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Working with the Web

Patrick J. Lynch & Sarah Horton Web style guide. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1999. x, 165 pp. ISBN 0-300-07675-4 9.95 Pb.

Sarah Horton Web teaching guide: a practical approach to creating course web sites. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2001. 242 pp. ISBN 0-300-08727-6 10.95 Pb.

to Web teaching guide

Quite simply, these two books ought to be on the desk of any teacher who has an interest in using the Web for teaching and, in the case of the style guide, on the desk of anyone who is contemplating the design of a Web site. Even those with plenty of experience in the field will find things of interest.

The Yale Web Style Guide was probably one of the first sites to be used by the amateur Web designers who sprang up a few years ago (in fact, more or less at the same time as Information Research began to be published). I certainly used it a great deal (although the journal may not meet all of Lynch and Horton's desiderata!) and arranged its download to the Departmental server for easier use by students.

The Style Guide is sub-titled, "Basic design principles for creating Web sites" and this is exactly what it delivers. A glimpse at Lynch's Web site shows that he is well-suited to deliver design principles: he is Director of Biomedical Communications, a medical illustrator and painter. Horton worked with Lynch at Yale before moving to Dartmouth College, where she has been mainly concerned with developing teaching sites.

The contents page of the Style Guide sets out a logical flow of topics: Process, Interface design, Site design, Page design, Typography, Editorial style, Web graphics and Multimedia. All chapters make extensive use of illustrations and practical examples and there is also a useful list of references, keyed to the chapters.

Process deals with planning web sites and includes a number of check-lists designed to have the designer keep in mind the issues that must be dealt with at different stages of the design process.

Interface design is rather brief, given the significance of the topic, but the guidelines offered are fundamental and, if followed rigorously, would lead to very consistent presentation of information within sites. The point is made that, although Web page design is related to book page design, Web pages are individually much more independent than book pages and, consequently, must have consistent headings to signify that they belong to the site. This point is developed further in the section on navigation.

Chapter 3, on Site design is where the authors get into the main purpose of the guide. Their basic principle is simply stated:

The fundamental organizing principle in Web site design is meeting users' needs. Ask yourself what your audience wants, and center your site design around their needs... Talk to the people who make up your target audience, put yourself in their shoes, and make the items and services they want the most prominent items on the home page.

The authors proceed to show how to achieve satisfaction of users' needs by attention to the way information is organized (A logical site organization allows users to make successful predictions about where to find things.); overall site structure and design themes; the organization of site elements such as home pages, menus, contents lists, and so forth; and the difference between Internet and intranets in design terms.

The general theme of meeting users' needs is further developed in Chapter 4 Page design, where particular emphasis is put on the shape of the computer screen, compared with that of a book. (Incidentally, why have screens remained the same, inappropriate format for so long? Surely we might have expected screens to evolve into something approximating the A4 page?). Because of the screen format, the top part of a page is the most significant and, therefore, should be used to get across the main message of the page. Navigational elements should also be placed here, so that the user can easily move to previous and subsequent pages or to the home page. While the general design guidance is sound, I am not absolutely sure that all the points necessarily apply to electronic journals. For example, in reading an electronic journal the user is aware of the conventions of print journals and splitting a text into screen 'chunks' with links from one chunk to another might actually militate against effective use. I do not know of any research into this issue and, with the proliferation of electronic journals it ought to be a topic of concern. Of course, e-journal users may generally print out the papers they want to read and the abstract and first paragraph may be enough to enable the user to decide to print.

Chapter 5 deals with Typography, where the key problem is nicely expressed:

...perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of Web typography is its variability... You should regard your Web page layouts and typography as suggestions of how your pages should be rendered – you'll never know exactly how they will look on the reader's screen.

The principles of typographic design are discussed under the headings: legibility (where I was interested to see the point made that initial capital letters in headings reduce legibility – which is why you will find that the titles of papers in this journal do not have initial capitals); emphasis (gained through type style, spacing and indentation, and capital letters); consistency; cross-platform issues (MAC vs. Windows); cascading style sheets (with guidance on when they should be used); and type graphics (i.e., using a graphic of type, rather than manipulated HTML type).

The short chapter on Editorial style makes the point that prose style for the Web should be concise and factual. Again, this ideal does not seem to be realizable in an electronic journal, although it might be interesting to explore the possibility. This review, for example, could be reduced to:

These two books contain valuable guidance for Web designers. Buy them.

But, would the reader be satisfied by this simply stated judgement? The authors pose the opposite of 'concise and factual' as 'vague and verbose', but surely 'clear and comprehensive' is an equally valid style?

