What skills do I need to design a Website?

One of the many Web related services we at Virtualtech are often asked to provide is the training necessary for a business owner to design and maintain their own website. While we understand that businesses are always looking for ways to cut their costs, we encourage business owners to think long and hard about the level of training involved to design and maintain a quality, effective website.

Tools exist and are readily available to help the novice website designer quickly put together a site. Programs such as Microsoft FrontPage, Macromedia Dreamweaver, and NetObjects Fusion allow anyone with basic word processing skills to "point and click" their way to a website which can look attractive and have enough cool "bells and whistles" to give the site a bit of "flash" appeal.

OK, so now you have spent some time designing a site which looks just the way you want it to. Good enough? Not hardly.

You would be surprised at the number of people who design websites, thinking that they look and function exactly as they should, and then find that they look and function completely differently on other people’s computers. Why is this? The biggest reason is failing to understand the skills needed to design a site which works the same on all computers: whether PC or Mac, whether connected to the Internet through a high-speed broadband connection or a slow phone line modem, whether viewed in Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator…. And the list goes on.

Below you will find a list of the basic skills you should have before you consider designing or maintaining your website. If you are not familiar with the terms, you should seriously consider hiring a professional to do your site work for you. Remember, the quality of your site reflects the quality of your business… and that is something that your competitors take into consideration when they hire a website design firm to handle their site. To succeed on the Web, you will need to "play to their level".

Directory structure. One of the basic skills necessary to manage a quality website is to understand the relationship between files and folders (directories) and how to create and manipulate each. Organization plays a key role in the layout of a website, and the behind-the-scenes organization of files and directories plays a critical role in a site’s reliability. For example, many novice designers do not realize that the images on a Web page are not actually part of the page, but in fact are simply linked from a different directory on the server.

Filenames. You may have run into Web pages whose addresses looked like a mishmash of "%"s and "36"’s. These designers do not understand that there are only certain characters which are valid in Web filenames, and that "YourDomain.com" may not be the same as "yourdomain.com". Your browser attempts to resolve the filename to something it understands, which can return a name like http://www.yourdomain.com/bobs%20page%36/~home%20page.html. At best it looks unprofessional… at worst, the visitor’s computer can’t access the page, so they simply click on to a competitor’s site.

HTML structure. The programs mentioned above do an admirable job of creating the HTML programming necessary to display your website without requiring you to code the HTML by hand. They are not perfect, however, and understanding basic HTML terms like <table>, <td>, <img src>, and <a href> will make the difference between a site that may function correctly and a site that will function correctly. Viewing your site on two different computers may produce the effect of completely reorganizing your text and pictures on your page. Correct usage of HTML tags is the only way to minimize these display problems, as well as problems related to the next two areas.

Browser platform. Your site may look great on your computer running the latest version of Microsoft Internet Explorer. However, you also need to take into account the fact that a large percentage of Internet users do not use IE, but instead may use Netscape Navigator, Opera, or AOL’s custom browser… all which display Web pages slightly differently depending on HTML structure. What looks great in Internet Explorer may look terrible in Netscape Navigator, or in extreme cases may just show up as a blank screen. Would you buy ad time on a TV station which could only be received by 50% of your potential customers?

Screen resolution. You may have the latest 21" monitor displaying at a resolution of 1600x1200 pixels. What about the user who refuses to upgrade from his old 14" monitor at 640x480? There are more of those old monitors floating around than you might think…and many of them are in the offices of people who do a great deal of purchasing.

Fonts. That beautiful flowing script font you used to design your home page will probably look like a typewritten letter on many computers. There are only 9 fonts (out of the hundreds available) which are considered to be universally Web-safe. You should know what you can and can’t use.
Images. The Web is filled with sites which contain beautiful full color images, and of course you want your site to look just like theirs. However, your images take forever to download and do not look as sharp as your competitor’s. You need to understand the principles behind scanning and optimizing pictures to be displayed on the Web. Factors include minimum and maximum resolutions, correct image file types (there are only two out of the several possible formats that will even work for a Web page, and they are used for two different effects), and file size (determines how long your page will take to download). It is critical to be able to manipulate your images to fit your page’s display needs.

Navigation. How easy is it for a visitor to find the page they are looking for? The navigation should allow the visitor to "click" easily from the page they are on to the page they want to go to. He or she should not have to click through 6 pages to get to the one desired page. Conversely, you also do not want to have links to 40 different pages from your home page.

FTP (File Transfer Protocol). The process of transferring your Web pages and associated files from your local computer to your Web server can be a tricky process. To avoid problems with broken images, "file not found" errors, etc. it is imperative that you understand the FTP process. Along with understanding the relationship between files and directories on your Web server, you may also need to transfer the files in very specific formats (ASCII vs binary) to avoid corrupting your files.

Marketing. It is important to design your Web site so that it is attractive and easy to navigate for your potential customers. However, it is equally important to design your site to make it "attractive" to search engines. Items such as text to image ratios, link structure, relevance of content to keywords, and placement of text on the specific pages are all important factors on where your site ranks on search engines… and you want to be above your competitors’ Web sites, not below.

If you are not comfortable with the above terms and associated skills, perhaps it is time to sit back and make a decision. If you are willing to commit to learning the necessary skills listed… and you will not find them in any pre-packaged software solution… then you have a chance of designing a website which will be viewed as "professional" by your visitors. If the terms above were not familiar to you, you may want to consider the importance of your company’s professional image versus the chance of publishing a site which may detract from that image you worked so hard to achieve.

April 1, 2001

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