Category Archives: designing a website

novel-length source code

I have a bookmarked collection of ‘horrors’: Web pages which really should have been designed differently, many of which are mercifully no longer online. Backgrounds were one bête noire; I shudder when I recall the page promoting Scotland on a repeated backdrop of saltires, for example. A more recent example is the Ure Museum’s display of images of its entire collection (scroll down!) behind the search box. For the full effect, however, one needed to include animation. Spinning geometric patterns on a page about an exhibition of Islamic art (at the Bodleian, no less) or reduplicated Flash clips as can be seen here. The prize was taken by the guest-house in Wales which displayed six simultaneously rotating 360-degree views of each of its rooms, one above the other. It was impossible to look at this without feeling genuinely queasy.

There are of course many ways in which Web pages may be unsatisfactory. Investigating a local antique shop (or rather, the premises it used to occupy) I came across the page at (To lessen potential embarrassment, I haven’t given it correctly; remove ‘wibble’). It appears to be a very simple page thanking past customers, and while one might think the mix of seriffed and sans-serif fonts a bit last millennium, uncovering the source code is the true revelation. It is 4,963 lines and 427,273 characters long (a mere 401,361 without spaces), that is, about as long as a typical novel. All to display a couple of images (one of which has had the top cropped off) and a message that is 31 words long!

How can this happen? I used the Wayback machine to look at earlier versions of the page, and while they had links to what was then a more extensive site, there seems no justification for the baroque confection of Javascript and stylesheet that lies behind it. The single largest component is a long list of instructions relating to a long string of fonts, including Cyrillic, Devanagari, Vietnamese and other scripts, linking to Monotype Imaging’s software. seems to be the immediate source of the code. I think that pages like this survive because they are commissioned by people who don’t look ‘under the bonnet’ and ask awkward questions about why so much code is needed.

How not to design a downloadable form

I have recently had to download and print out a form from a financial institution. For legal reasons it requires a physical signature so it cannot be completed online.

There are a number of things badly wrong with this form:

a) The small print (there is quite a bit of it) is REALLY small. Almost illegibly so. It can be read on screen – by zooming if necessary – but on the printout, physical magnification is required.

b) The form covers four pages, and I am instructed not to staple the two sheets together. The first sheet (page 1-2) has the details of the account I am opening. The second (pages 3-4) requests my signature, and otherwise has only the generic small print referred to above, and some boxes for staff at the issuing institution to complete. Anyone else see a problem with this?

c) Nowhere on the form is there any address to send it to. Probably there was one on the web page from which I downloaded it, but once the form is printed out and taken away that is lost.

This has all the hallmarks of a case where a document looks fine on screen, but no one has thought about the practical problems when it is transferred to hard copy.

When it’s bad to have an informative website

I occasionally go to concerts in London, and like to look up what is on in the coming months. Until recently it was hard to get classical music listings for such major venues as the South Bank Centre and the Barbican. The South Bank Centre in particular only allowed you to see classical events a few at a time. It has now improved, though the site is still slow.

Why make it so hard? Is it just careless website design, or is there an ulterior reason for putting barriers between classical music lovers and the information they seek?

Major London concert venues send out listings to their subscriber mailing lists every month. Unlike local venues such as St. George’s or the Wiltshire Music Centre, you have to pay to subscribe. There are of course other benefits such as priority booking (though when I was a South Bank subscriber I still wasn’t sent the advance brochure for their ‘international concert series’!) but for many subscribers the brochures are the main reason to join.

If you make it too easy to get information over the web, you may lose income from selling subscriptions. On the other hand, if you make it easy to get information that way, you may sell tickets to non-subscribers who might not otherwise find out about your events. It looks like the latter view has now prevailed. I estimate that the profit from a couple of extra tickets sold would more than cover a lost subscription.

A similar issue applies to the BBC site, which does not put listings for Radio 3 in an easily printable form for the whole week, presumably so as not to dent Radio Times sales. (You can however get them here.)

Simulating denial of service

I was recently equipped with a password on a new website. I made the mistake of giving my email address in two different forms in different places (a bad piece of design – if you have to have the same email address in both, why not automatically copy it over?) In attempting to log in again, I used the ‘wrong’ form of the address and quickly found myself locked out, unable even to make further login attempts. Phone calls were necessary in order to release me and give me access again.

The problem is that the behaviour of someone who believes they have the right login credentials, but hasn’t, is very similar to that of a denial of service attack – bombarding a site with several login attempts in quick succession. It’s a challenge to separate the two, but I think the human-generated pattern has certain characteristics. The human user will leave at least a few seconds between each attempt. Also, he or she will not vary their attempts very much – they are likely to use the same few IDs/passwords in various combinations repeatedly. It shouldn’t be too difficult to be more generous to a login pattern of this type than to a suspected denial of service attack. Logging in for a few times at an interval of several seconds is not going to hack or break a server, unless multiple attempts of this kind occur simultaneously.

