Web Developer

Developing a Web Site

While developing a website is a different undertaking each time a new project comes along, well designed websites have many things in common.  Usually, these commonalities provide a range of services that the developer must implement differently for each project.  So, while the implementation may differ, the existence of best practices for designing a web site does not:  good web sites use best practices - bad ones do not.

Assess your Target Audience

This is the single most important facet of Web Design.  Without a target audience, the need for a website would not exist.  Simply put, the needs and desires of the target audience should be considered first before any decision is made regarding the implementation of the site.  Each and every time you as the developer try to implement some facet of the site, the primary question to be answered is "How will this benefit the user?".  Sometimes, the question is rhetorical.  Other times, some hard decisions - and often compromises - must be made.

Let's assume, for the moment, that you've got a message to deliver through a website.  In order to define your target audience and its needs, you'll need to answer at many of the following questions:

Desirable Site Elements

There are many things that you can use to make your website more functional for your primary audience.  Some of them make your site easier to use, some of them create a channel of communication, some of them just plain look good.  How and when you use these things is, again, up to you.  There are, however, some elements that exist in most well designed sites.  By no means do you need to implement all of them.  But you should try to include as many as are appropriate.

Design for the Widest Audience Possible

This one makes perfect sense: you should strive to make your pages accessible to as many users as possible.  This includes an International audience as well as a disabled audience.  Here's an example:  in the US, the traditional color worn to a funeral is black.  In Japan, the color usually worn is white.  In the US, a traditional bride would wear white to her wedding.  In Japan, she'd wear red.  Try to keep things like this in mind when choosing the colors for your site.

In terms of the disabled audience, believe it or not, browsers exist for blind people, for the hearing impaired, for the paralyzed, and for many other disabled web surfers.  Something as simple as providing alternate text for your images can greatly enhance a blind user's experience (typically, that browser reads everything to the user).  The disabled audience, along with senior citizens, is one of the fastest growing segments of society gaining access to the web.

Finally, one of the most often seen gaffes of novice designers is the site that's designed to look good only on their own machine.  Usually, that kind of site involves horizontal scrolling because the designer has his monitor set to display more information than a typical user's monitor.  The site looks great at 1024 by 768 but the typical user, set at 640 by 480 must scroll back and forth each time the end of the line is reached.  Make this your number one rule: Avoid horizontal scrolling like the plague!

Does this mean that you must design to the least common denominator?  Unfortunately, many times the answer is yes.  Of course, that depends on who your primary audience is.  If your audience is primarily using Internet Explorer 3 (which came bundled w/ Windows 95) or an earlier version of Netscape, or even America Online, much of the newer technology simply won't work.  Don't try to force your users to upgrade their software - they probably won't anyway.  They'll go elsewhere.  Rather, design your site so that your primary audience's needs are satisfied as much as possible.

Test Your Work

Make no mistake - testing your work is your job and your job alone.  Once again, a well defined target audience can come in handy.  If you know that your primary audience will have browsers that support Cascading Style Sheets, then feel free to use them.  Since there are only 3 browsers that support CSS (can you name them?), your testing cycle becomes a little shorter.  If, on the other hand, your primary audience is broad, you'll have to test more browsers (in case you didn't know, web pages look and function differently in different browsers).  Try to test your site in as many browsers as possible so that you don't limit your audience or, worse yet, force them to upgrade their software to view your site.  Many time users will just go elsewhere.

The other facet to the testing process is connection speed.  If your target audience exists on an Intranet, you can be sure that your site will download quickly.  On the other hand, if your site exists on the Internet, you can be relatively sure that most of your target audience will be connecting using POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) at 56Kbps.  You'll have to adjust your design accordingly.  Most web development tools perform an estimate of the time your pages will take to download.  As a general rule, they are pretty close - as long as the page being estimated is the first one visited.  There is no substitute, however, for testing yourself.  Try to test at as many connection speeds as possible.

That's a brief exploration of some of the things that make websites "good" - whatever that means.  Of course, we haven't talked about the ultimate design element: content.  On the Internet, content is king.  If your message is well formed, your target audience well defined, and your design sound, you'll be well on your way to becoming a Web Developer!