Home Sweet Home:
Creating WWW Pages
by Jamie McKenzie
- Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful.
Samuel Beckett (1906-89) in Waiting for Godot
World Wide Web pages were not created with schools in mind. When a district or a school begins asking how to create such pages, there are few good examples to imitate. There are HTML style books and pages, but most focus in on the details of formatting sections of pages. Few speak to the design of school WWW pages and WWW sites as an "information system." One especially strong exception is the Yale C/AIM WWW Style Manual:
Without attention to design, the collection of pages can become a hodgepodge which is slow, inefficient and so eclectic as to be disconcerting. This chapter offers guidelines, strategies and standards to assist schools in building WWW sites which function well, offer great information and represent the school or district with some pizzazz.
To begin with, those who create a school's WWW site should take a long view before launching the actual construction. The designers are both infotects and curators. Mission and purpose should be clear up front. Form should follow function.
A good WWW site performs at least three functions:
1) The site points internal users to outside information resources that are curriculum related and developmentally appropriate, providing clear indexing and adequate description of these resources so that staff and students can make wise choices and move rapidly through Cyberspace toward the information they need. The site and its pages provide a window to the Internet which fits the purposes and the mission of the school while compensating for one of the Net's biggest weaknesses: poor indexing.
2) The site points external visitors and internal users to valuable internal curriculum resources such as artifacts and data regarding local history, local water quality, or student generated productions and performances of various kinds. These may take the following forms depending upon the preferences of the designers:
3) The site introduces external visitors to the school. During the next few years, many relocating families will employ the WWW as a means to shop for schools just as they now use it to shop for vacations and other items. The wise school and the wise principal recognizes that a WWW site requires much the same attention and care as a printed brochure or video about the school.
These functions lead logically to a number of design principles which may guide the building of pages. They are listed and explained here to support the thinking, planning and invention of those who are launching a site on the World Wide Web.
The Tenets of Effective WEB Site Design
Tenet Number One: Less is more. Take a minimalist approach to page design. Employ few graphics except where the visual contributes meaning. Too many sites move slowly and inefficiently, wasting bandwidth and the time of visitors by loading up pages with chunky graphics which act like sea anchors. In all too many cases, visiting sites is akin to Waiting for Godot. (Beckett, 1952). Note quotation at chapter heading.
Tenet Number Two: Distinguish between menu pages and data pages. Menu pages should help visitors move quickly to what they need. No fuss. No bother. Graphics which are primarily decorative in purpose should be kept to a minimum in order to speed people along. A menu page should be logically constructed with well ordered lists of choices sufficiently annotated to inform the user of "what they are getting into." Deeper into the site where information is provided, graphics intensive pages make sense if those graphics contribute significantly to understanding, as in the case of maps, charts, photographs, etc. related to the topic.
Tenet Number Three: Maintain smoothly gliding formats. Speed of movement is enhanced by repeating basic formats. If a page includes a background GIF file, for example, speed is enhanced by using such a handful of different backgrounds for major sections. Once the GIF is loaded, it takes little time for it to do its job on each succeeding page, but if the backgrounds keep changing, each change will require new loadings, thereby slowing access speed. The same is true for small logs and banners. If repeated, they do little damage to efficiency. Random variation is the enemy of glide. It is also a violation of good esthetics. In the effort to involve teams in page design, sites all too often end up working slowly and looking "helter skelter."
Tenet Number Four: Provide visitors with enough information to make wise choices. If these will consume mega-bandwidth, site designers should employ "thumbnails" to help the user know something about the content along with verbal descriptions of contents and file size.
Tenet Number Five: Create menus which are logically comprehensive and coherent, employing headings which are meaningful. A list should fully encompass the major categories of the material being offered with labels which clearly indicate the kinds of information which are contained at each of the next levels. Site designers should heed "truth in labeling" standards. All too often, for example, sites will provide an option such as "biology databases" which would suggest that the resulting page will provide access to actual databases. Instead, it is often just one more list of sites to be found somewhere else on the WWW. In such a case, the label should read "biology databases elsewhere on the WWW."
Tenet Number Six: Provide navigational tools in systematically consistent fashion. It is all too easy to get lost unless the visitor can always count on finding certain buttons on every page located in the same spots. At a minimum, every page should contain a "return to main page" button. If the pages is fairly deep into the site, it should also contain a button for return to the menu related to that section of material. In a collection of photographs shot to illustrate the school's community, for example, each page containing a photograph should provide a link back to the menu page listing the 40 photographs.
Tenet Number Seven: Maintain consistent formats and avoid a hodge podge of random designs. Major sections of a site might each have variations in design, a different background color and accompanying logo related to the topic or category, for example. "Showboating" dozens of different fonts, graphics and designs impedes performance and violates design standards. Consider the possibility of setting format parameters and guidelines for such items as student art work submitted for publication.
GIFs for our art gallery should be saved in one of these three formats:
a) 2 inches (Height) by 2 inches (Width)
b) 3 inches (Height) by 1.5 inches (Width).
c) 1.5 inches (Height) by 3 inches (Width).
Having watched dozens of students creating art for placement upon WWW pages, I can report that few pause to consider the issue of size or how one might frame a drawing/painting. They generally have little awareness of those kinds of design issues which art teachers often try to teach in drawing classes. In drawing from life, for example, the teacher often hands out a piece of cardboard with a rectangular window cut through it. "Hold this up to frame your picture," are the instructions. "How close should you be? Which elements should you include?"
Tenet Number Eight: Include appropriate copyright notices on every page. Even though it is very easy for users to copy materials on pages, intellectual and artistic production is still covered by copyright as long as a notice is posted. Writing, art work and photography of students belongs to them and should not be published without written student and parental permission. Visitors should not have rights to take and duplicate such materials without negotiating with the producers of those materials. When copying is permitted and expected, those permissions should be clearly stated where the notice can be easily found.
