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David Richardson

What does a good website look like?

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I'm supposed to be an 'expert' on the ICT Ask an Expert forum, but I'd still be very grateful for feedback, help and constructive criticism.

I've just been playing around with our English Distance Portal, trying to make it do what we want it do (which includes both giving information to prospective students and providing active websites for current students).

I've been trying to make it less text-heavy and more visual … but I'm not at all sure I've succeeded.

So … if you feel like helping, just click on the Distance Courses link at the top of the page, or go to http://www.humsam.hik.se/distans/index.htm and try to navigate the site.

I'm sure that your reactions will be of use to other teachers who're constructing websites too, so this relatively open forum seems like a good place to post them.

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It's often a question of personal taste, but there are obvious things that graphic designers know all about, e.g. which colours go well together and which ones to avoid in combination (red/green, blue/orange, magenta/yellow - common forms of colour blindness), font combinations, etc and, of course, how to make the site SENDA-compliant (essential in the UK):

http://www.ukcle.ac.uk/directions/issue4/senda.html

Lesley Shield (The Open University) gave a paper at this year's EUROCALL conference, entitled "Designing language learning Websites: are they special? Recommendations for good practice"

http://www.e-lisa.at/eurocall/abstracts.htm#Shield

The paper presented the initial results of a research project.

Web guru Jakob Nielsen's site has sound advice on Web design:

http://www.useit.com

Did you know that the average person reads 25% more slowly from the computer screen than from the printed page? Nielsen's site is full of facts like this.

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A little off track perhaps but I currently have 150 pupils studying E Learning as a subject who are looking at the question you have asked as your subject header. Would you have any objection to them using your site as one of the sites the evaluate as part and parcel of their course? (I ask as 150 kids hitting a site umpteen times in a week has obvious bandwidth repercussions).

Interestingly the kids findings and opinions are actually very incicive and understandable. There are many perceptions that they have as student users of sites that we (as both treachers and webmasters) often wouldn't have recognised: for example a history ste developed by a user of this forum that I would rate as being good or very good was rated as being 'poor or appalling' by by students, and they gave a very worrying list of reasons why! (Not my own site, I hasten to add)... though the criticisms they levelled at the other site would apply to my own as well).

Edited by Dan Moorhouse

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I don't mind at all, Dan. Our site is running on the university computer system, so the capacity is very good, and they've got the usual controls to monitor over-use.

I'm prepared for plenty of criticism too (they'll need to bear in mind that these course web sites are only part of the total course materials - there's quite a lot of stuff that we don't put on the web) - hearing other people's honest reactions is one of the best ways I know to make things better.

I've dipped into Steve Krug's "Don't Make Me Think" (sample chapter at http://www.sensible.com/chapter.html), but the mistakes are still all mine!

Your students are welcome to take as critical a look as they want!

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Another aspect which I'm interested in hearing feedback about, Dan, is the picture I've used on the portal. I was looking for something that said "Britain", and also 'pointed' to the two options you have on the Portal Page. An old-fashioned signpost was what I chose …

Now, this fits in fairly well with the Swedish prejudice about Britain as being a quaint, old-fashioned and fairly traditional place, but what image would young British people pick to identify Britain, and also be adaptable as a 'pointer'?

I thought long and hard about making a multi-ethnic version, with Australia, the USA, Africa, etc, but I gave up in the end, as all my attempts looked like a mess of images.

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David writes:

I was looking for something that said "Britain", and also 'pointed' to the two options you have on the Portal Page. An old-fashioned signpost was what I chose …

I like it! :)

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I think the most important question a website designer needs to ask his: “Who is my intended audience?”

When I started my website my audience was fellow history teachers. The plan was to provide free extension materials to support books that I published. The idea was that they could copy and paste the material into their own documents. Therefore it was never designed for school students. This influenced the design. It was never meant to appeal to students (although they were more than welcome to use it).

Therefore it has an adult look. I am sure most youngsters would claim too much text on the page. They also probably find the sources too long. However, this was done on purpose (I have argued on another thread why I am opposed to the brief narratives and short primary sources that are common in school textbooks).

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=1616

It is also important to distinguish between the home page and the rest of the website. My home page was designed to support my book publishing. The logo relates to Spartacus as a book publisher. So also does the colours of black, magenta and gold. Whereas the main content is black on a white (or off-white background).

