Repeal the User Tax
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Developer Relations Group
May 1, 1997
Images. Frames. Objects. Think of these page-design elements as a "tax" you are charging the user.
Nobody likes taxes, but most of us realize that if we didn't pay them, we wouldn't get common benefits that we often take for granted. So we accept the taxes that are required of us, up to a point.
Picture it: The mayor decides he wants to declare a citywide "Smell the Roses Day" with a parade, an all day picnic, free balloon rides, and new planters on every street corner. No budget? No problem. Just tax something to pay for it. How long do you think he would stay in office?
As a Web-page designer, you should be concerned with how you present information on your site. There are countless ways to apply poor judgement. Perhaps the easiest way to really get into trouble is to get too comfortable using a dedicated T1 line during the design process and forget about folks who might be using a 14.4 bps modem. I see it all the time. I'm guilty of falling into this trap occasionally myself.
Most Web developers connect up via a very fast network link, and probably aren't even aware of it when they make poor bandwidth choices while designing their pages. For example, here is code from one such poorly designed page that I've run across:
<img width=170 height=166 src="art/iwcollg.jpg" border=0>
In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this code. But the width and height attributes aren't just "hinting" at the actual size of the JPG image, they are setting it, meaning that whatever the original size of the JPG image, it is being stretched to 170x166. In this particular case, the actual image is a very large 833x811, and weighs in at 55K! Add to that the fact that the image is essentially just a two-color logo with lots of solid color areas, and it is clear that just converting it to a GIF would help tremendously. I copied the image down to my system, and after spending only a short time tweaking it in PaintShop Pro, I was able to trim this image down to less than 3K as a 16-color, non-dithering GIF image.
Had the author of this page been forced to connect to the site via a 14.4 modem, he or she would have soon realized the problem.
A wealth of problems can be caused by the improper use of images. Some sites simply use one big graphic to present all of their information and links, while others scatter images all over their pages in strange and unusual ways. Both of these approaches can result in either attractive and functional designs or total disaster.
Any time a new feature gets supported in a browser, Web designers try to outdo one another in their overuse of it. I keep hoping that folks will start getting tired of hot-rodding around in frames, but I still see far too many poorly framed sites. In the right hands, frames can definitely benefit the flow of a site, but too often I see frame-based sites that really miss the point of how frames can help.
A common problem: A site is laid out in the normal, three-frame view for logo/navigation/content, but on virtually every link, all three frames get updated to reflect the user's movement. When designing a frame-based site, remember that each frame is essentially a different page. Thus, a three-pane site is essentially three times the browser burden of a single-pane site.
How often do you wake up in the morning and say this to yourself, "Gee, I sure wish somebody would create a Web document with a spinning clock rendered in 3-D so I could know what time it was while I happened to be on that Web site."
I thought not.
You can add functionality to your Web pages by embedding objects, applications, animations, and what-have-you. But each time you do this, you need to ask yourself if it really adds benefit to your page, if it really enhances the information you are trying to share. Vincent Flanders has the right notion on this. On his Web site Web Pages That Suck, he often points out that the first person who uses some cool but useless feature is creative, but everybody who "copies" (read: steals) this feature is simply being a bore.
Worse, not only are many of the objects you embed on your site worthless, they also often greatly impact the page's download time.
Don't get me wrong. ActiveX® controls, Java applets, and GIF animations are great. I often use them myself. But each time you add an "external" data object to your page, you tax the user experience.
So, when you add some cool feature onto your site, think of it as a "time tax" on the user. You are asking users to give up precious moments to listen to what you have to say. If you're really interested in keeping their attention, and getting them back again, you need to think about how best to make them feel like their time on your site is well spent.
One of my favorite sites is Hot Wired's Cocktail site. Besides the fact that I like a well-heeled martini, I enjoy this site because it does a very good job at including images, frames, table layout, and database queries, without being too heavy.
There is no "home" page that you have to click through to get to where you really want to go, nor is there a maze of twisty links that you need to remember in order to navigate the site.
The main page changes weekly, but other than the occasional facelift, the basic layout is identical from week to week. Add to this well-written, entertaining, and informative content, and you've got the recipe for a great Web site.
A framed set of pages, Cocktail took 74 seconds to download on my 14.4 modem. A little on the long side, but the main content frame is virtually all text, so it loads and renders in a matter of seconds. What adds the extra time is the GIF image of this week's cocktail and the advertising graphic.
Dave Winer is quite well known in certain circles. He has a regular e-mail newsletter in which he comments on a wide range of computer issues and happenings. His subscriber list is a virtual Who's Who of the computer industry. Dave is not a designer; he's a programmer—which is why his Web site, DaveNet, doesn't flow forth with fancy graphics, complex tables, or over-processed information. Virtually the entire site is automatically generated from a database of information. Because of this, he can recreate his site in almost any form he can imagine at the drop of a hat.
DaveNet took 12 seconds to download on my 14.4 modem. Now that's what I call a zippy Web site.
Robert Hess is an evangelist in Microsoft's Developer Relations Group. Fortunately for all of us, his opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Microsoft.