Network: Web Design - Content is the king

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YOU WOULD think it was obvious: people come to the Web to get content. Whether it is news, stock reports, football scores or directions across town, it's about the content. Yet looking around at the Web you would imagine people were coming for the mind-blowing experience of the navigation or to drool over the exquisite banner ads. Then there are the sites of endless lists of links that point to sites made up of yet more lists of links. At times it seems as if there is a teaspoon of content in an ocean of websites.

Even the best design work can't make up for a lack of good content. While great design cannot overcome poor content, bad design can obscure even the best content.

Websites without good content are like butterflies without a body; they may have a beautiful mode of transportation, but they still won't get anywhere. If the interface designer has done his or her job well, then the interface should be virtually invisible to the visitor and the content should be the thing that shines through.

But how do you make sure that you have good content presented in a useful manner? Here are a few things that I consider.

Know what the content is: Most people think of content as being the text that they read on the screen, but content for the Web is so much more.

The content of a site gives information that visitors are looking for to help them understand a concept, to help them answer a question or to help them solve a problem. That will not only include the written word but may also include photos, illustrations, video and audio. It can even include software programs that the visitor interacts with to gain information.

Before you start to design your site, you should clearly define the information that will be presented and how different pieces of information work together. In addition, all the various forms of content should work together, supporting the information you want to convey in an integrated fashion.

Have something to say or show: This will depend on many factors, the most important being the type of site you are creating. If it's your own home page, you need to tell your own story. If you are designing a site for a corporation, the content will more than likely be given to you. The important thing is that what you have to say is meaningful to your intended audience. People know when they are reading fluff and will instantly shut down their minds to such "filler" content. Once that happens, you have lost them for good.

Target your audience: Regardless of the source of the content, you should always keep in mind what your audience will want to view. To do that you have to know your visitor.

Maximise the content display area: Remember that the content is the star of the show. On so many sites, much of the screen space is taken up by logos, navigation, banner ads and other clutter, and content is reduced to an area the size of a postage stamp.

Set the content width: Wait a minute, didn't I just say maximise the content display area? While you should allow the overall content display area to take up as much screen space as possible, there are certain limiting factors - especially in terms of the width of the content. The human eye is best built for the scanning of information, and the longer the horizontal distance a viewer has to scan, the harder scanning becomes. This is especially true when scanning text.

You will notice that newspapers set their columns to a relatively narrow width. This allows readers quickly to scan a news story to find the salient points. The comfortable reading width of text is based on the size of the font being used. Larger fonts allow you to have longer widths. Break textual content into fixed-width columns to make them easier to read and set your font size using the font tag, or better yet, Cascading Style Sheets (http://www.

Explain your links: Always let the visitor know where a link will take them. Studies show that one of the chief complaints of website visitors is that they get lost in links and are thus not able to find the content they are seeking. Avoid this problem by including a brief explanation of where visitors will be taken when they select a particular link. The more specific you are about where the link is going, the less confused your visitor will be.

Send your comments or queries to jason@