Don’t Lock Visitors Out Of Your Website!

Just a couple of years ago, having an interactive website was a privilege reserved for the biggest corporations with a staff of programmers. With the introduction of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) website design programs such as Microsoft FrontPage, Adobe GoLive, and Macromedia DreamWeaver, it has become easier than ever for the novice website designer to add interactive features such as sound, chat, animated text, animated graphics, and page transitions, among others. This does make life much easier for the designer to add features by simply "pointing and clicking". However, using these commands without fully understanding the structure of HTML (the programming language of websites) in many cases results in pages on your website which cannot be viewed by many visitors. These visitors, being like most people in that they are very impatient and "want it NOW!" will become discouraged and leave your site for a site that they CAN navigate.

The solution is that time-honored adage "Keep It Simple". To use a analogy, let’s examine a TV show. Just about everyone has a TV set, and no matter which brand, which size, or which features it has (color vs. black-and-white, stereo vs. mono, etc.) TV shows look basically the same no matter which TV you have. How would you feel if you sat down to watch a show you had heard was the best ever, only to be greeted with a message stating that "your TV does not support this program… best viewed with an RCA 32 inch stereo set only"? Of course, that does not happen because all TV programs are broadcast according to a set of FCC standards. Unfortunately, that is not the case with Web browsers. There are several browsers, each with a unique set of features supported. A partial list follows:

Each browser "sees" a Web page slightly differently. In addition, the developers are continually issuing upgrades which add and remove features from previous versions. We will concentrate on the two most popular browsers as of this writing: Internet Explorer (approximately 70 percent of all browsers used) and Netscape Navigator (approximately 25 percent).

Several of the "really cool" features you can add to a website rely on the following:

ActiveX controls Programs that run as part of a Web page using a Microsoft programming standard
(supported only in Internet Explorer)
VBScript A Microsoft scripting language that enables interaction between a user and a Web page (supported only in Internet Explorer)
JavaScript A Netscape Web scripting language, similar to VBScript (supported fully by Netscape Navigator, mostly supported in Internet Explorer but your pages may look different than in Netscape)
Java applets Interactive programs written in the Java programming language that run as part of a Web page (supported by both browsers, but the user has the ability to turn Java off as a sometimes ill-advised security measure)
Frames Separate "pages" independently scrollable on a Web page. Supported fully by Netscape Navigator, partially by Internet Explorer but they may look different.
Dynamic HTML (DHTML) Both Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer support DHTML, but they see it differently. For example, if you use the Internet Explorer standard, you page may not work in Netscape Navigator and vice versa.

(A note: it is generally considered "amateurish" to place a note or icon on your home page stating "this site best viewed in (insert browser name here). This is one guaranteed way to alienate visitors who have chosen to use a different browser. Strongly consider alternatives before you use a browser-specific element on your site.)

As you can see, designing a Web page that can be viewed by all possible visitors can be a complicated procedure. Just because the page you designed looks good on your computer does not mean that it will look the same in everyone else’s. To achieve the maximum "viewability", you must understand the ramifications of using any options that rely on the above elements. If you are not sure how they work, the best advice is to NOT use them. Also, keep the following in mind:

  • Screen Resolution – This is not a browser issue, but rather a hardware issue. Different monitor sizes will have different screen resolutions. This can also be a personal preference setting.  The goal should be to not have the visitor of the website have to scroll right to left.  Your best options are to either use a fixed width or a percentage.
  • Fonts – There are several thousand fonts available for use within Windows. However, only nine (yes, 9) of them are considered "Web-safe". In addition, if the visitor does not have the font that you have chosen installed on his/her computer, the browser will default to one that does exist on the computer. This means that the beautiful "cursive handwriting" on your website  may be changed to a very plain block text. AOL is notorious for changing fonts to simpler ones.
  • Colors – Though most monitors now support colors numbering in the millions, there are several out there that limit the number of colors to 256. Again, your picture may not look quite as you intended.
  • Graphics and Sounds – These files are notoriously large in size. A visitor is not going to wait 5 minutes for a picture or a 10 second sound clip to download. If you can’t optimize the file to keep it under 15k to 20k in size, think twice before you  use it.

To sum up, the best thing you can do when designing you website  is to make it as universal as possible, and to thoroughly test it before making it available to the general public.

While you cannot guarantee that your site is 100 percent compatible, following these procedures will minimize the chance of alienating you visitors and forcing them to your competition.


November 1, 2000

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