Gimmicks in do-it-yourself websites
One of our specialities is the creation of websites for Primary Schools. Such schools are often targeted by companies which, unlike RTC Webdesign, do not earn their living by creating working websites but by selling do-it-yourself kits (software) and expensive webspace.
The school is told that the kit is so easy to use that the IT teacher or even the pupils of the school can create their own website - no cost.
We regularly inspect and evaluate schools' websites and come across a large number where the school has started and failed. Some show nothing but a Copyright notice (a rather conceited way to start, especially when there is nothing to be copied), or a one-page profile of the school, or a few largely empty pages, which are often several years out of date. It is then obvious to us that the school has tried, with inadequate skills and tools, and failed.
If, and only if, the failure is gross and obvious do we write to offer our professional services.
Early in 2004 we came across a website which showed nothing but a one-page profile. The page as such was adequate, but it was only a page, and we therefore wrote to the school: "Your website is only a one-page profile. If you want a rich, professional website, please contact us." We said nothing offensive or critical about the site, except stating as a fact that there was only one page of it.
We received an angry e-mail from the school's IT teacher, saying how distressed she was about what we had written. Hers was not only a one-page website but a multi-page site, greatly admired by teachers, parents and pupils alike.
We e-mailed back saying we would investigate the matter and requested one week for doing so.
Before the week had expired, we received two angry phone calls from a woman (obviously the IT teacher of that school). Who gave us a dressing down, accusing us of bad manners and unprofessionalism. "You have no right to post such letters." We asked who she was, just to make sure, and she said: "I don't have to justify myself, it is you who have misbehaved."
In order to defend ourselves again the attacks of this paranoid person, who was obviously not only incompetent, but also so vain that she was unable to tolerate even the slightest (even unintended) criticism of her work.
Our criticism was unintended, for had we been able to see the 'invisible pages' of her website, we would not have approached the school, however badly these pages had been done.
We therefore analysed the site and sent a report to the school which pointed out every fault in the site and demonstrated the incompetence of the site's creator. To save the teacher's face, we pretended that the creator of the website was someone other than her. To protect her reputation, we sent the report to her personally ('Private and confidential'), rather than to the headteacher or to the school.
While this personal clash is a rare occurrence, the principles of good webdesign against which this site offended are often ignored by other amateur-produced schools websites, and we therefore felt we should publish our report as a warning to other amateur web designers.
The report states several general principles which will help other schools and teachers who are trying to create their own websites.
We are concerned with general principles, not with the person who attacked us or with the substandard website of one particular school. We therefore do not publish the names of the teacher and of the school. The school has since been closed.
by Salma Ahmed and Klaus Bung, RTC Webdesign, Blackburn
This website has been created with more enthusiasm than skill.
By some fortunate accident it is so put together that the designer gets to hear only of those visitors who have successfully negotiated the obstacles put in their way, whereas all others are kept out of the website and therefore have no chance to complain. Not even the phone number and postal address can be obtained unless the visitor jumps over a gratuitous Java Applet. This conveniently shields the designer from criticism.
The most distinctive feature of the site are the large number of animations and Flash effects, and from their dominance we can safely assume that the designer prides himself particularly on this achievement. However, the quality of a website can not be measured in terms of the number of animations and Flash effects it contains.
Much more important is the question whether it can successfully be viewed by the many browsers currently in use on the internet. If the designer believes his browser to be the only browser, his website is doomed from the start. back to contents
When deciding whether an animation has been properly used, we have to consider at least two aspects (cost/benefit analysis):
In the present site, the designer MAY have considered the first question (even though not everybody would agree with the outcome), but he has not considered the second.
The animations and other features used make the site largely unworkable - like a posh car which is so delicate that it will run on a billard table but not an ordinary road with a fair number of bumps, potholes and a few stretches of cobble stones. back to contents
The XXX site consists of text and images (including animations). back to contents
A competent web designer uses for every task the simplest (and therefore most robust and most widely acceptable) methods. For example, ordinary text is kept in an html compliant file, and these files are linked with html compliant links.
The designer of the current site has needlessly embedded much of his text in Java Applets. This fouls up users of Screen Readers, and is one of the reasons why some pages, e.g. 'new_page_1.htm', takes inordinately long to load, even on broadband.
The puzzle is WHY the designer used *** Applets *** to present plain html text. (The wrapping is more costly than the present.) There is just no imaginable reason, and we must therefore assume that either the designer mechanically used tools he did not understand or did not know what he was doing. (Pater, dimitte illis, non enim sciunt quid faciunt [Luke 23:34]) back to contents
In the case of the XXX website, most admiring users will not know that hardly any of the animations were created by the designer but most were borrowed from other websites.
Such borrowing is a universal practice and there is no harm in it, provided the designer knows what he is borrowing and understands how it functions and what resources it requires.
Competent designers will examine that. But the designer of the present site has obviously not done so.
The designer has even copied and used pieces of Java script of which their own authors declare in the documentation that they do not yet work.
He has indiscriminately stuffed animations from all sorts of sources into his own site ('the more the better') and thereby created a restless kitsch circus which satisfies neither of the above requirements for the use of animations:
The result of this naïve approach to website making is a site which runs only on the designer's own browser (presumably the latest version of MS Internet Explorer). back to contents
The designer used MS Frontpage 4.0 to put his website together. This is a program with a variety of quirks and idiosyncracies which are not 'industry standard' but which are geared to work particularly well with another piece of unreliable MS software, namely MS Internet Explorer (IE).
