Friday, 5 May 2000

Website design for schools

Gosh, this was a moment in time, wasn't it?
I wrote this for Education Guardian back in 05/05/00 and posting it thought that it still has some currency, especially the words about fast loading in a world where the bandwidth on pre-3G phones is still pretty small. "Kids hate to wait" is still a useful mantra if you are designing for phone based browsers - or a curriculum!.

But it also occurs to me that not much of what appears below has been noted by the many "e-learning" web designers busy "delivering content" and pretending that they are contributing to learning.

If content was king we'd have built libraries not school, wouldn't we? Here's the piece:

Back in 1992/3 anyone who could get a world wide website working was immediately feted as a veteran. Now, with a wide range of web authoring tools to choose from anyone can be a web jockey and, just as schools discovered at the dawn of desktop publishing seven years earlier, once the task is easy excellent design differentiates good from bad. Unfortunately where desktop publishing had a rich history of high quality typography as a starting point, with the web some of the most sumptuous and expensive websites are amongst the worst examples of design anywhere and corporate often is synonymous with ghastly. Teachers and students are thus left to plan from first principles and above all else to do so with their common sense turned on. Luckily teachers are communication professionals which is why education boasts so many great websites. Here are eight simple rules to start you thinking:

Firstly bad web designers always love to put rich graphics and complex Java onto their "showcase" front page and fake the demo by running the pages off-line. You know better and must chant the mantra "children HATE to wait". Elegant lean fast design takes skill and imagination. Test your pages with the same slow phone connection and poor computer that many users have. Your front page should be less than 25k, including everything. Graphics are more compact if their colour palettes are limited to three or four colours.

Second, leave your guests with a clear model of the website's navigation. This doesn't mean filling half the screen with a contents table all the time. Book and architectural metaphors are SO last century and surely you can do better, but remember your audience will include children. At Ultralab when we tested children with some icons from adult life they surprised us with their misunderstandings; faced with a no entry sign they took it to mean "smoking allowed" (there is no diagonal bar through what they took to be a cigarette!!).

Third, do remember that as many as one in five are poor or reluctant readers. A text heavy site with complex phrases and adult grammar will repel many but where you must use text add simple icons to aid recognition. Remember to complete the "Alt" tags that label images and help visually impaired users to at least get a spoken description of the images. Text alone is rarely seductive and remember that on a poor screen tiny anti-aliased graphics are hard to read. The computer screen is not paper.

Fourth, be aware that there are many permutations of computer, operating system, browser and service provider all hoping to persuade you to develop sites that support their monopoly by excluding others. Our largest Ultralab projects regularly count over 50 such combinations accessing our servers and you should test your site on a variety of them; why would you exclude anyone by design? Stick to open standards.

Fifth, think hard about how your site handles time. It is not enough to say "This page revised on 9/5/00" (was that its birthday treat, or is it revised weekly?). There is a world of difference between a site that you expect to stay comfortingly static (the complete works of Shakespeare for example) and one which you hope would change hourly (a News site). Be sure help expectations by indicating which of these your page is and remember that there is great merit in pre announcing forthcoming events and in summarising after closure. Time matters.

Sixth (and this is a lesson many sites never seem to learn), the content on your site will always struggle to be up-to-date and seductive if it all has to be handled by a 'web team'. Imagine if everything on all your school display boards was produced by just a couple of people. Don't build a bottleneck for others' creativity. A successful alternative, always, is to empower everyone to be able to make a contribution. At its simplest this might be a place on the network where they can find, and complete, standard templates but at best it is a website built entirely on a database so that contribution and editing is a geek free activity. Children's work needs to be authentic, rather than perfect, just like the work on classroom walls.

Seven, be clear that frames are ghastly. People who use them probably can't even spell design. Just say no.

Eighth, dust off your learning theory; no one ever learned by watching, waiting or scrolling. What is your page for? Think hard about the activities that your website supports: what will users do, can they post the results of their efforts on the site, how will they be rewarded, supported, applauded? Schools are for learning, not for publishing.

Finally, be comforted that many sites that should know better fall regularly into all the traps above: the EU's European SchoolNet site has no "alt" tags in any language, the Science Museum's new 3D pages are optimised for one computer chip and don't work at all for many, the front pages of TES On-line has a strange use of frames to limit the screen size, currently the Open University's news pages have had nothing new added since 2nd March and so on. In schools and colleges we know about children, communications, inclusion and design; don't be afraid to trust your own judgement.

© Stephen Heppell 2000

1 comment: