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Evaluating Web Sites

What makes a Web site readable?

As the Internet moved from the ASCII texts of the USENET and FTP repositories towards HTML, no one really cared about appearance. The notion was that content was everything — and most content files were journal articles and scientific research. The early notion of specifying fonts on the World Wide Web was a major shift from the original notion of the Web. You can look at changes from HTML pre-1.0 to our current standards and the shift towards visual content is obvious.

The reality is that there was no stopping the drift towards a visual medium.

Given basic HTML 2.0, designers resorted to complex tables-within-tables to mimim familiar print designs. From the earliest handwritten manuscripts, artists have known how words are placed on a page (or screen) affects how they are read. No one was about to settle for no control over a Web site's appearance.

Temptation to experiment can lead to innovation, but on the Web it also helps to keep a design simple.
I don't surf the Web much. Like most people, I have destinations I have bookmarked and seldom explore beyond those now. My "start page" is Google News because it is simple, mostly white, and easy to read. The two-column design is easy enough to read on my screen, especially if I can enlarge the text.

Designers want the control they are accustomed to, but some choices they think important for aesthetics make a Web site useless for me. Too many Web sites rely on specific fonts, even locking sizes so those of us needing larger type cannot use the pages. Google never makes this mistake. Most news sites do, though — so I stop visiting them.

I'd actually be okay with a return to the past. Give me text. Let me select the scale of the fonts on my screen. Allow me more control as the reader so I'm not locked out of a site by my blurry vision or inability to focus on some colors.

The past isn't going to return though. My own Web sites are visual. I have spent days and even weeks altering colors and typefaces. I tweak the smallest elements of the pages, trying to make them as visually appealing as I can while still allowing users to magnify the text. (That's not always possible, but I definitely do my best to make sites accessible.)

I often wish Web designers would study why people use Wikipedia and Google. They are simple, fast, and easy to read. Don't add sounds (I prefer my iTunes music), don't force me to watch videos, and don't use wild color schemes that are trendy for a week.

Even what some designer thinks is simple can be a mess. Yahoo is a good example of too much at the top level of a site. Microsoft and AOL are even worse. No wonder most of us use Google!


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