What makes a great web design?

WHAT makes a great Web site? There is no simple answer, but everyone you talk to in the industry is an expert.
If you spend time with graphic designers, they will tell you technology dominates many Web sites.
They will also claim many sites ignore design, concentrating on delivering information. The design is either so bad that it hinders this process, or it is non-existent so the site is unattractive and does not benefit from the extra dimension that good design can add.

“Many Web sites have yet to embrace the artistic aspect of Web design, and as design on the Web becomes more sophisticated, those sites become less effective,” writes Web design guru Laura Lemay in her Sizzling Web Site Designs.

If you spend time with Web programmers and technical experts, they will tell you many sites are too big.
They deliver beautiful graphics but are slow and hard to navigate.
The useful information is buried deep below layers of menus designed to show the graphic artists’ skill rather than their understanding of the medium.
Then there are the content providers. They complain the designers and technologists have hijacked the Web. They remind us that HTML is a mark-up language designed to work with the internal structure of documents so they can be displayed meaningfully on any platform.

The Web is all about content, they argue, telling us it is there to provide information and that too often design and technology get in the way.
And those are just the people who build Web sites talking about each other’s sphere of operations. If you can get them talking about specifics, you will find their Web sites, particularly the ones they have not yet built, are the best around.

If you want an even more divergent set of ideas about what makes a good Web site, try talking to the people who plan them.
The marketing person has an opinion about what a good Web site should do that is dramatically different from that put forward by the people in the IT area.
The truth is that any Web site put together by more than one person is made up of compromises.

Some are because of the constraints within which the people who put together the Web site have to work.
The technology is limited in what it can provide.
There are many problems. Bandwidth limits the size of Web pages.

Browser compatibility (or rather browser incompatibility) limits the functionality and optimisation a developer can put into pages.
The lack of established monetary systems hampers online payments.
The list goes on and on.
Design is also limited in many ways.

Bandwidth restricts the types of images and the size of images on a Web page. As well, the design is constrained by the medium itself.
Screen resolutions and palette limitations force the designer to compromise on image quality. As well, the graphic artist is constrained by what one might call “legacy” design.

A corporate Web site needs to fit in with the image the company projects.
Unfortunately, most of the design work done on the company’s image was probably done before the Web started to become an important medium.
So, for example, few newspapers have “Web-friendly” mastheads. They are more difficult to work with online than logos designed with the Web in mind.
On the content side, the Web demands a different style from other mediums. Text needs to be shorter and punchier than the text in a brochure, but it also needs to be denser and more factual than in an ad.

The Web needs a different sort of video and audio from TV or radio.
Today, very little text is written specifically for the Web. Even less video and audio is specifically produced for presentation online.
Sometimes there are more important compromises than those forced upon the developers by the medium.
These are made during the development period as various groups within the organisation seek to influence the direction of the Web site.
Web sites are new and high profile endeavours. They are, therefore, important in the internal politics.

But even where internal politics don’t play a role, organisations have difficulty in fitting a Web site into their structures. Who has responsibility for the Web site? Should it be an IT responsibility, or is it part of marketing or is it a part of the library function?
So many different areas feed material into the Web site, and they can be affected by a Web site’s success or failure, that it is often hard for an organisation to set priorities for its site.

Even where a clear strategy is articulated at the beginning of the project, it is almost inevitable the strategy is modified as the Web site is developed.
What seemed simple at the beginning turns out to be difficult to achieve; while what looked almost impossible at the start turns out to be much easier than anticipated.
Nobody has the experience to predict everything that will happen as the Web site is developed. In this sort of environment, it is not surprising we have such different points of view about what makes a good Web site.

As you might expect, often the best Web sites are those that have the simplest and most straightforward aims.
With a simple, clear set of objectives it is much easier to work out how to make the necessary compromises.
It is easier to select the right content, develop a design and then to implement it if everybody knows what the site should do when it is finished.
Building a Web site is a complex business. We are still learning how to do that.