Network: Great minds don't click alike

Innovative design and leading-edge technology put The Independent website head and shoulders above the opposition. From a variety of easily navigable menus, you can take your pick of the very best of news and views in tasty bite-size chunks.
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The Independent Culture
When I was asked to work on The Independent's website, the major enticement was the promise of being able to do it properly this time. Several people in Independent Digital come from other new media environments, and experience in the mistakes and blind alleys of the first groups of online newspapers, made us eager to create a new product in an environment where people trusted our judgement. But we had two months to do it, so had to make decisions quickly.

The first one was that it shouldn't look like an online newspaper. We were creating a new online brand, and didn't plan to take material solely from the print editions, so we needed something that looked different. Edward Gibbs of GDA Design Solutions came up with a conceptual response to the brief, proposing a series of design elements with a strong enough identity, that we can mess up what he's given us without making it unrecognisable. As long as there's an eagle and an ellipse on the page, I consider it branded - Edward hasn't disowned it yet, despite our threats to animate the eagle so that it swoops down over the page to snatch away a button ad.

The department's senior designer, Kelsey Smith, developed the initial concept into a navigable site. Expressing the structure with translucent drop-down menus helped resolve a perennial problem in web design: the struggle between the need for a lot of information in a small space, and the desire to keep the appearance simple enough for it not to be visually overwhelming.

These menus were made possible by another decision that we made at an early stage. This was that we wanted to use new technology to solve problems. Dynamic HTML allowed us to give new treatments to navigation menus; the question of whether to allow for users of older browsers was easily solved when we found that more than 90 per cent of UK users had browsers that would support the features we needed.

We then ran gleefully past areas that had always annoyed us in the past. Too many clicks to get between one part of a site and another? Use dynamic sub-menus to allow readers to see where they need to go as simply as possible. We aimed for no more than three clicks between any two pages on the site.

The menus help eliminate the irritation of spending time downloading a page that doesn't turn out to be what you want, or is just an intermediate stage - if a reader does request a page, we want it to be for something worthwhile.

We are also looking at the way people read online. Rather than giving a choice of only the headline or a full story, we want to investigate splitting up individual stories into levels of importance. Instead of just putting a story's subsidiary information at the bottom of the page where it would never be read anyway, we made pop-up briefing windows that give extra information if the reader is interested. If the reader wants or has time for only top-level information, we'll move towards providing that in brief paragraphs, suitable for online reading, which then link to the full story if it needs to be printed out.

The third decision was to concentrate our technical attention on areas that we needed to look at ourselves. This was an easy decision for me, as my interest in technology is confined to areas that affect either the producer or the consumer - I can't be bothered with network routers and the like. I was grateful, therefore, that Andy Brown and Franc Tundidor in The Independent's nascent IT department could take care of many of the infrastructure problems, and that Planet Online could host our servers.

The short time available made it impractical to bring in complex content- management systems - in any case, we weren't sure what we'd want in six months, so we kept it as simple as possible. We needed some sort of systems that could build large numbers of stories with comparatively little effort. After evaluating different options, we wound up using Beyond Press to extract stories from The Independent's Quark pages. The articles are edited on BBEdit into a home-grown XML format. The QuicKey macros that do much of this were created by Independent Digital's managing editor Martin King (a man whose stated career ambition is to come into the office, press one key, go to the pub, and come back a couple of hours later to a finished product).

We tried other Web production tools, but they always wound up being slightly too clever, and making unwanted decisions for us.

The process of building the editorial material was simplified by the earlier decision to use new technology - as long as the editorial department could tag the components of a story as headline, byline and so on, the fine points of the design could be sorted later with cascading style sheets. The concept came together when we decided to use server-side "includes"; while the articles files on the server are extremely simple, they have commands to "include header" at the top and "include footer" at the bottom, which import standard style and navigation elements of the pages. The combination of these techniques gives us about two-thirds of the attributes of database publishing, without the complication of a database. This allows us to correct system mistakes comparatively easily in the initial period.

For the future? We expect to keep learning from experience, but the experiences will become considerably more complex. We've come a long distance without databases, but they certainly have a major role in our future plans - the XML tagging we used early on will help us to structure editorial material. We need to look at incorporating more material from The Independent (more photographs, in particular), and from other existing Independent properties such as There are also new joint ventures, such as the In Touch project in which we'll be providing Vodafone users with information services, and various technologies and products from more companies in which we're taking an interest. Keep an eye on us - I'm not bored, and I don't think you will be either.

The writer is systems and design manager at Independent Digital