We therefore presume that the designer uses IE and that the site has not been tested except with IE. Most of the children who are commenting so enthusiastically in the guestbook are presumably using the school's computers, all of which are equipped with IE. back to contents
Americans often forget that there is life outside the USA. Sometimes they forget it at their peril. Many users of IE forget that there is life outside Windows and outside IE. They do not know that most of the Internet runs NOT on Windows but on Unix and that IE is only one of many browsers used on the Internet. (There is a world outside schools!)
IE (and similar products) are best known for their many security holes, which encourage hackers, viruses, etc, to attack its users. Hardly a month passes without a new scare.
If IE is so well known, it is not because it is so good (on the contrary!), but because of the massive propaganda of MS, the huge marketing budget, because of special deals MS has made with governments (Windows computers into every school) and because of its many illegal anti-competitive practices (cf the several courtcases which the US government has been conducting against MS for several years).
It is therefore uninformed and presumptuous to put together a website which will run only on the latest version of IE and will only work if the user gets the latest version (Level 2) of Java and plug-ins which he may not want.
It is not for the designer to order the user what software and resources he must get, but rather: the designer has to adjust his site to suit the resources of potential visitors.
The XXX site simply slams the door in the face of all such visitors.
This is just as well, for the casual visitor does not miss much if he does not see this site.
But it is bad for the school and for the designer because they lose visitors to the site and can not display their achievements to the outside world. No effective commercial site would behave like that: they would soon go bankrupt if they did. No professionally designed site for a big organisation will do it either: see the BBC site as a commendable example.back to contents
A visitor to the site who has Java disabled (which many users do for good reasons) see nothing but a Welcome message and the school's motto, a link to Google and Yahoo search engines and to bravenet.com. There is absolutely no way of entering the site. There is not even an apologetic "Lasciate ogni speranza voi qu'entrate", because, unlike in Dante's Inferno, there is just no way of getting in! These visitors will rightly assume that this is one of the many schools which did not get further than designing a rather ugly title page.
They will certainly not bother to phone, or write to, the school to express their disappointment. They will simply and rightly turn their back and walk away. The designer has therefore completely shielded himself from the most important feedback and criticism he needs.
This happens even if the vistor uses IE. He can see nothing but that title page.
It is NOT the duty of a visitor to persist when faced with such a situation. He is not looking for gold or for a favour from the school.
If a school or a webdesigner want their site to be seen, they must make access easy. They must not bolt the front door, as this designer has done, for the sole purpose of providing a pretty and conspicuous door bell which does not ring.
The ire of the school's IT Coordinator is entirely misplaced. She ought to direct her anger at her web designer, not at the visitor (RTC Webdesign) who, VERY POLITELY, merely pointed out that her front door was locked and offered to fix the problem for her. back to contents
With Java enabled, the visitor sees the 'Click here to enter'. This gives access to the site. However, the next page takes inordinately long to open because of the confused coding and because it has been spiked with unnecessary animations and scripts. back to contents
In spite of their current ubiquity on indifferent websites, animations have (unless used for specific justifiable purposes) not much to commend them, but several arguments against them.
They may raise a chuckle the first or fifth time you see them, but after that, more often than not, the chuckle turns into bored irritation.
Uninformed viewers may be impressed by the cleverness of the designer who put the animation into his website. They do not know that it does not require much skill to take an animation from another website and glue it into one's own.
If the designer wants to attract attention to a certain part of the page, there are many other graphic devices available for the same purpose, such as colour, shape, font, symbols, layout, etc. These do not cause the same problems which are caused by the indiscriminate use of animations.
If animations are used at all, they should (like underlining in books) be used sparingly, otherwise they lose their effectiveness.
In particular they should never form an ***essential*** part of the site, e.g. they should not be part of the navigation structure (links, menu buttons).
Questionable constructs (animations, Applets, etc) should never sit anywhere where the site breaks down if the animation (or comparable construct) does not work.
The guiding principle for the XXX site seems to have been: 'Why use a simple solution if there is a complicated one!' back to contents
There are a number of arguments against the use of animations.
Ordinary html text is embedded into Applets when simple links would have sufficed.
The site abounds in scripts and other elements (including animations) which the designer has taken indiscriminately from other parts of the internet and embedded into his own site, without checking on whether they can be viewed on browsers other than the notoriously insecure Internet Explorer.
There is at least one such construct where the author (not the designer of the XXX site) himself states in his documentation that this routine 'does not yet work'. Nevertheless it was taken unchecked and glued into the XXX site.
It goes without saying that the site does not satisfy the government's accessibility criteria for websites, e.g. it does not work with screen readers used by blind people to access websites. back to contents
My brief was to investigate the technical aspects of the site, not its contents. Therefore my notes on these can be brief. Those viewers fortunate enough to be able to get past the barricade put up on the title page (making entry impossible for many visitors) and to avoid the minefields inside the site, will find a lot of information, and the site appears to be up to date. One can argue about the aesthetics of the site (choice of colours, fonts, lay-out, general appearance).
The site is sometimes very slow to load and at times throws up error messages in Task Manager ('Not running') due to the confused code that has been used.
The main navigation bar inside the site is clear and works, but the colours on roll-overs are sometimes badly chosen and make the texts unreadable. back to contents
The guestbook is full of complimentary remarks from children, many of whom will, of course, have accessed it with the one browser with which it undoubtedly works.
In the light of so much praise, it is difficult to understand why the school's IT Co-ordinator should be so touchy when just one uncool visitor to the site politely states that he can only see one page and offers to fix the problem.
Is not a single discordant voice allowed in this Hallelujah chorus of approval? This site 'shall reign for ever and ever'? back to contents
Uninformed visitors, such as children and their parents, are easily impressed by websites of their own schools.
The richest website is no good if it cannot be seen.
This site has been validated and conforms to
the "HTML 4.01 Strict!" standard.