Typography for the Web of Information

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Design Challenges

Web Designers are faced with a variety of challenges as they practice their craft.  Some of these challenges are tied to the software tools and computer hardware upon which the Web resides.  Other challenges are part of the mosaic of human variation, and the fact that not all people interact with a computer in the same way.  Regardless of the cause of these challenges, the Web designer must always respect the user, by creating Web documents which can be used in multiple, often unexpected ways.  While the printed page is immutable, the Web page must accommodate varying monitor sizes and resolutions, and meet the users preferred text and color settings, among many other issues.

Browsers and Platforms
Most Web designers coming from a print or multimedia design background are immediately struck by the limitations of the Web as a medium.  HTML syntax is extremely simple, and has little or no support for complex image rendering, animation, or sound.  Browser manufacturers have added this support through proprietary extensions, but this flexibility comes at a price.  The heterogeneous nature of computer hardware and software, specifically differing Web browsers and operating systems, leads to Web documents which may or may not work on multiple systems.  By designing Web documents based upon a proprietary browser extension, Web designers undermine the Web's origins as an open, universally useful publishing tool.

In addition, even core support for the HTML specification is spotty across browsers.  The browser manufacturers, in their effort to simultaneously grab market share while pushing product to the market at a fast pace, leave gaps in their support for the specifications created by the standards body (W3C).  Conversely, the standards bodies struggle to adopt popular proprietary extensions to their specifications to keep up with the demands of the user base.  Simply put, this disparity leads to identical code rendering differently across multiple browsers, sometimes to the point of rendering the page unreadable.

Another challenge is the physical limitations of the network on which Web users download and display Web content.  Despite great advances in modem speed, most web browsers are incapable of handling the massive binary files which make up video, animation, or other multimedia.  Broadband Internet connections, despite rapid initial growth, remain scarce in the United States and nonexistent in many other countries, meaning that Web documents dependent on this level of connection may never reach their intended audience.

Accessibility is a key issue which is ignored by a large majority of Web Designers.  'Accessibility Software'  is a set of techniques and technologies which allow people with mental and physical challenges to operate a computer.  These tools include screen magnifiers and screen readers, as well as peripheral devices which allow users without to ability to use a keyboard or mouse to use the computer.  Accessibility software is quite advanced: screen readers actually read text aloud to a visually impaired user.  Through the use of only the Tab and Enter key, one can navigate the dialog boxes of almost any modern operating system.

Accessibility tools have a weakness: they are only as good as the material to be accessed.  These tools rely heavily on well-formatted text, and if a Web page does not contain good formatting, it may fail to be useful through the accessibility tools.  Although Flash movies, Java applets, images, video, and sound, are not accessible without special attention, HTML provides excellent support for text-mode browsing, which in turn allows for good accessibility.  Well-formatted HTML is still nothing more than plain text, and simple coding conventions will allow for clean text-mode browsing as well as creative visuals.

Section 508 is a federal guideline regarding Accessibility: "Under Section 508 (29 U.S.C. 794d), agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others."(10)  Accessibility is another challenge which relates directly to respecting the user: If the user cannot use your site, they cannot be moved by content, nor inspired by the design. Attention to accessibility issues will become increasingly important as we move towards Web applications.

Of course, this was  all part of Tim Lee's vision: "But the web was to be much more than a tool for scientists.  For an international hypertext system to be worthwhile, of course many people would have to post information. The physicist would not find much on quarks, nor the art student on Van Gogh if many people and organizations did not make their information available.  Not only that, but much information-from phone numbers to current ideas and today's menu - is  constantly changing, and as good as  it is up - to - date.  That meant that anyone (authorized) should be able to publish and correct information, and anyone (authorized) should be able to read it"(Lee,38)

Usability defines the functional design of a Web page.  Anytime the user reads a page, clicks a link, or 'mouses over' an image, they are testing the functionality of the design.  The Web's additional dimension of interactivity demands additional challenges on the Web designer. Usability is a sometimes black art, mixing psychology and design, attempting to discern how people adapt to and work with software. 

Beyond the front-end Web design, the designer in a corporate environment may be faced with creating forms, tabular data or technical reports.   Web based applications may require complex interfaces and documentation.  Usability is a series of practices which allow users to operate the program with greater facility.

Usable design can be a challenge for numerous reasons.  The self-published nature of the Web allows anyone to create a forms-based user interface from standard html widgets.  This has resulted in myriad UI choices, ranging from the novel to the cryptic.  The lack of standardization leads to confusion.  The key to usability is to use conventions defined in other software UI.