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The Killer of Websites, Part II
Feb 03, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

Last week's piece on David Siegel's book "Creating Killer Websites: The Art of Third-Generation Site Design" struck a very loud chord with a large number of readers. Since the issue of creating well designed sites -- as well as well designed pages -- is on the minds of a good number of obvious readers, I thought it would make sense to devote this week's issue to the thoughts that crossed my inbox this past week.

So, for the first time, it's an "all feedback" obvious.

Steve Champeon, who spends most of his time designing and implementing large-scale sites, wrote from North Carolina...

I've been thinking about this very issue for some time now. I've had a few ideas on how to build good *sites*. You can find some core ideas in the article:

I just got done reading "Information Architects", by Richard Saul Wurman (ed. Peter Bradford) and recommend it, but it doesn't do much for me re. site design. Example: the USAToday weather page. Cool, clean, crisp, informative, etc. But to do that on a web page they'd have to either use a graphic or a java applet.

I'm more interested in the mechanics of large, scalable, manageable site architectures for document-centric systems - rather than data-driven systems. The only thing is, for the most part, I end up coming up with these clever solutions to problems, but when I try to explain *why* I'm doing it *this* way I get nothing but confused looks.

Steve's article (linked above) is well worth the time. In it, he sanely argues that "rather that leaping headlong into the freedom that hypertext allows us, we should carefully consider the ways in which our documents and trees will need to be maintained, used, and reused."

Several readers pointed me to the latest hijacking of W3C proposals by Netscape, the <LAYER> tag, which has been implemented in Navigator 4.0b. Layers support absolute positioning, which gives a designer the ability to position text and graphics on a page exactly, based on pixels. The current Netscape implementation also includes a "z dimension," which enables "layering" of text and images. "Great, the Web as Photoshop," remarked a friend. You can read more about layers at Webmonkey.

Jonathan Peterson, from IBM Interactive Media, chimed in with a desire for site-based tags...

I like Siegel a lot actually as a designer. I have bookmarked his site as one of my favorite designhouses. That said though, the world of the web is full of print designers who are bright enough to make the transition to the web (and get paid much, much more in doing so).

Unfortunately as you have pointed out all those beautiful web sites are not maintainable, and the designers have no knowledge of 3 tiered client server design to design something truely _useful_, not just pretty.

The idea of actually _using_ structural tags is way past dead, unfortunately. People have come to expect print-quality design on websites and there is no way that the W3 can create new structural tags as quickly as designers will find needs. Netscape and Microsoft haven't helped with their competing non-standard tags. And you know that clever designers will always find a cool hack which accomplishes what they want. WSYWIG page editors only hide the problem by attempting to solve it at the ass-end.

What the web NEEDS is a web SITE language. This language can maintain links, navigation, content and design as separate peices. A designer can then completely change the look of a site as needed. A simple "re-compilation" of the site will roll the new look out without breaking any funcionality. Use of server side includes, SHTM, WebObjects and other tools attempt this, but none have done it completely. I can't imagine that there aren't some smart guys out there building such a thing. I just hope that the W3 gets it's hands on it early so it is clean, open and extensible.

David Siegel himself actually may have a role to play in creating a site language, since he's on the W3C committee. It was his feedback on the piece that prompted me to turn this into "front page" news. His first missive went like this...

As you can imagine, I've read your piece. Nice of you to mention me. I'm just wondering why you forgot to mention my chapters on site structure, make sites not pages, PDF, and style sheets? Was it because Push Media was only a press release at the time I submitted the manuscript that you criticize me for not saying how to design for it?

You made your point, though not constructively. You didn't mention that my book was's number one best-seller for 96 and what you thought of that, or that I have designed Hewlett Packard's annual report on line, and you didn't bother to explain the concept of third-generation sites and what you think of the idea, which makes me wonder if you really read the book. Next time, perhaps read the whole thing before writing your review would make your material more useful to your readers.

This is basically how I responded to Siegel, with the pronouns edited for readability...

As I wrote last week, my issue with the book is that it's primary focus is on page design, not site design. The particular examples I used from the book, the site, and his other sites, illustrate this point. For example -- structural tags may offend Siegel as a typographer and graphic designer, but as an efficient way to classify and organize information, they're crucial. As for push media, I don't blame Siegel for not having it in his book, but I don't see him dealing with it on his sites, either.

Finally, the fact that the book was an Amazon best seller is somewhat beside the point. Not only is the Amazon audience self-selecting, but readers may have actually been looking for a tome on site design, not single-pixel gifs.

Siegel responded briefly...

Thanks for being considerate. I thought it was unfair of you not to mention that my book was the first to mention style sheets. Did you know I've been on the W3C HTML and STYLE committees for over a year? We are committed to style sheets and structured documents as long as design of the user experience comes first. For now, that means we're spitting browser-detected HTML out of databases, but when we have XML we'll be able to add structure without destroying the look-and-feel that we think is so important.

Style sheets may help designers deal with large sites...but will they help users? Sure, it may be true that when a site designer has a better grip on their site structure, they'll be better prepared to present information to their users. But the key to successful site design will be taking into account the needs of the user, and the way they want to use the information contained in your site. And remember -- users may not be looking at sites with 800 x 600 displays with millions of colors.

The last word will go to Weevil, who wrote...

I laughed, I cried, and I did wild jigs of joy around my cube. You took the words right out of my mouth and perfectly distilled and gave voice to thoughts that had basically congealed into a lump of amorphus disgust and dissapointment for the "master of all trades" himself, David Siegel.

Next week, a real piece. I promise.



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