Web site design 101: keep the site organized: forget bells and whistles; Web site designers should try creating a plan for their sites first - Opinions - Column

Web site design 101: keep the site organized: forget bells and whistles; Web site designers should try creating a plan for their sites first - Opinions - ColumnYou have to have a plan. As advice goes, that ranks up there with nuggets such as "neither a borrower nor a lender be" and "don't run with scissors." It's banal and obvious and everything else you might expect from a well-meaning homily.

I meant well when I started every semester teaching journalism students about new media with a handful of key pointers that would, I hoped, help steer them from the worst excesses of online publication design. Unfortunately, like most good advice, it went, and continues to go utterly unheeded--both by my students and by almost everyone who deigns to honour the Web with their presence.

Let's face it: Web sites are, almost without exception, a complete and utter mess. Sure, they look and sound pretty enough, with their Flash animations, database-driven personalization and graphical and aural bells and whistles, but they fail miserably at what I take to be their primary purpose: Providing up-to-date, useful, easily found and consumed information.

Make no mistake, I don't mean some Web sites are crap; virtually all of them are crap, and usually for the same reasons. Think about it; database errors, "404 not found," bells and whistles that crash your browser, .wav files that hijack your sound card and never turn off, have become so common that few of us ever give them much thought. Do you want to book a train ticket? Just wait patiently for the intermittently available Via Rail database to kick in. Do you want to order Sympatico high-speed Internet? Let's that they got your information because the order confirmation page never seems to load.

Now, if you're smiling smugly right now, thinking "well, he didn't mention our site, so we're not in the same league as those guys," wipe it off your face. Those are just examples. I haven't actually seen a Web site that really works in about five years. If you have a Web site, you are just as guilty.

The funny thing is, aside from the most egregious technological failings, the place where most sites fall down is in basic organization. No one, after all, seems to have a plan. Instead of sitting down and working out an overall site structure and deciding what information is important, Web designers just throw whatever, willy-nilly at their users.

Thanks to the Tour de France, I've been particularly interested in cycling this summer. I did battle with OLN Canada's site, which presented two completely contradictory program schedules for some of the key Tour stages and has an audience comment form that doesn't actually work. In fairness, a very nice audience relations representative returned my irate phone calls to apologize and explain the scheduling, even though it defeated the purpose of actually having a Web site.

At the end of the day, that's the problem. The World Wide Web is a technology that too many of the people who build Web sites only think of as a technology. You fix or tweak technology, but you don't plan it. For those of us on the other side of the screen, that just isn't enough. We don't care how it works, only that it works, and when we're looking for information, products or services, we want to be able to find them. We need a plan.