You can't flip through a Web site the way you can flip through a book, because a Web site is not a book. You can't force hypertext to be something that it is not.

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The Independent Culture
Computer-mediated communication is an astounding thing. With these little boxes we can access vast stores of information that until recently would have required us physically to move our bodies to the repositories of this knowledge. Now the information comes to us. Not only is information sent, it is exchanged. Through the Internet, conversation, debate and even bitter arguments are facilitated, all by electronic means.

The distinguishing forte of this new medium, however, is the ability to link different segments of information together in order to understand the relationships between them. This is called hypertext, and it's what separates the Web from books, TV, radio, cinema, telephony, CDs and even CD-Roms.

So why is it that so many Web pages and Web sites seem as if they were designed for one of these older media? They use vague, index-like menus that give visitors no clear idea where they are going; page after page of information that readers have to plod through before finding what they really want; screens crammed full of graphics, banner ads and buttons that take for ever to download.

Even worse are the pages where every possible link you can follow to every other point in the Web site is made to fit into a narrow side bar, trying to simulate the random accessibility of a book. The fact is, you can't flip through a Web site the way you can flip through a book, because a Web site is not a book. You can't try to force hypertext to be something that it is not.

I know what I'm talking about here, because I've designed my own share of bogus Web sites, and I've learnt a few things along the way. They don't call this "new" media for nothing. Hypertextual media such as the Web are still in the chrysalis stage, and it will be a while before they develop their full potential.

Until then, here are five suggestions for designing better hypertext for the Web:

Don't be afraid to link

Hypertext relies on you as the designer/ author to identify what is and is not important enough, within the content, to need further referencing, explanation or backgrounding. Contextual links are ideal, but you can also include a separate list of links at the bottom or to the side of the content to allow access to other relevant information.

Let visitors know where they are going

One common complaint about dealing with hypertext on the Web is that it's easy to get lost. This can usually be blamed on links that do not advise visitors what they can expect to find once clicked on. Always include some idea, more than just a word or two, about where a link, be it a hypertextual link or a navigation point, will take visitors.

Don't crowd the screen

Hypertext can often be obscured if your page is crammed full of options. You don't have to put every option on every screen. One way to save space with navigation is to use the JavaScript mouseOver in order to have additional navigation pop-up only when needed.

Make searching easy

In an ideal world, it would be possible to make every element on the screen hypertextual, and visitors could follow links for deeper explorations of anything they wanted. Short of linking every pixel on the screen, search engines give visitors a similar power. If your site is searchable, having a link to take visitors to a search page is fine, but even better is putting the search engine's form field on every page, or, ideally, in its own independent frame. That way visitors can always start a search, no matter where they are in the site.

Direct but don't dictate

The point of the hypertextual medium is to allow visitors to move around freely within the content that you are presenting to them. As the author/ designer, you want to direct visitors to the information you want them to see, while simultaneously allowing them to follow their own path. The links you do or do not include on a Web page are as important as the words and graphics you put there, in terms of what you are communicating to your audience. Think of yourself as a guide, not a tyrant.

If you have any thoughts on how to improve hypertext on the Web, I'd enjoy hearing them. Send me an e-mail at mshadow@dircon.co.uk.

Jason Cranford Teague is the author of `How to Program HTML Frames: Interface Design with JavaScript' (Macmillan, pounds 37.50).

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