I am aware that some people do not like the design of my home page (a reviewer in the Sunday Independent described it as looking like a sex site – I took his word for that and did not bother to do any research into the matter).

The design of the website also had to change when I made the commercial decision to stop publishing books and to concentrate on my website. The website is in fact paid for by five sponsors: Public Record Office, Ask Jeeves, EasyNet, KeepAhead and Amazon. Their logos had to be incorporated into the design. This of course influences the background colour you use. I have tried to solve this problem by separating the logos from the text.

The home page is key. Research suggests that a visitor makes a very quick decision concerning whether he/she is going to stay. (It is one of the reasons why I am opposed to a home page where you have to click a link in order to enter the rest of the website). The primary concern for the visitor is to discover if you have any information that he/she needs. Therefore it is very important to provide an easily seen search facility.

The visitor also needs to see what subject matter the website contains. It is also vitally important that every page of your website is linked in some way to the home page (if not, search engines will not add the page to its database).

As a website reviewer I like to see a link to a page where the website owner explains what they are trying to do (I do mean those terrible mission statements that are common on American websites). I also like details of the author and a means of contacting them.

I am aware that the design of my website reflects my own cultural background. It does look very much like a book (however, the large number of internal links on each page makes it a different experience from reading a book).

My main dislike of websites is the tendency to have things moving around the site (the web designer can do it so they do it). I find this gets in the way of my acquiring the information that I am after. I also dislike the use of bright background colours and jazzy type fonts (research suggests that Arial/Helvetica are the preferred reading texts). I also dislike text that goes right across the page (all people, especially children, have difficulty reading too many words on a line).

David. I would suggest you take a close look at websites you like. Make use of their ideas. I think Andrew Moore’s Universal Teacher website is an excellently designed website (in fact it is not too unlike your website):

http://www.universalteacher.org.uk/default.htm

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John writes:

So also does the colours of black, magenta and gold. Whereas the main content is black on a white (or off-white background).

See colours on the Web:

http://www.webwhirlers.com/colors/combining.asp

Browser-safe colours

http://www.websitetips.com/designer/colors1.html

I’m not sure about magenta/yellow. It’s close to the “illegal” violet/yellow combination. I find magenta/yellow hard to read.

I remember a producer from the BBC visiting my language centre back in the 1980s when we began experimenting with the BBC micro, one of the first cheap colour computers. She shot holes in the language combinations we were suing. I guess the BBC has done some pretty thorough research in this area.

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I’m not sure about magenta/yellow. It’s close to the “illegal” violet/yellow combination. I find magenta/yellow hard to read.

The actual colours are:

Gold #B8AA77

Magenta #990000

Black #000000

Gold appears as text on Black and Magenta.

It reads ok to me. But I might be colour blind.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/

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I have designed various websites over the years, some bad some slightly better, but I keep on trying :tomatoes

But what I feel the most important question you have to ask yourself is, do I like the website myself. If you like it, changes are others will do to. As John already pointed out, your audience is also very important. Mine is mostly students, so I let them have a look at the site and wait for their review. Trust me they like the oppertunity to evaluate their teacher!!!!!

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Interestingly the kids findings and opinions are actually very incicive and understandable. There are many perceptions that they have as student users of sites that we (as both treachers and webmasters) often wouldn't have recognised: for example a history ste developed by a user of this forum that I would rate as being good or very good was rated as being 'poor or appalling' by by students, and they gave a very worrying list of reasons why! (Not my own site, I hasten to add)... though the criticisms they levelled at the other site would apply to my own as well).

An interesting and provocative little posting by Daniel. I am sure all history teachers on this forum who have websites will be tossing and turning all night worrying whether they have offended the stout critics of Laisterdyke High :tomatoes

The perceptions of children are of course a factor to be taken into account when designing an educational site. The principle factor for such sites, unless of course ones main objective is to make money, should however be how well does your site achieve the educational objectives of its author and educational needs of its main audience? For me this means me in my classroom.

That said it is important to listen to ones students.

The biggest turn off and for my students is confusion. Navigation should be clear, language accessible and educational focus even clearer. There are many sites offering reams (or should I say bytes?) of interesting and sound educational activities either hidden away behind 4 or 5 uncessary clicks or lumped together in some great mass of unrelated material totally useless until scaffolded by a third party into a useable lesson or series of activities.

