Imps in the Websites
Blunders of Enthusiasm


Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson


March 2010

Internet friction delays complexity

After some years of being wired into the Internet, mostly via CompuServe, in the Spring of 1995 I acquired enough computing power and modem speed to begin surfing the quite new World Wide Web. Of course there wasn't much to see, yet. In fact, hardly anything. Web pages (almost all those earliest sites were just pages) would now and then herald that one of their links pointed to a site with some "real content": a few pictures, or some text on any topic other than how cool and difficult it was to be creating a webpage. Yes, "real content" was rare enough to draw attention and links. Lists of links seemed to be the highest aspiration of a lot of those early single-page sites.

Serenade silhouette As web builders acquired more skills, sophistication, and software tools, with faster hardware and connections, websites became increasingly fancy and interesting, and even began to be useful. Further, we'll dare to say, in an eagerness to serenade and woo us, they quickly became cluttered with visual junk. The Macintosh's easy visualizing power, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) surely contributed to the desire to deploy lots of nifty visual effects.

One widespread early problem was the design fad for marking lists with little image-gifs for bullet points. A vertical row of little purple or red disks looks prettier than just leading the lines with dashes or eight-balls, or any other tags from the type-font in use. But was the prettiness worth the time to download, and time to render on our screen? Using a slow modem, a meditative user could watch pictures slowly being drawn: not just slowly one after another, but each picture slowly. With the little image-gifs, one could watch the disks popping into view one after another, marching slowly down-screen (you'll have to imagine the colored disks, I'm not using them):

  • pop ...
  • pop ...
  • pop ...

The early aesthetics of website design grew mostly from the need not to waste the user's time with unnecessary visual clutter. To view a potentially interesting or useful webpage, we shouldn't have to wait while the designer's artistic hobby-horses pranced into view.

The battle of speed — minimizing download time — largely has been won, at least to the level of complex sites having become practical. The drag of friction will not disappear completely from the Internet, as greater throughput capability calls forth from designers continually greater throughput desire. Give them the bandwidth, and they'll load it up.

Now, I'm quite in favor of the increasing interest and usefulness of the Web. But I expect the ramp will continue to be steep, as demands increase and new opportunities beckon. Just wait for tactile interaction, aromatherapy, and truly user-enterable cyberspace environments. We ain't seen nothing yet — except in science fiction, of course.

The trouble with our constantly improving tools, knowledge, bandwidth, and so on, is that our webbish design sophistication too often lags. This is a problem I see all across the board, from simple personal and hobby websites (I-Love-My-Dog or whatever) on up to big-budget myriad-staffed corporate and government sites (Mega-Corp-Helps-You; Big Brother-Loves-You, and so on).

Turn off the bubble machine

Even if you've never been tempted to build a website, you may find some entertainment in looking at Vincent Flanders' famous Web Pages That Suck. Note that Flanders started his site in 1996, back in the "web pages" days, and still finds an endless stream of material, design imps run wild. Be sure to check out some of his video dissections of the worst exemplars.

It's a sobering corrective to web designers. How many of Flanders' checkpoints our own designs meet, or should meet, or have the time or budget to meet, is up to us and our readers. I certainly don't meet all of them myself: some for perhaps good reasons, others for lack of time and so on. Even some of Flanders' own navigation puzzles me.

Perhaps I should point out that I am a programmer antedating the Web, and have written commercial programs using more languages and tools than I bother to remember; to name a few: Cobol and Fortran; IMS and CICS and Oracle with PL/SQL. I've spent a lot of time wrestling with, and balancing, issues of accuracy, balance, efficiency, user-friendliness, and so on.

So what annoys me in website design? Here are a few:

  • Navigation I can't follow readily, or can't follow at all.
  • Cramped, fixed-width layout.
  • Mouse-over or automatic pop-up windows so thick on the page that I have trouble reading it.
  • Music or speech that blares out when I arrive at the site.

Generally, if a website looks as though mischievous imps behind the stage have sabotaged the script, or are chortling in the wings as they push inappropriate furniture into view and tug on ropes for the wrong scenery — think of the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera — our pleasant website has problems it doesn't need. Your surfing mileage will vary.

As a positive rule? Strive for clarity, which often (not always) supposes simplicity, straightforwardness, and the like. "Eschew obfuscation", as my father liked to say in his incarnation as an aerospace technical writer and editor.

Deploy your creativity appropriately. Not all that is glittering-fresh to us, is either golden or new. "The Sub-editor speaks:"

It is good to read a little in the Files;
'Tis a sure and sovereign balm
Unto philosophic calm,
Yea, and philosophic doubt when Life beguiles.

When you know Success is Greatness ...

When your Imp of Blind Desire
Bids you set the Thames afire,
You'll remember men have done so — in the Files.

Rudyard Kipling
"The Files"  (1903)
Rudyard Kipling's Verse,
Definitive Edition


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

ComWeb at Troynovant
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