Consistency in headings and sub-headings, as an aid to navigation, is also suggested and this is most easily achieved, of course, through the use of cascading style sheets. Finally, suggestions are made about text formatting and the use of links – proposing the use of the argument TARGET="main" for the links to ensure that the link is opened in a new window.

Chapter 7 is a much more extensive treatment of web graphics, with valuable guidance on the characteristics of web graphics, file formats, the appearance of images on screen, and the interaction of HTML and graphics. Chapter 8 extends this treatment to multimedia.

In summary, this is an excellent, practical handbook. There are one or two cases where the use of colour in illustrations would have improved the presentation (for example, in the discussion of browser-safe palettes), but the quibbles are minor and the book can be unreservedly recommended.

Web teaching guide

Sarah Horton is the sole author of the second book, Web teaching guide, which applies the principles of web design set out in the first to the creation of web sites for academic courses. The contents page is deceptively simple: it presents five chapters, Planning, Developing content, Creating the site, Using the site and Site assessment. However, a wealth of information and practical guidance is packed into these five chapters and anyone who is currently developing, or thinking of developing a course Web site will benefit from the advice.

It is important to note that this book is not about developing courses for distance learning. As the author notes in the Preface,

Course Web sites are designed to assist face-to-face teaching. They offer students materials that supplement classroom learning - such things as information about course logistics, online access to course materials, opportunities to explore topics covered in class, and forums for continuing class discussion. They also provide materials for students to download and use in their own scholarly efforts.

The chapter on Planning owes much to general ideas of project planning: the key thing, of course, is to regard the preparation of a Web site as a project. Once that position is taken, the assessment of means to accomplish the task, the acquisition of tools, definition of objectives, site planning, content design, etc., all follow on quite logically. In all of this Horton is strong on practical issues, devoting attention to site architecture and the organization of content, and proposing techniques such as card sorting and outlining as aids to the site development.

Chapter 2, Developing Content, covers not only the text one writes oneself, but also how to find other text sources, images, audio and video files, how to integrate these and even how to get the necessary permissions to use other people's materials. Along the way, useful points are made, for example, about writing style:

  • Summarize first. Put the main points of your document in the first paragraph...
  • Be concise. Use lists rather than paragraphs, but only when your prose lends itself to such treatment...
  • Write for scanning. ...Guide the reader by highlighting the salient points...

There are also instructions on building FAQ files, using search engines effectively, conversion systems, organizing discussion lists, and many other things.

As might be expected from the joint author of the Web style guide, and as indicated by the sub-title, the third chapter, on Creating the site is the longest and one of those in which the lessons of the first book are applied specifically to educational sites. The planning perspective is continued here, as the author deals successively with establishing a page design, constructing a framework of directories and files, and adding content (including the preparation of images). Two case-studies are presented: Megan Williams's attempt to have students of her 'Magic and Astrology' course at Mount Holyoke College design a Web site, and Paul Christensen's use of the Web in teaching classics at Dartmouth College. These cases are valuable in drawing attention to alternative approaches.

Using the site, Chapter 4, takes up the question of how to ensure that your site is actually used by students. It is not a foregone conclusion that a site will actually be used. As Horton notes:

Depending on the nature of the site, your students may be more or less inclined to considcr it part of their !earning method. If the perceived gain in using the site is significant, you may not have to do much selling; students enrolled in your class know that they need to learn the materixls, and they are likely to readily adopt any tool that expedites that effort. lf the course site serves a more supplementary role, you may find that you need to coax them into using it.

Although the chapter deals with other issues, such as the copyright of linked materials, it seems to me that this point is key to the whole enterprise of using the Web in teaching and learning. If the site is simply a collection of resources for the student it is as likely to be as used (or unused) as the library. The site must become central to the course, with not only resources, but also tests and discussion groups, and the latter are likely to need to be led by the teacher, with questions directed at individual students in order to stimulate them to participate. It is also likely that students will need to be introduced to the Web and how to use it – not all students are fully 'Web aware' and setting time aside in the syllabus will be necessary if the site is to be used effectively. Another case study is presented in this chapter - Dana Flaskerud's use of the Web for language teaching at Columbia University.

The final chapter on assessment makes the obvious, but often neglected, point, that after all the effort put into the design and development of a Web site, it is valuable to make some evaluation of whether it is reaching its objectives. The means for doing this are explored, from server logs to feedback from students.

As with the Style Guide, this book is essential reading.

Appropriately, both books are excellent examples of book design: the page layout is excellent, pictures and text work harmoniously together and the whole thing is a pleasure to hold in one's hands and read. Sarah Horton is also responsible for the design of the book; which perhaps illustrates the close association between book design and Web site design. I've often thought that if only Web designers knew something about book design, they would make fewer mistakes. Horton proves this point.

Professor Tom Wilson
15th March 2001