Essay :: Five Ways to Improve a Site

By Thomas Van Hare

At Digital Minute, we make it a practice to review hundreds of site designs from around the world. This provides an excellent opportunity to follow emerging design trends, new techniques, and the overall direction of design online. As a result, we recognize common errors that plague the work of designers, from the most professional studios to the rank amateurs working on their first pages. For many of you, the following items may seem obvious, but it is surprising how many submissions we receive every day for the IPPA DX Award that share these basic flaws.

Five Common Design Errors

  1. One of the oldest tricks, literally dating back five years, concerns the speed with which a page will render in the browser. For each and every image on your pages, include a HEIGHT= and WIDTH= tag. Without these critical tags, browsers cannot lay out a page until all the images start to load. This causes long waits while viewers stare at a blank screen. With these tags included, the page will lay out first, allowing viewers to read the text portion while the images load.
  2. If you use JPEGs, do not use the highest compression settings. About 25 percent compression (setting HIGH Quality or about “7″ in Photoshop) is the most you can use before that telltale muddiness destroys the look of your site. Additionally, lower compression rates result in a much less reduction in image size vs. a much larger reduction in quality.
  3. Use GIFs or PNG for signage, images with long horizontal runs of like color, images with few colors, and those that feature large, uniform, one color areas. PNG is a particularly exciting image format, even if rarely used at this point. PNG has been around for awhile and it is only in the last few years that the latest versions of browsers that these images can be interpreted onto the page. The strength of PNG is that it carries an alpha value for each pixel, which means that a PNG graphic can be layered onto a moving background or across an image without having to carefully target the position on the page down to the pixel. Of course, for photographic imagery, you will usually find better results with high quality JPEGs.
  4. To the maximum extent possible, program for cross platform and cross browser performance. These days, with the end of the browser wars, that means you should at least bench check your work in a few common browsers and as well on mobile phones and other devices. “This site looks best when viewed with…” has long since developed into the most useless statement on the Web today. Those who use updated equipment simply don’t care anymore and those who don’t have just been sent a signal to their site visitors bale out early and look elsewhere.
  5. Do not base your opening page on a plug-in, even Flash. Many of the Net’s best customers use the default settings and features of Netscape or Explorer. Mobile platforms don’t interpret plug-ins and Flash properly, if at all.  In short, if you would like to show off your zWaxMAX 0.9+Beta skills, please put it on a separate page and tell viewers how to get the plug-in before you send them in.