Make your web pages freestanding
World Wide Web pages differ from books and other documents in one crucial respect: hypertext links allow users to access a single Web page with no preamble. For this reason Web pages need to be more independent than pages in a book. For example, the headers and footers of Web pages should be more informative and elaborate than those on printed pages. It would be absurd to repeat the copyright information, author, and date of a book at the bottom of every printed page, but individual Web pages often need to provide such information because a single Web page may be the only part of a site that some users will see. This problem of making documents freestanding is not unique to Web pages. Journals, magazines, and most newspapers repeat the date, volume number, and issue number at the top or bottom of each printed page because they know that readers often rip out articles or photocopy pages and will need that information to be able to trace the source of the material.
Given the difficulties inherent in creating Web sites that are both easy to use and full of complex content, the best design strategy is to apply a few fundamental document design principles consistently in every Web page you create. The basic elements of a document aren't complicated and have almost nothing to do with Internet technology. It's like a high school journalism class: who, what, when, and where.
Who is speaking? This question is so basic, and the information is so often taken for granted, that authors frequently overlook the most fundamental piece of information a reader needs to assess the provenance of a Web document. Whether the page originates from an individual author or an institution, always tell the reader who created it. The flood of Web sites propagating incorrect or intentionally misleading material on the Florida vote problems of the 2000 American presidential election offers a vivid example of how "information" of no known origin and of dubious authenticity can quickly cloud legitimate inquiry and discussion.
All documents need clear titles to capture the reader's attention, but for several reasons peculiar to the Web this basic editorial element is especially crucial. The document title is often the first thing browsers of World Wide Web documents see as the page comes up. In pages with lots of graphics the title may be the only thing the user sees for several seconds as the graphics download onto the page. In addition, the page title will become the text of a browser "bookmark" if the user chooses to add your page to his or her list of URLs ("Universal Resource Locator," the formal term for Web addresses). A misleading or ambiguous title or one that contains technical gibberish will not help users remember why they bookmarked your page.
Timeliness is an important element in evaluating the worth of a document. We take information about the age of most paper documents for granted: newspapers, magazines, and virtually all office correspondence is dated. Date every Web page, and change the date whenever the document is updated. This is especially important in long or complex online documents that are updated regularly but may not look different enough to signal a change in content to occasional readers. Corporate information, personnel manuals, product information, and other technical documents delivered as Web pages should always carry version numbers or revision dates. Remember that many readers prefer to print long documents from the Web. If you don't include revision dates your audience may not be able to assess whether the version they have in hand is current.
The Web is an odd "place" that has huge informational dimensions but few explicit cues to the place of origin of a document. Click on a Web link, and you could be connected to a Web server in Sydney, Chicago, or Rome anywhere, in fact, with an Internet connection. Unless you are well versed in parsing URLs it can be hard to tell where a page originates. This is the World Wide Web, after all, and the question of where a document comes from is sometimes inseparable from whom the document comes from. Always tell the reader where you are from, with (if relevant) your corporate or institutional affiliations.
Incorporating the "home" URL on at least the main pages of your site is an easy way to maintain the connection to where a page originated. Once the reader has saved the page as a text file or printed the page onto paper, this connection may be lost. Although newer versions of the most common Web browsers allow users to include the URL automatically in anything they print, many people never take advantage of this optional feature. Too many of us have stacks of printed Web pages with no easy way of locating the Web sites where they originated.
Every Web page needs:
- An informative title (which also becomes the text of any bookmark to the page)
- The creator's identity (author or institution)
- A creation or revision date
- At least one link to a local home page or menu page
- The "home page" URL on the major menu pages in your site
Include these basic elements and you will have traveled 90 percent of the way toward providing your readers with an understandable Web user interface.