Tenet Number Nine: Include snail and e-mail addresses , as well as contact names and institutional affiliations on major menu pages. Not all visitors will arrive at the site right at the original home page. If the site has excellent resources, various programs like WebCrawler might link people around the world to pages deep within the site. We often end up on a page somewhere with no idea who the sponsoring group might be or how to get to the top menu or how to contact the site administrators for more information. While it is possible, sometimes, to strip away parts of the URL address to find the top level, most new users will not know how to do that.
Tenet Number Ten: Consider at least three years of site development before proceeding with the first page. Advanced planning and design dramatically improve the actual construction. The design group should develop a "site plan" graphically mapping out all of the sections which will eventually open to the public. As part of this process, the group should try to predict in approximate terms the total number of pages that will occupy each section as well as the number of associated GIF files. This estimating will guide the group in the creation of directories. Generally speaking, it is comfortable working with up to 150-200 HTML and GIF files in each directory. With most HTML programs like Netscape, life for the HTML page writer is made much simpler by keeping files in large, relatively flat collections. Multiplying levels of directories and folders adds to the addressing and tends to complicate the linking of pages from one level to another.
Tenet Number Eleven: Employ thoughtful file-naming conventions to minimize the need for sub-directories and folders. It is much easier to find items if each file has been saved with names which cluster all related files in groupings. If the naming of files is done by "conventions" agreed upon by all members of the group, it becomes much easier to share work. One convention might be to make sure that the names of all files related to a section of the site (such as a student art gallery) might begin with a letter such as "a." A related convention might be to give related HTML and GIF files the same names excepting their file extension. A third convention would be to place a code "x" at the end of the file name if it is a "thumb print" (very small) version of a GIF file. Employing these three conventions, then, to name files associated with Sally's sailboat painting, they would emerge thus:
If the group has planned eight major sections and assigned a corresponding letter to the front of each file, the 86 files for the art gallery will group together, the 46 files for the photo gallery will group together, and the 468 files for student writing will group together so they are easily found and they will allow for simple address writing when creating HTML pages. Netscape is satisfied with just the file name being cited in the URL as long as the linked file resides in the same directory as the linking page. An example, then, would be: <IMG SRC="aboat.gif">. If all GIF files were contained in a separate sub directory such as "images," it would addition of that name to the address: <IMG SRC="/images/aboat.gif">. While it may not seem like much, the extra trouble of changing directories when working with files and the extra typing and addressing can mount up to be significant burdens.
Tenet Number Twelve: Balance breadth and depth when considering the structure of menus and files. When we visit some sites on the WWW, it seems as if the site is made up of nothing but menus. You keep on clicking and clicking without ever seeming to arrive at valuable information or data. Waiting to move from menu to menu is very frustrating. This phenomenon results from providing too few choices at each menu level. The structure is overly deep. On the other hand, the top level should offer no more than 12-20 categories in order to minimize the need for scrolling. If a page offers more than a hundred menu items, it is too broad and should be condensed into categories.
Tenet Number Thirteen: When linking to other WWW locations , strip away time-wasting top levels of those sites , provide addresses which take users directly to good information and include thorough annotations explaining what can be found at those locations. One of least helpful phenomena to arise with the rapid expansion of the WWW is the proliferation of lists and lists of lists which in turn take you to other lists of lists. "Where's the beef?" one might legitimately inquire. Simply copying long lists of sites (often lifted from other people's lists) and pasting them into school sites sets up users for time-wasting wandering and much frustration. By visiting sites and identifying the best items, those can be listed with links rather than the site's home page. This step eliminates thousands of wasted page openings.
Tenet Number Fourteen: Beware of casual endorsements. Before an item is listed as a worthwhile site, a staff member should have visited the site to verify that the site and its information are both developmentally appropriate and relevant to the district curriculum. The inclusion of items on a list implies endorsement.
Tenet Number Fifteen: Include disclaimers whenever individuals may be expressing personal opinions not those of the school or the school district. It is standard procedure for publishers to issue such disclaimers so the institution is not unfairly associated with potentially controversial beliefs.
Tenet Number Sixteen: Do not post identifying information and photographs of individual children. Protect your students from those who cruise the WWW with evil motives.
Tenet Number Seventeen: Have a staff committee review all materials before publishing on the WWW. Publishing brings legal responsibilities. Students and others providing content for your site may not have the judgment to know what personal material is appropriate and what material might be libelous and inspire liability suits of one kind or another. The committee should be able to accept or refuse submissions without providing more explanation than a poetry magazine rejecting a poem . . . "This material does not meet our needs at this time." While it would be nice to provide explanations, explanations can fuel lawsuits about freedom of speech. When reviewing parental submissions for a school virtual museum, for example, an individual might submit an anti-Semitic tirade. If the staff rejected the piece with the explanation that the content is offensive, a lawsuit might swiftly follow.
Tenet Number Eighteen: Avoid providing homepages for individuals. For reasons similar those given in the previous tenet, school districts who allow students and staff to maintain and publish their own homepages are opening themselves to great legal risk and the possibility that the district will be publishing material which reflects badly upon the organization. The rapid growth of commercial providers offers the opportunity for individuals to conduct such publishing independent from the school district. Drawing the line early will make it unnecessary to clean up messes later and will protect school staff from censoring or policing such sites.
Because the WWW is fairly new and there are few guidelines available to follow, well meaning site inventors can easily come up against some very thorny and difficult issues. The tenets listed above will probably shift as school experience with the WWW grows, but they may serve well as an approach to shape the first stages of development.