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Monday, September 04, 2006

Critical Web Design Issues

In 1995 an estimated 18 million people over the age of 12 (6.7% of the population) used the Internet, by June of 1997 that number had grown 51 million users and by October of 1998 over 73 million, or nearly 28% of the population. (Nua Internet Surveys, 1998). As schools and teachers attempt to engage and meet the needs of students and parents, the use of web sites by teachers continues to expand.
Web sites are used for a variety of instructional and communication purposes; displaying student work, posting homework assignments, managing communication between parents and teachers, and providing enhanced learning opportunities for students beyond the boundary of the classroom. However, for a web page to be effective, it must be properly designed.
Critical components of proper web design (Shneiderman, 1992) include:
1. Functionality
2. Standardization, integration, and consistency,
3. Reliability, availability, and security
4. Evaluation
5. Accommodation of diversity
Functionality
The first step in designing a web page is to determine the function: what is the primary task of the site? Task analysis is essential because "systems with inadequate functionality frustrate the user and are often rejected" (Shneiderman, 1992). Perhaps the greatest threat to functionality is excess function. To many choices, the overuse of graphics, difficult navigation, slow loading pages, and clutter interfere with the primary purpose of the site. Remember, keep it simple and straightforward! (UWEC, 1997). Web sites should be fast and easy to use. Crucial questions include:
· Who is the intended audience?
· What are their needs and interests?
· What is the primary purpose of the site?
· How do you want the site to look?
· What kind of "personality" do you want the site to project?
· What results do you expect from the site?
· How will results be measured?
To answer these questions it may be necessary to use a formal or informal (depending upon needs and resources) survey, questionnaire, or even focus group. Focus groups are invaluable resources in web design, especially during evaluation (WebResults, 1996).
Design Planning
Planning the outline of a web site can be difficult. Unlike textbooks, web pages are not linear so it is important to "map" the site clearly. Begin by:
· Defining essential content: prioritize information and provide clear direction to essential information.
· Chart your site: ensure all relevant information is available and easy to find.
· Develop an interaction plan: will you have a chat room? How about a bulletin board or E-mail?
· Choose page layout and graphic scheme: colors and graphics should enhance the usability of the site for everyone. Layout and graphics enhance a site if used correctly, unfortunately, there are plenty of "bad" examples available. Keep in mind:
· The site should load quickly. Keep graphics to a minimum unless essential to the lesson. If graphics are used, convert graphics to less intensive formats to ensure faster loading. Remember, students or parents may use a 28.8 or even 14.4 modem from home.
Consistency, Standardization, and Integration
· The site should be consistent. Not only colors and graphics, but icons, buttons, and navigation tools must be considered, especially if several pages are linked together. This is of particular importance to disabled users who adjust screen colors or assistive devices to one page only to find they must readjust settings for the next page. Navigation tools should be uniform and comply with standard navigation "protocol".
· Use standard font sizes. The look of a web page differs depending on the browser. For instance, Netscape and Internet Explorer display fonts differently. Generally speaking, font looks smaller on Netscape compared to Explorer so use an html font size of 3 in order to accommodate either browser.
· Alternative formats must be available for all information on the site. For example, if audio or graphics are used, text must be available to accommodate the needs of disabled users. Plain text is often preferred by visually impaired users with clearly defined links. Links should not be placed in the body of a text because screen readers cannot distinguish them, instead, list links individually or in a column. Remember, the web is a public place and under the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act for government and public entities (NFB, 1998).
· Test the site on different browsers, platforms, monitors and modems. Remember, the browser makes a difference to how the viewer sees your site, but so does the platform (Windows, Mac, other), and monitor. If you use a 21" monitor while creating your site, remember, there are still 14" monitors out there! The same for modems. Test your site on the slowest modem available.
Reliability, Availability, and Security
Reliability and availability refer to the ability of users to access the site in a timely, consistent, safe, and convenient manner. Links and commands must be updated and work every time. "User's trust of systems is fragile; one experience with unexpected results will undermine a persons willingness to use a system for a long time" (Shneiderman, 1992). Reliability includes dependability of hardware, software, and content. When dealing with children special concern for security and privacy is essential. Numerous software applications are available but nothing replaces common sense. Interactive communication should be monitored by an adult and at no time should unauthorized "strangers" be allowed to "visit" with children on-line.
Evaluation
There are five measurable human factors central to evaluation (Shneiderman, 1992), these include:
1. Time to learn: how long does it take an inexperienced user to "learn" the site?
2. Speed of performance: how long does it take an average user to complete the functional purpose of the site?
3. Rate of errors by users: How many and what type of errors are made by users while attempting to accomplish the task?
4. Retention: How long do users maintain knowledge after visiting the site?
5. Satisfaction: Did users like the site or not? Why?
Accommodating diversity
Diversity includes cognitive and perceptual abilities, personality differences, cultural and ethic diversity, users with disabilities, and age and gender differences (Shneiderman, 1992). Although accommodation of users with disabilities is legally mandated for government and public organizations on the web (NFB, 1998), accommodation of other forms of diversity is strongly recommended in order to provide the most meaningful context for users. A few issues to keep in mind:
· Plan for all users by ensuring the highest degree of accessibility for disabled users possible.
· Graphics should represent a diverse population appropriate to the topic and age range
· Alternative formats of information should be made available for poor readers.
· Careful attention to the use and context of semantics should be considered when designing a web site. For example, designers previously used the word "quit" to end a program, however, the negative connotation was found to reinforce feelings of failure in users (Thornburg, 199?). Omit words with negative associations for users.
Final Step
Once you determine the function, design, and content of the site, you are ready to test it. Provide users and peers an opportunity to "try out" the site before posting it on the web! Correct mistakes and problems before going public. Once the final product is complete and approved by a sample of users and peers, you are ready to announce the site to the world.
Resources
Darnell, M. (1998). Bad human factors design. On-line. Available: http://www.baddesigns.com/

Nua Internet Survey (1998) How many online? On-line. Available: http://www.nua.ie/survey/how_many_online/index.html

Shneiderman, B (1992). Designing the user interface: strategies for effective human-computer interaction. Find the rest

University of Wisconsin (1997). Developing a web site-5 key steps. On-line. Available: http://www.uwec.edu/Info/UWECWeb/develop.htm

WebResults (1996). WebResults Guide to Web Planning. On-line: Available: http://www.webresult.com/webr/plan/planp.html

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