Forums: when to have one?

I’m currently on the steering group to review and redevelop the website for my children’s school.  One of the issues raised has been whether we want to have a parents’ forum on the site.  This led me thinking to the kinds of situations in which forums are useful, and when they serve no purpose  or are even harmful.

I’m not a great one for online forums, but I do contribute from time to time to one.  It’s a community of people who have a common interest, for some a professional one.  We have between us a spectrum of strongly held views on certain topics, which sometimes get argued over on the site, though many contributions are not contentious in any way.

It’s ‘reactively moderated’, in other words posts go online at once, but a post which breaks guidelines will be withdrawn or edited by a moderator of the list. (When I joined, my first few posts were viewed by a moderator before being published, before I was deemed to be trustworthy. In those days the forum was on a different platform though.)  Editing by a moderator doesn’t actually happen very often; the usual reason is that something unacceptable has been said about a particular person (their precise date of birth, or the reason why they didn’t get a certain job, for example).

Perhaps it’s that this particular topic attracts reasonable, restrained people, but arguments rarely get beyond polite and reasoned disagreement and the system has worked well to date.

But a forum for the school would be different.  We see one another regularly face to face and any unpleasantness which broke out (e.g. because of an allegation of bullying, suspicion someone was having an affair or a complaint about a particular teacher) could be seen by many before a moderator had a chance to remove it, which could be very damaging.  So reactive moderation wouldn’t be enough; each post would have be be seen by an editor and approved, which would slow discussion down, especially if the editors didn’t log on very often (which parents at the school tend not to).

In general, forums don’t take off when the members meet frequently in person or have other means of discussing matters of interest such as a shared email list.  We tried one at work, and it never took off for this reason.  They work best when there is a scattered group of people with a shared but unusual interest.

Puzzles, e-cards and Rover – engaging the user

(Another post dating from 2010, copied from the ‘Coffee with ILRT’ blog)

ILRT has developed a web site, Hidden Lives Revealed, for the Children’s Society, with information about the Society’s work and its children’s homes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The site was originally funded by the National Lottery and is intended to appeal to a range of ages and to be used as a teaching resource in schools. With this in mind, it has always included a range of ‘activities’ to engage, amuse and inform visitors to the site. Which of these have been most successful and why?

Pictorial puzzle: a rebus with names of 11 British towns to work  out.

A pictorial puzzle: name the towns

By far the most successful activity, in terms of numbers of visits, is the Virtual Children’s Home – a ground plan of two floors of an imaginary but typical home run by the Society. Clicking on a room on the plan brings up information about what that room would have been used for and some photographs. This activity is part of the teaching role of the site and not purely recreational. It is also the fifth highest result of a Google search on ‘children’s home’, which generates the vast majority of visits. The low ‘bounce rate’ shows that, having come across the page, most visitors stay for a look round the virtual home rather than moving away from the site at once.

Another popular activity is a page of interactive pictorial puzzles, taken from old editions of the Children’s Society’s magazines. It turns out that this page is currently the top result of a Google search on the phrase ‘Pictorial Puzzles’! But again the majority of visitors didn’t leave the page at once. A similar page of crossword puzzles is much less visited.

Less used are the section about the ‘Rover League’ (a club for children which appeared in one of the Society’s magazines), enhanced with barking noises, and the downloadable screensavers consisting of collections of photographs from the site. It is impossible to tell how much the screensavers are actually in use, although there do seem to be a couple of downloads a month by ‘real’ users. It’s probable that few people now lift screensavers from websites, preferring either to use what comes already installed on their machine or to customise their own.

an example of an e-card

An example of an e-card

Finally, many of the archive photographs on the site may be sent as an ‘E-card’. The user adds a message and details of the recipient, who is then contacted and told the URL where the message and photograph are waiting to be viewed. E-cards have proved steadily popular; on average three or four are sent in a week. A spot check shows that some are sent to the sender, possibly as a quick way of ‘bookmarking’ an interesting image, while others are sent to or by people with a family connexion to one of the homes. The e-card user is likely already to have spent some time browsing the site.

What do we conclude from this? It seems there are three things which are likely to make an activity popular: conveying interesting information, allowing the user to append their own content and a high position in Google’s search rankings!

(I have used the Web server logs for the site and Google Analytics to assist in the preparation of this article).

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That most secretive of animals, your website audience