All style and no substance

An effective Web site needs more than flashing icons and clever gimmicks to attract users, writes Barbara Gunnell
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Even the most cursory paddle through the Net will tell you more than you want to know about badly designed Web sites. There are the simply unreadable (purple backgrounds, yellow type, flashing jokey icons), the not-worth-the-wait graphics that take minutes to download, the impenetrable geographies that send you on detours promising much but delivering nothing, and the sites so peppered with opportunities to take unrelated excursions that you forget why you were visiting in the first place.

It's a problem that can only get worse, with everyone wanting to get their message on the World Wide Web. Net etiquette ought to dictate that users keep their fingers off the keyboard until they have something to say, but social awareness never shut up the saloon-bar bore and nor will it restrain electronic drivelling.

If you have something to say, then, it might be a good idea to learn how to present it, and attract the audience you want. If it is really worth saying, you might consider investing almost pounds 1,000 on the UUNET Pipex training course "Designing an Internet Information Service". This is a three-day series of workshops to inform you about the Web, give you a basic understanding of Uniform Resource Locators, teach you to write documents in HTML (hypertext markup language), design a "home page", set up and configure a Web server and organise your information so that someone stays long enough in your pages to read them.

There is no need to understand much of that before starting the course, which is designed for every level of expertise: from those already publishing on the Web to the competent surfer but novice electronic publisher, and also the absolute beginner.

I was probably the only participant who started off not knowing an org from an ac in a URL (yes, yes, I'm sure you know - the URL is the "address", and org and ac and co and com tell you whether they are organisations, academic institutions or companies), so I tested to the limits the claim that the course catered for all levels of expertise. I may also have been the only person to benefit from the information that browsing is a lot quicker if you switch off the graphics until you are where you think you want to be, but it has certainly saved me much time and irritation since. It is worth considering then, when you set up a site, that your fancy graphics might never be seen by the casual prowler round your pages, and even more important that the text that is left is inviting and well laid out.

Having mastered the naming of parts without too obviously slowing down the other participants, I was ready to move on to the exciting bit: how to write HTML, the basic tool of communicating on the Web. It enables a page you create on screen with wordprocessing software to look much the same on my different hardware and software when I call up your page on the Net, even though we don't share the same page set-up and fonts.

You may create something electrifying on your own screen with all manner of fonts and fancy fretwork, but how can you be sure that my computer has the same fonts and frills? You can't, but HTML means that you can mark up text so that a heading always looks like a heading, bold type is always bold, and paragraphs and spaces are where you want them to be.

HTML is also the tool for creating "hypertext links". These are the highlighted words or phrases in a Web site that make it possible to call up related pages or sites (or, on a badly designed page, completely unrelated pages or sites). HTML commands are not much harder to master than marking up a page of type for printers (if anyone still does that), very logical, and the first step to getting your document on the Web.

It should be said - and the course tutor said it - that it is not essential to understand HTML to set up a Web site. Off-the-peg software can take you much more simply to your end. But software has an annoying habit of needing regular and expensive updating.

HTML mastered, you can move on to the fancy stuff: graphics, colour, sound, making links with images, and how to get your package on to the Web. It is all so irresistible that you will be tempted to add loads of Technicolor, graphics by the bucketload and flashing icons and hyperlinks everywhere. (One workshop indulges this urge by asking participants to create the worst-designed Web site they can imagine.)

Getting to grips with the technology is only the first step. More important to companies or individuals contemplating Internet publishing may be the organisation of information and the rational use of hypertext links. Using these to keep your visitors with you rather than shooing them straight out of the back door is a skill that many Web users should acquire. If you want people to be as enthused as you are about rare dog breeds, it would be odd, for example, to offer a hypertext link to a cat-fanciers site (no one would do that, would they?).

You may not come out knowing how to create a site that will win awards, but there's every possibility that you will be better able to create a logical coherent site that's easy on the eye.

For more information, phone UUNET Pipex on 01223 250127.