The biggest distraction for students is large and inappropriate commercials hot linked out to non educational content. Of course unless you are able to get backing from an institution or educational sponsor then for some webmasters these become a necessary evil.

Particular favourites of mine for classroom use for their clear focus, aim and suitability of language are Historyonthenet (despite its commercials) and Active history.

Best sites for researching lesson activities for the subjects I teach are Spartacus and Sociology.org

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I have heard at least three conference papers recently in which data was presented that showed clearly that students regarded the most useful aspect of websites as... wait for it... being able to access information that they could print off and read in comfort.

That's the way I use the Web too. I locate an article, skim through it on screen and print it if it looks interesting. I get furious when I find articles broken up into chunks over several pages, with no "printer friendly" button available. I also get furious when presented with a searchable database, without having the option to get and overview, e.g. just headings, of everything it contains.

Hypertext is not as loved as it used to be. My business sells a book called "Beyond Babel", which is accompanied by an optional CD-ROM (costing a few more pounds) containing over 600 annotated links to resources for language teachers on the Web. The CD-ROM is actually a digital version of one of the three chapters in the book. We have sold 25 copies of the book since Easter and only 7 copies of the CD-ROM to accompany it.

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Thanks for the interesting comments so far …

Some graduate students here did a small survey among local 16 year-olds about text colours and background colours on web pages.

They interviewed them about 1) which page designs they thought were 'coolest'; and 2) which ones they enjoyed actually reading and otherwise using.

The answers to 1) were just these combinations Graham and John have warned about. As for 2), the best design seemed to be a white background with text which is preponderantly black, but which uses primary colours for headings and highlighting.

Our university has very recently ploughed loads of money into redesigning its main website. They went for a site which is full of scripts (making it very difficult to print out the bit you want to print out), and with very poor hypertext links. The predominant colours are grey, olive green and beige, which happened to be trendy in the term they did most of the work. Little black letters on a grey background doesn't work too well for me - it's just as well that very few people get their main information about us from our official website!

Edited by David Richardson

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David writes:

Our university has very recently ploughed loads of money into redesigning its main website. They went for a site which is full of scripts (making it very difficult to print out the bit you want to print out), and with very poor hypertext links.

My former university suffered from a Web revamp too. The university's colours were incorporated into the design, but this resulted in one of the "illegal" colour combinations, violet/yellow, being used extensively. Any graphic designer will tell you that this is wrong - for the reasons that I have already stated.

I can't understand why websites are not subjected to the same scrutiny as graphic designs in general. My daughter, who is a professional graphic designer, learned all this kind of stuff at art college. She had copious lecture notes on colour combinations, font combinations, where to place pictures, how much white space to use, etc. This has all been well researched over many, many years. But now we have a new generation of whizz-kids who understand everything about HTML, XML and Javascript but nothing about design, and these are the ones that educational institutions and businesses foolishly let loose on their websites.

The worst mistake my university made, however, was to incorporate an elaborate animation of it's logo on the front page. It looked great it you were accessing the site via broadband, but at the time most accesses were made from prospective students dialling in via a modem from home. When I tried to access the site via a modem myself, and it took a full 5 minutes for the homepage to load and the animation to start. Recruitment began to drop steadily around this time...

I produce my business website myself. I am not skilled in graphic design, and I know nothing about XML and Javasccript. I use Dreamweaver and keep everything simple: http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk

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>I am not skilled in graphic design, and I know nothing about XML and Javasccript.<

I've had no graphic design training either, but I've found Robin Williams' series of "Non-Designer" books invaluable when creating online and print documents:

Robin Williams: "The Non-Designer's Design Book: Design and Typographical Principles for the Visual Novice". Peachpit Press.

Robin Williams: "The Non-Designer's Type Book: Insights and techniques for creating professional-level type". Peachpit Press.

Robin Williams and John Tollett: "The Non-Designer's Web Book: An easy guide to creating, designing, and posting your own web site". Peachpit Press.

All ideal publications for the lay reader, full of helpful advice and checklists of what looks good, and what doesn't, online and in print.

David Wilson

http://www.specialeducationalneeds.com/

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