2.2 Articulating Your Message
Ideally, your web presentation or "message" will meet these criteria:
- excel in responding to your needs (which, if you're running a business, will include turning a profit) and the needs of your audience(s);
- communicate and/or collect useful information clearly and accurately;
- undertake a clearly-defined, unique and limited project;
- seamlessly integrate a variety of relevant files and URLs;
- allow your audience(s) to understand its overall structure and to navigate within it.
Sounds obvious, right? Of course you should have a purpose before you start cranking out HTML documents. Even if you have a pretty good idea about what you'll put in your page, this brief checklist might help you refine your dream.
- Who's going to visit your page? How much technical knowledge do they have? What kind of software and hardware will they be using? What will they want from your web site?
- How do you hope to relate to your audiences? Will you mostly inform? persuade? entertain? survey? interview? all of the above?
- Which media will help you build those relationships?
2.2.1b Scope, Scale, Schedule
Remember that in the expanses of the web, size ain't everything: it's better to create one perfect 30K document that people will visit again and again than to sprawl across lots of virtual real estate with mediocre work.
Fortunately, since the web is fairly cooperative, you don't have to do everything yourself. Instead, you can find people doing similar work, and create virtual communities where different web creators do what they're best at, and everyone benefits.
- What kinds of resources would you like to include? Which of these can you do best, and which have already been perfected by others? Decide on a list of what you'll handle, and what you'll just cite with a link.
- How often will you maintain this site? What kinds of new material do you expect to add? Will some of your content become outdated?
- How much information will you be presenting (or seeking)? Will it fit on one big page, or will you need several pages? Documents larger than 32K will take a long time to load on some machines, and might work better if split into pieces.
2.2.2 Mapping a Structure
Organizing, as the name suggests, means evolving different organs, or functioning parts, for a body of material.
- Generate: Tapping All Your Ideas
In order to begin organizing, you need to have a working idea of all the elements you're going to include.
- Cluster: Sorting by Function
Once you're done generating content, you may want to draw a bubble diagram or some sort of outline or map. Any format will work, as long as you include all your content, and indicate somehow (perhaps with a line or arrow, a color code, or category) the relationships between each piece. The organs of your page will develop from these clusters of related material.
- Sequence: Putting Information into Orbit
First and last impressions are powerful.
Persuasive speakers sequence their ideas for maximum effect by burying the weak thoughts and ugly infrastructure in the middle, and placing their soundest points where you'll remember them, at the opening and conclusion, while print journalists, to best compete for scarce attention, summarize the most important facts right at the top of a column.
The web offers three (maybe even four) virtual dimensions, and the possibility of "layered" or "orbiting" content. Your purpose will determine what kind of space you create: if you're writing a step-by-step "how-to" manual, you may only make minor changes to traditional linear and hierarchical models, but if you're building a virtual aquarium, you may discard those models entirely and instead decide on a matrix of "reefs" and "caves" with different sights and sounds in each one.
Whichever model you choose,
- the content with the most hypertext, or the most important or interesting material, should be very easy to access (perhaps on the home page), with more marginal information orbiting around it in optional links, layers, or subsections of your main document.
- try to combine the comforting sense of place offered by linear/ hierarchical structures and the refreshing mobility offered by matrices and webs. The numbered sections and subsections in this document's menus are a crude example of such a combination.
- Connect: Getting Hyper
Once you've spelled out the relationships between your pieces of content, decide exactly where the links will go, and whether
an index page will introduce the audience to several disparate linked documents or just several named sections within the document.
- use links enough so that users can move through your document(s) without backtracking "home" too frequently, but not so extensively that they won't know where they are in your site and whether they've seen all of it.
2.2.3 Multimedia Options
- Cruise around and see what other people are doing with animations, sounds, VRML, and synchronized interactive multimedia, and make a note of what does and does not work well.
- Which format would work best for the different pieces you're including? Will some of your text become a list or a table? an imagemap? an audio segment?
- If you decide to adjust the color scheme of your page, make sure that it's not at the expense of the meaning you're trying to convey. Light text on dark backgrounds is unusual, yes, but it's also hard to read.
- Images and sounds are terrific---if you don't mind waiting for them to load. It's best to keep inline image files small. There are a few ways to make bulky files less of an obstacle to guests on slow systems:
Images saved in an interlaced format load as fuzzy versions (by alternating rows) first and then increase in resolution after the rest of the document continues to load. Likewise, the
LOWSRC Netscape extension allows the browser to load a smaller or lower-resolution version in a first pass, and then fill in the higher-resolution image after the rest of the content is visible.
- One larger file will load faster than several smaller component files, so if possible, use a graphic-conversion tool (there are several shareware products available; see www.shareware.com or www.download.com) to slim down or combine your image files.
- If you really must use a huge .gif, consider presenting it on a separate page accessible from a thumbnail button on the main document. When linking to large files, always warn visitors about the document size so they won't get trapped by surprise in loading limbo.
- Another option is to provide a link to a text-only version of your content.
- Would you like to make non-HTML files available for visitors to download?
Text: How often have you heard the phrase "scrolling the web"? If you haven't heard it, the reason may be that people don't particularly enjoy scrolling, and they look to hypertext to save them from scrolling-related carpal tunnel syndrome. Give viewers some navigation choices about every two screens, if possible.
In general, organize your text visually, showing how it's related, and keep your text brief and vivid.
For more advice, visit our maximizing meaning pages.
When someone follows one of your links, will they know why the link was there? Make sure the links are there for a clear reason, not because you went anchor-happy at 3:00 a.m. one night in front of your screen.
- Too many links or style tags will distract readers from your meaning, so try to abbreviate the names of your links and to save style tags for when they're really necessary. And lest you become corrupted by your awesome power to create blinking text, please try gazing into a strobe light while you're trying to look up a phone number and see how you like it.
- People use a variety of different browsers and platforms to access the web, so avoid browser-specific terms like "click". And by the time your audience finds your page, they most likely know what to do when they see a text link, so redundant words and phrases like "check this site out", "here", "this link", aren't necessary. Identify links by author and/or genre, not just by their general subject: instead of "Topic", try something like "maps of Someplace" or "directory of links about Topic".
Also consult our maximizing meaning page, or one of these excellent guides:
2.2.5 Mechanics and Maintenance
- Test your coding and your links repeatedly. Some browsers might overlook HTML mistakes that will confuse other browsers, so the best bet is to use an editing program that will check your code (BBEdit, for example), and then to run a webcrawler over your pages periodically. Keep in mind, however, that even if your links function properly, they may have lost their freshness and relevance, so you'll want to revisit them in person periodically.
- Make sure to maintain your site on schedule. You may want to place all "perishable" content in one place, like a 'What's New' page, for easy maintenance, and/or make use of software (like Doctor HTML or HTML Grinder) to check and update your pages automatically.
- Observe courtesy and copyright law when referring to the work of others. It's a good idea to notify the authors of pages you're linking to, so that they can tell you if their pages will be moved or abandoned--and just because it's polite. And you never know, if you're lucky, maybe they'll return the favor and link back to your page.