NOVEMBER 20, 1997
VOLUME 11 ISSUE 45
DESIGNING THE WEB DARCY DINUCCI
Divide and conquer: Designing for three types of Web users
To many Web designers, breakthroughs such as style sheets are as
tantalizing and out of reach as a new BMW roadster. We can appreciate
the spiffy details and tight handling offered by the new technologies,
but we have responsibilities to our families -- the varied,
unpredictable installed base of old browsers -- that keep us tied to
the commodious, trustworthy HTML 2.0.
Meeting our responsibilities is a tough job, but maybe not as tough as
it seems. One strategy is to stop thinking of the audience as divided
into constituencies based on browser make and model, and try a new
breakdown, defined by each user's relation to Web design itself.
Divide it by three
The first group -- whose numbers most designers overestimate --
includes the people who actually care about design and look to a site's
designers to provide the best possible experience. Because these
surfers are excited by the latest design technologies, you can pretty
much assume that they'll have the latest browser version.
The second group -- too often ignored -- is made up of those who like
to control their own Web experience. These folks are known for setting
unpredictable font defaults and doing things such as surfing with
The third group is what you might call "Web-agnostic." These users may
have better things to do than monitor the latest Web news and mine
their menus for customization features. They will probably have older
versions of browsers and absolutely vanilla defaults.
The wisdom to know the difference
In a practical sense, the only group you're really designing for -- in
ork-here graphic design -- is the first.
There's nothing you can do to impress the second group, the
individualists. Here, your job is to just stay out of their way. Keep
your HTML basic, supply ALT text for images and make sure you have a
text-based system for navigation. (By following these rules, you'll
also meet the needs of special-needs users such as the sight-impaired.)
Don't try to enforce a standard view of the page by constraining line
lengths with tables or page sizes with window-resize scripts. You'll
just annoy those users.
Your responsibility to the third group is twofold: Provide a page they
can read without the latest technological hoo-ha, and participate in
their education. If your page is optimized for the latest browsers, let
them know and give them a chance to upgrade. (After all, the more
people you can bring into the first group, the better for you.)
It's usually safest to assume that visitors to your site fall into all
three categories, and with smart coding you can often meet the needs of
all three groups with one set of HTML. (One of the cool things about
style sheets, for instance, is that they do no harm in browsers that
don't support them but work magic in browsers that do.) The tripartite
division doesn't necessarily make coding easier, but it should help you
decide how to use what's available. And its simple rules remain
effective no matter how many browser versions pile up.
Darcy DiNucci ([log in to unmask]) is co-author of "Elements of
Web Design." She consults on electronic information design from her
office in San Francisco.
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