Paper vs. Pixels - Part 3

by Joe Gillespie — Oct 1, 2004

Continuing the series on changing from print design to Web design, this month we'll look at some of the 'interactive' aspects of using the Web. Print is basically passive.

Unless it's a kid's book with pictures to colour-in or puzzles to do, or it has some kind of levers to make things wiggle, you just read – and that's it.

For a surfer, the Web requires a little more effort than just turning pages and the Web designer has to be ever aware that it's non-linear. You don't start at page one and read to the end. You jump about all over the place.

Navigation

Apart from providing an index or glossary, navigation is not usually an issue in print. Some printed matter is read from beginning to end, as with a novel. Reference books and magazines are more likely to be used in a 'random access' manner even though they are initially presented as 'serial'.

Web pages are almost never read from front to back. They depend upon hypertext links, a hierarchical menu system or the results from a search engine of some sort. Creating such navigation systems is an art in itself and requires the designer to understand the processes involved.

Where the Web really excels, is in being able to find vast amounts of information very quickly. To find something, you just enter a keyword or search phrase and click a button. Then you will be presented, almost instantly, with a choice of sources that have already been sorted by relevance.

The problem is that there's often too much information rather than too little. It's this phrase 'sorted by relevance' that's the key and the same principle goes for site navigation. Any navigational system should point to the information required, no matter how general or detailed the information that the reader requires. Information that is hidden deep down inside a site and not indexed might as well not be there because there is a limit to the amount of time somebody will spend searching. Anything that gets in the way of that process is impeding communication – and is bad design™.

Think twice before using animated drop down menus. Sure, they look ‘cool’ but they are not always reliable across browsers as they depend on JavaScript or CSS to work. Worse, they might confuse the reader and, just as importantly, the search engines that are trying to index your site. If you want a lot of traffic to your site, and who doesn't, you should go out of your way to make finding information easier, not more difficult, for surfers and robots alike.

Plug-ins

Unless you produce comics that require special 3D glasses, print never requires on the reader having a 'plug-in'.

There used to be a lot of plug-in available for different 'added features' for Web pages. Thankfully, most of them have fallen by the wayside and the few that are left are usually pre-installed with operating systems or browsers, so the reader doesn't have to go looking to find and install them.

King of all plug-ins is Flash. You can be reasonably certain that Flash is available on most computers – Windows, Mac or Linux – but not necessarily the latest version.

Adobe Acrobat, is another fairly common plug-in which gives the ability to view PDF files within a browser environment.

QuickTime is sure to be installed on Macs and gives access to quite a few 'other' file formats like MP3. Again, you can't be sure of the latest version being installed. It's less common on Windows where the preferred alternative is...

Windows Media Player. Does a similar job to QuickTime, primarily for playing movie and audio files. It's also available for Mac but doesn't have a huge installed based there.

REAL, provides alternative video and audio playback facilities independently of QuickTime or WMP.

Which formats you choose to support comes down to who your target audience is. Some sites provide all three options.

As plug-in producers have found to their cost, it is difficult to persuade a casual surfer to download and install a plug-in. Some can't be bothered, some are afraid that they might do something wrong and some are not allowed because they aren't using their own computer. Don't assume the presence of any plug-in. They provide 'additional' functionality when available; don't use them for important navigation or information display.

Browsers

Once the artwork has left your studio, duly checked for correctness and signed-off, what you get depends on the printer. There are lots of variables but you will have certain expectations and decent printers will do their best to meet them. If they don't, you will have good cause to complain and if they don't satisfy you, stand a good chance of losing future business.

The equivalent of a printer on the Web is the browser, the piece of software that interprets your instructions and displays it as a page on a computer screen. Just in the same way that you wouldn't expect different printers to produce identical results from the same artwork, browsers won't either. Sadly, there will probably be a much greater divergence in browser results than you would expect from printers.

Imagine that you picked five printers from a telephone directory without knowing anything about them – the kind of printing they do, what facilities they have, what they charge or how good they are. You could end up with an instant copy shop, a silkscreen poster printer, one who specialises in thermographic stationery, a foil-blocking company who produces promotional pens and a high volume newspaper printer.

You send them an item of artwork and ask them to 'do their best' with it. Can you image the results?

That's the situation that Web designers have to cope with every day but they have learned to expect the unexpected. It's not that their expectations are any lower; they have 'designed' for the situation. That is probably the greatest difference between Web and print design. In print, you expect certain results. On the Web, you try not to.

Multimedia

This has no parallel in print whatsoever and requires completely different skill and mind sets. Multimedia is much more like film or television production but usually suffers from much lower budgets. The trouble here is that the public have become used to high quality broadcast audio, video and cinema and have certain expectations. They will be unimpressed with 'home movie' quality video or 'karaoke-style' music and any site that doesn't try too hard runs the risk of being branded as amateurish.

I have always been of the opinion that a good still picture is better than a bad moving one. The underlying technologies of the Web don't make it easy to do CD-ROM or DVD quality multimedia. Before you try to impress with your multimedia prowess, ask yourself if it's really going to have the effect you intend and if there isn't a better way to achieve what you are after. There usually is!

Next month, we look at some of the technical issues.

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