Web design, when compared to printed design, has some unique pros and cons. A big “pro” is the flexibility of publishing to the Web. A printed marketing piece is designed once and published—most organizations don’t find it plausible to go back and reword a paragraph after 10,000 copies have already been printed.
With Web publishing it’s relatively easy to have a Web developer make changes after the initial publication and the cost is nominal. Content Management Systems like our own WebSite 2.0 take this benefit a step further by allowing even those who aren’t trained web developers to easily login to their site and make text and graphic changes.
On the “con” side of Web publishing a big challenge is insuring your target audience views your publication as you intended. Each type of Web browser interprets how to display any given page of HTML code—for example Internet Explorer may display a page of HTML differently than FireFox or Safari. Noticeable discrepancies can manifest even within different versions of the same browser. So, a site design tested only with Internet Explorer 7 may look great in that browser, but look like a mess in another. While this is a challenge, the risk can be mitigated by testing the majority a site’s design and layout on the most popular browsers which are reported monthly by W3C and presently consist of FireFox, Internet Explorer 6 and Internet Explorer 7.
Not only should a Web sites appearance in popular browsers be considered, but also the individual operating environment that any given user may set themselves should be taken into consideration. For example, if the default font size is set too small by the designer (a common occurrence in my observation) users may be inclined to increase the text display size in their browsers. When this happens the browser will reformat a Web page to fit the larger text. It’s prudent to first choose a readable text size and then to design a site to look presentable when text size is kicked up a notch or two.
Another important consideration of your site should be the size of monitor (i.e. the pixel resolution) that your target audience is likely to be using. There are two basic types of design to accommodate this: fixed width and liquid or floating width. There are a lot of considerations when deciding which route to go, but in general, business sites are most often fixed width (as you’ll notice by surging through Fortune 500 sites) with liquid width sites typically being to best suited for sites with lots of text copy…reference sites, academic sites, or blogs for example.
Business oriented sites often fall into two categories. The first, to take fresh prospects through a sequential process of establishing your credibility/trustworthiness and persuading them to become a customer. The second is accommodating existing clients who are retrieving information, executing transactions, making a payment, viewing schedules, etc. The best practice principles of persuasion and usability lend themselves most often to fixed width design because fixed width designs allow more control over the visual presentation quality and encouraging concise bill-board style statements and discourage verbose copy that statistics show most people don’t read and find counter productive to their goals of being on a site.
Sometimes, there is an impression that the “white space” displayed to left and right of a fixed width design is undesirable. While each situation is unique, this empty space is often a benefit when attempting to communicate to a Web audience. A computer monitor full of text/graphics dilutes messaging by creating clutter. As Steve Krug points out in his classic, Don’t Make Me Think, one of the most common roadblocks to creating persuasive and effective Web sites is too much copy . . . he advocates designing Web sites with a “billboard” mindset—concise, appealing messages that tell the target visitor what they need to know without having to wade through clutter.
The white space, which coincidentally is only noticeable on displays larger than the site was optimized for, can in fact create a very desirable mechanism to funnel your prospects attention to the most important statements about your organization. That’s why you may have recalled seeing those full page Wall Street Journal ads, that some deep-pocketed corporation paid a large sum for, that are mostly white space. It’s draws a reader who is being overloaded with pages of information like an oasis in the deserts and captures their full attention.
At the risk of this post becoming verbose itself, I’ll stop here and post more on this topic in the future. As I’ve done before, I highly recommend that anyone responsible for a professional Web site read the aforementioned book by Steve Krug. It’s not a book about the technicalities of Web design, but provides an invaluable executive guide to understand the fundamentals of an effective and profitable Web site.