Network: Journey out of fear

Web Design
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The Independent Culture
I HOPE that it is not too obvious to say that Web design lives in a symbiotic relationship with the Web browser and its associated technologies. While Web designers are very much at the mercy of companies that produce the technology we use to distribute our work, these companies also rely on Web designers to use the technology they create. If Web designers decide to give the latest technologies a miss, the companies who are developing them are just putting together so many noughts and ones.

Over the last several years, though, I have noticed a strong backlash against incorporating new Web technologies (such as JavaScript, Flash, RealAudio, VRML, CSS, DHTML, and even HTML Frames) into websites.

This seems especially true of the leading pundits in the field of Web design and usability.

While I certainly understand the need for caution when approaching any new technology, writers such as Jakob Nielsen and Jesse Burst often dismiss a new technology out of hand. It's as if they can see immediately whether or not it will ever work. However, many of these technologies have a lot to offer for increasing the quality of Web page usability and the quality of information delivered via the Web.

Believe it or not, the Web is still a highly experimental medium and we cannot even begin to imagine the uses of some of the technologies on offer today, much less the ones still in beta.

So why the problems with new technologies? You could call it technophobia. You could call it a Luddite mentality. But these are just labels that don't really help us to understand the problem.

If we are to find solutions, it will be far more constructive to identify these fears. Basically, we can break the fear of new technologies into two sources: fears of website visitors, and fears of Web designers.

Reluctance by site visitors to accept new technology

Fear of large file sizes leading to long delays: obviously a larger file will lead to a longer download time. However, several other, less obvious problems can arise. Most people blame slow Web experiences on inefficient modems when, in fact, slow processors are often just as responsible.

Fear of having to download new browsers and plug-ins: by and large, most people surfing the Web will stick with the equipment that came with their computer rather than going to the trouble of downloading the latest browser or plug-in. This explains why there are so many "legacy" browsers still in use.

Until those people buy a new computer, they are unlikely to upgrade. Why don't people like to upgrade? Many feel that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", or are simply afraid to make changes. Although, for most of us, downloading a new browser or plug-in may be a cinch, for many it is a harrowing experience akin to playing Russian roulette. See the next fear.

Fear of messing things up: inexperienced computer users are often terrified that they will inadvertently ruin their very expensive computer by doing something wrong. This is especially true with software installation, as well as when working on the Web. Although it may seem irrational to seasoned computer veterans, many new users fear that they can mess up their entire computer simply by pressing the wrong link in their browser.

Fear of learning to utilise new technologies: many people who have just started using the Web have already spent a lot of time, energy and effort learning how to operate their new computer and the basics of their browser. Now you want them to learn how to use another technology such as Flash, RealAudio, or VRML? Forget about it; it's not going to happen.

Reluctance by Web designers to embrace new technology

Fear that visitors are reluctant to use new technologies: for all the reasons listed above, many Web designers assume that visitors to their website will instantly be turned off by anything out of the ordinary.

Fear that incompatible technology between browsers will increase development time: whether it is cross-browser, cross-platform or backwards compatibility issues, trying to design using new technologies invariably increases the amount of time needed on a project. What works on one browser rarely operates in the same way on another.

Fear that the instability and complexity of a new technology will lead to usability problems: often the latest technologies have not been thoroughly tested and relying on them can be chancy at best.

While it is fine to run beta versions of code on your own machine, try explaining to a customer that his or her website does not work because of unreliable code; it will lead to a short conversation ending with a phrase like: "Then we will get someone who can!"

Fear of having constantly to learn and master new technologies: there is a plethora of ever-changing and evolving technologies available for the Web and it is a full-time job just keeping up with them. Balancing the learning of new technologies and techniques with the use of them in live sites is an extremely difficult task.

THOSE ARE some of the fears Web designers face when attempting to incorporate new technologies into their websites. These fears may seem insurmountable, but there are solutions.

Encourage standards: a standard way of dealing with the technology means that we can code once and use it universally.

Have a clear purpose for using any new technology: one problem I often encounter with sites that are technically advanced is that the designer seems to be using the latest developments simply to look impressive. This may initially give the site a high score on the gee-whiz scale, but will almost certainly turn visitors off if it has no other purpose.

Integrate new technologies in intuitive ways: how you integrate a new technology into your site will have a lot to do with the audience you have targeted. If they are likely to be unreceptive to new ways of working with the Web, you can still use new technologies, but you should strive to make the them as invisible as possible to the site visitor.

Develop understanding of new technologies early on: stay alert and check in at the World Wide Web consortium (http://www. w3c.org) every month or so to see what is coming up. Done correctly, design (whether print, video or Web) should be a thankless job. Good design should seem intuitive, natural and nearly invisible. The less website visitors are aware that they are using cutting-edge technologies, the more receptive they will be to them.

E-mail comments or queries, send to Jason at indy_webdesign@ mindspring.com

Jason Cranford Teague is the author of `DHTML for the World Wide Web', currently available at bookshops, both real and virtual, across the UK

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