Design with audience in mind

Justice Department Section 508 home page

The year 2001 likely will go down in Internet history as the time when there were more redesigns of government Web sites than any other period to date.

Many factors are involved in pushing this change in Web sites, notably:

* Availability of new software with expanded capabilities for site structure and layout.

* Advancement in programmer and coder experience.

* Changes in agency organization and responsibilities.

But the big gorilla driving site redesign is accessibility.

Webmasters have a wide variety of resources to guide their efforts in making Web sites meet Section 508 Access Board requirements. The Justice Department and the General Services Administration have sites devoted to accessibility issues, and some departments have issued compliance guides, with examples of correct code.

In the drive to achieve accessibility, however, it can be easy to overlook the basics.

While visiting a neighbor recently, I was amazed by how long it took for my department's Web site to load on his home computer. The Agriculture Department site's front page had two pictures and large GIFs, and my neighbor's computer was accessing it via a 28 kilobits/sec modem.

At work, the site loads quickly, and I had subconsciously come to believe that every computer loads the material at an equally fast rate. I had not given consideration to the size of items on the page and had forgotten about the innumerable computers with slow connections. The thumb-twiddling at my neighbor's house brought the point home that page-presentation basics don't go away.

What's on your opening page can have a real impact on customer satisfaction. If the page is slow, users will attempt to find work-arounds to bypass your Web site.

You can use larger files if you know that your audience uses new equipment and fast connections. In that case, using Java and big pictures isn't a problem. But your Web site's visitors are probably using a mixture of computers with slow and fast connections. In redesigning your site, don't leave out the large number of people who must operate with "world wide wait" equipment. While every Christmas or birthday may reduce the number of older machines in use, many remain online. And often, those hardy machines continue to be passed on to other users.

A simple and direct home page design can meet both accessibility and speed issues. Links on the home page or top subpages can take users with high-speed connections to speedy stuff deeper in your Web site. Meanwhile, the two-cylinder crowd is not locked out at the beginning.

Know your audience. Design for it.

Powell is the Agriculture Department's Internet and intranet Webmaster.

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