The structure of the website soon determines the feel of the website for website visitors. Having an intuitive, clear structure aids navigation. It is also important from the perspective of maintenance of the website.
Careful analysis of the information and likely interactions with the website is usually the first step in good website design. This is a skilled job, and information specialists may be required. It has been found that it is very important to think of what the user is likely to do and want to access. Best of all seems to be a combination of what are known as user-centred and the provider-centred approaches, taking account of the kinds of information being considered.
Websites are in fact databases, often integrated within a wider data system known in-house as an Intranet. Providers of information can maintain and update their information more easily if it is well-organised and does not require them to revisit pages once they have been added to the website.
Many are finding that having database facilities behind the website, serving pages to the website, assists in this process. Databases make the addition of new material to the site easy. Using a few well-designed database interfaces can also assist in limiting the number of different pages a user has to visit, cutting down the navigation problem. This solution does, however, put pressure on the web developer to make sure that appropriate material is easily located and when accessed, is in a suitable format.
Websites can offer users several forms of navigation. One obviously useful guide can be a text sitemap, showing what is available and where it is for direct access if the user wishes to avoid the lengthy browsing and hyperlinking process.
Other recommended approaches include the use of clear website classification, usually known in the web world as metadata.
A solution not recommended is the use of alternative web pages, such as a text-only version, except where there really is no other way to make sense of the site. Experience has taught those who have tried this approach that maintenance is often too cumbersome and one set of pages quickly becomes out-of-synch with the other.
Fortunately, web pages can be as interesting and glitzy as creative minds can make them and still be universally accessible. What is important is that the principles of universally accessible layout are supported. Layout, once the content is in appropriate form, can be specified so that those with all the gadgetry get the feature-heavy version and those with less need for this, still get appropriate versions of the content with a layout that works for them.
By providing a cleanly formatted page which can be interpreted in a variety of ways according to what access device is being used, authors can make their website very accessible. The development of cascading style sheets will make the choice of layout, where specified appropriately, a blessing for all concerned. When style sheets cascade, they do so according to the priorities of HTML. This means that users, ultimately, can choose how to access the content provided to them rather than be forced to struggle through content which is inappropriately presented for their circumstances.
Copyright Liddy Nevile 19 March 2001. This material may be copied if source is acknowledged.