Web Author's Guide
The only people likely to read this page are scholars who need to get back to their books, but who also want to put up and maintain a decent web site, and don't have the time to learn, or the money to hire, professional web design skills. We are in that group ourselves, and these are our best suggestions from slowly gained experience. Those responsible for Department web sites should also check out the Department page. Not all these rules are precisely followed on the present site (for one thing, the present site contains about 2000 pages, which is way too many), but so it goes. Do as we say, and not as we do.
Skill. Don't get smart. Plan to learn as little as possible in order to achieve the minimum satisfactory result. Leave the bells and whistles to the teenagers. On the other hand, the fill-in-the-blanks approach of (eg) the WordPerfect web authoring module gives you a result that is recognizable without being creditable. We liked the Claris Home Page program, because it made the basics easily available, but that program is no longer supported by the company. That leaves Dreamweaver, which will do the basics and much more. The trick is to leave the "much more" strictly alone, and learn the basics well enough that you can do them quickly. Things you struggle over, or forget from one session to the next, are no good. You have enough problems with your research not to add to them in this way. The idea is to receive by E-mail a correction for one of your pages, revise the page, and upload it again to your server, all within 90 seconds. If you can't do that, you are over your head technically. Make it simpler.
Site Layout. Figure out in advance how many different kinds of information you want to include, and arrange to have different folders for them. Restructuring and relinking later on is hideously costly in time. Browse the Internet to see what impresses you; what conveniences you are grateful for in other sites of the same type as yours. Then start thinking.
Having laid out the kinds of information you want to include, and arranged them logically, figure out how strangers are going to find their way around in your site (the so-called question of navigation). One problem with a set of web pages, as against a book, is that on the web you can't skip ahead. Mitigate this rigidity as best you can. For small and relatively simple sites, use the home page as a "hub" page, and put a link back to that hub on each page of the site.
For sites with more levels (like this one), use each folder index page as a local hub. Every page within that section should have a link back to the immediately preceding layer, but also an escape (on our pages, we call it "Exit to") the local hub. The local hub in turn should have a direct link back to the master home page. So, a viewer who finds one of your interior pages by an Internet search should be able to find out who you are in two clicks, by going first to the local hub page and second to the home page.
Page Layout. Avoid frames. Avoid wallpaper. Avoid backgrounds except in special places (such as highlighting certain rows in tables). Plain white is the easiest for you to compose on, and it is the easiest for your viewers to read on. Work with open space. Avoid long pages. Break up a long document into several pages, and break up continuous text on one page with subheads, more often than you would if formatting the same text on paper. Remember that the viewer will at first see only the top four inches or so of your page. Don't place thematic or crucial labeling elements too low.
Tone. Avoid technical glitz. Moving images, banners, mouseover effects, jacks-in-the-box, water pistols, exploding cigars, and the like are trashy and intrusive. For color, see our Theory page, but in brief: avoid too large dark areas, avoid pastels unless you are Rosamund Pilcher, and don't use any shade of purple. Avoid cute clip art like the plague. That it may be free is no excuse.
Make it beautiful, but (we hate to say this) . . . don't make it too beautiful. If you wrap a present too nicely, people will hate to open it. A web site isn't to contemplate with rapture, it's to use. Beauty is a blessing, but it's also intimidating. Its very completeness is uninviting. And, the final argument: it takes an unconscionable length of time to achieve. Make it clean, and it will be beautiful enough.
Lightness. Academic prose is convoluted. Web prose needs simplicity. Nothing can be long or involved on a web page. Readers of web pages go faster, and they tire easier, than in the print medium (reading screens is basically a form of reading with the light shining in your eyes). Keep statements simple. Keep qualifications of those statements to a minimum. Use verbs. Use subheads to convey structure, since you can't paragraph with your voice. Use pictures or diagrams to replace prose, or make the job of the prose easier. Learn to make simple diagrams in the Adobe Photoshop Elements program (the simple version of Photoshop; it is enough). Learn to use a scanner, and don't pile books on the scanner between uses.
Details. Alas, there is no TAB command in HTML language. Use Tables to get equivalent freedom of placement. Place a transparent GIF in each cell of the table that doesn't have text, or Netscape browsers will not display that cell. Remember that if you use anchors to direct viewers to a particular point on a page, Netscape will take them only as far as the top of the page. Create a folder that you don't upload, and keep a page in it for special symbols that you can conveniently copy elsewhere. Learn the Symbol font, for Greek purposes. All this saves time, and time is what you don't have enough of.
Housekeeping. Unless your site is gigantic, print out each page of it, and keep the pages in a notebook. Separate (with a card-stock divider page) the different folders. Write any special design details in the margin of the printouts, in red. It's faster to find them there, a month later, than to go into the HTML code in search of them. Chances are that you can proofread faster, and add thoughts better, on paper than on-screen. Keep blank pages in the notebook to write new ideas on, as they occur to you while doing something else. The printout will also remind you that not only do your pages look different on Macs and PCs, they look different when on-screen and when printed out. If people save your information, the printout is what they will be seeing. If a good-looking page prints out ugly, it's an ugly page.
Technicalia. Don't be dazzled by complexities. Don't do something just because you know how to. Remember the magician who told the Han Emperor: "Yes, I can do these tricks. But I can also refrain from doing them." It made the other court magicians look cheap and unreflective. Think about it.
We end by agreeing with a recommendation of the UMass Office of Information Technologies. It is to review Jakob Nielsen's Top Ten Mistakes list (from May 1996, with updates through 2004). The list is compiled from a commercial point of view. Inefficiency in commercial applications will cost you money, a fact which tends to reduce things to basics very quickly. Inefficiency in academic contexts will only cost you reader effectiveness. But why are you doing this, if not to achieve reader effectiveness?
16 Feb 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to Reference Page