ‘information architect’
Information architectThe concept of ‘information architect’ is a very useful one because information can be organized and presented in ways that are helpful or confusing, clear or obscure, neat or cluttered, inviting or daunting. An information architect understands all this, and knows how to structure websites, so that they serve people well. Should something be organized alphabetically, or chronologically, or in order of size, or geographically, or in order of importance? How many points should be on a page? How much text? How much white space? What fits with what? Where should pictures be, and what kinds of pictures, and how big, and with what? An information architect knows how to work with all those kinds of questions.
To be effective web evangelists, we must learn to become information architects, by clear organized writing, attractive design, and an integrated presentation of information within an easy-to-navigate site.
1. Writing the contentJumbled writing, poor spelling and punctuation, large blocks of text which lack white space, paragraph breaks or subheadings will all encourage the premature departure of visitors from your site. Individual pages should have a single focus. Don't try to develop several themes on one page – create separate new pages.
- Two questions to answer before you start – who are your intended readers? Don't say 'everyone'.
- Writing clearly – the Web requires a specific style.
- Importance of revising and editing – never put a first (or even a tenth) draft online.
- Effective headings and subheadings – enticing the eye and maintaining interest.
- Learning from journalistic style – the Web needs journalists, not preachers.
- Relating to the real world – or we have no audience.
- Angie's story – testimony-writing tutorial – two ways to do it, one way to avoid.
- Double your site usability – advice from Sun Systems.
2. DesignDesign falls into two categories – individual page appearance, and how all the pages relate together as a coherent whole.
a. Page appearance. Even if the written text is clear and understandable, a confusing page design will prevent easy reading.
- Page backgrounds should be very pale, and normal text should be black. The lower the contrast between the two, the harder it is to read. Those with color blindness or other visual impairment will struggle with low contrast or colors they cannot distinguish between. Be aware of the way that color transmits a message which can enhance or detract from what your pages are intended to communicate.
- ‘Reversed-out’ print – i.e. pale text on a dark background – is hard to read, and should not be used except for headings or short blocks of text
- Most people find that sans-serif fonts are clearer – indeed research has shown that sans-serif fonts are 20% quicker to read from a monitor. If no page font is specified, most people will read the text in browser-default serif font.
- Graphics should be small or they will take a long time to download. Many people in some countries have slow Internet connections and will have for many years to come. Learn how to shrink file-sizes of graphics with minimum loss of quality.
- Use lots of white space around text. Break it up into short paragraphs. Text which is narrower than full-screen is also easier to read.
- ‘Splash pages’ – those which are nothing but a large graphic plus ‘enter’ link – have been proven to lose visitors, and are also a problem for search engines. We lose people at every un-necessary click.
- Good Documents – detailed and wise advice on page appearance.
b. Navigation. As important as the appearance of individual pages, is the way that they all link together. It is very easy to get this aspect of usability wrong. The web visitor does not, like you, know what all the pages contain. He or she is a stranger, navigating 'blind', and needs as much help as possible. However, the visitor wants to feel in control of the browsing experience. It is very important that those visiting your site know where they are, where they have been, and where they can go. This requires:
- navigation links which explain in sufficient enticing detail what each page offers.
- 'You are here' pointers and a breadcrumb trail can help the visitor see at a glance where they are, where they can go, and where they have been.
- each page should be written as a logical entry point for a visitor, who may arrive directly at the page from a search engine, and will then want to know how to reach the rest of the site. It is wise to have a full set of navigation links on each page, rather than just the homepage. DHTML menus can be useful on larger sites, giving access to a wide range of pages by mouse hover.
- a logical intuitive arrangement of pages within subject areas.
- While it is possible to fulfill these needs with frames, it is much harder to do it well, and most site designers avoid them. They have many other disadvantages too.
- More on navigation.
Learning from other designsBefore designing a website, take large amounts of time to look at other sites and learn from both good and bad ones:
- Are they readable? Why? Or if not why not?
- Does the page layout distract or help reability?
- Are they easy to understand and navigate? Or do you feel lost and confused?
- Are the graphics quick to load?
Expect that your website will grow – so build in space for easy and logical expansion right from the start.
At the planning stage, it is helpful to create a paper prototype to help you visualize the range of pages and how they relate to each other.
Site design and usability links
- Navigation – how to make your site easy to navigate – and therefore keep your visitors
- Usability testing – time spent improving a site's usability will be repaid.
- Usable Web – very useful range of articles
- Jakob Neilsen's Alertbox - a regular archived newsletter from the leading exponent of usability
- Yale Web Style Guide – how to create a site that hangs together logically
Check our book recommendations on web design and accessibility.
related pages within the Websites that work menu links
recommended books on web design, including free downloads
valuable online videos about web ministry