21 September 2009

Reflections on web design

More than ten years ago, when creating the first pages for my web site at MANTEX, I made the somewhat hair-shirted decision to write all the pages by hand, using only Notepad. After all, most sites at that time were what we would now call primitive - as David Siegel said: "Like slide presentations shown on a cement wall". It was enough to have the excitement of links that worked, and the occasional uploaded graphic. Little did we know then what changes were to come over the enrichment of the online presence.

When I look back at versions of those early pages, I cringe - as I bet you do if you have a anything which pre-dates the millennium. But I continued putting up data year after year. The site grew; the years passed. Dreamweaver became available, but I continued in my Amish way. Cascading style sheets beckoned, but seemed too steep a learning curve. And before I knew it the site had grown to over a thousand pages. A stylistic improvement could take a whole summer holiday to implement on every page.

When I hit 1,500 pages I knew it couldn't go on. A content management system was the answer to this problem - but even choosing something usable took some time. Now that I've settled on WordPress and begun the monumental task of transferring all those pages, one by one, it forces me to look at the evolution of the web in the last decade or so - and I'm struck by three things - interactivity, eCommerce, and information architecture.

Ten years or so ago site pages were not only like blocks of print transferred to screen: there was also nothing you could do except read them. Now we expect links, comments, dynamic updating, trackbacks, and invitations to participate in one thing or another. On big sites we expect to be recognized as soon as we log on. Phew! This is some development.

Ten years or so ago, given the origin of the web in the world of scientific research, advertising was taboo. People went to extraordinary lengths to block adverts, conceal product placement, and . Now we recognize that sites need to earn a little something to stay alive. If Joe Schmuck is willing to give away lots of information for free on his site, who are we to complain if he has Google Ads in his side column? The banner ad went through three transformations. First it intruded and got up everybody's nose; then it was ignored; and now it has the sense to slide into a side panel. The user has learned to ignore, tolerate, or filter out ads from the page.

Ten years or so ago we didn't have the tools for organizing huge amounts of data - except those of sorting and labeling which were a hangover from the original information architects - librarians. The design solution at the time seemed to be a list of topics in the left column, using frames - remember those? But now content management systems have the in-built tools for categorizing and tagging which mean that we are invited to take meta-data seriously. Information is not really given its full value until it is described, given a title, and linked to others of its kind.

Not only that, but the nifty plug-ins to WordPress I'm using even generate breadcrumb trails and navigation bars automatically, according to the terms I decide. This is all a long way from spidery links on home pages, underlined in default blue, which we saw all those years ago, along with centred logos and invitations to 'click here'.


Gerald (Hyde DP) said...

O how the web has changed indeed - I got here cos I was posting a photo of the NatWest bank on Heaton Moor Road to the Geograph site and wanted to see if I could find a bit of history on it and google led me to your Heaton Moor blog which really only mentions it in passing but then I followed your profile to this active blog of yours.

Ah well, back to the job in hand.

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