What makes for a good website? A look from the past to the present…

There is hardly any communication medium which has seen so much change over the years as the internet, and through it, the website. Long gone are the days when a website used to be made using frames and tables – though tables are still an integral part of segregating certain data, they are not the backbone of the website anymore – and the only device a user could access a website from was a cumbersome desktop computer sitting on, well, the top of his/her desk.

A short history of web browsers

Those were the days when we web designers used to lament that every software company that was coming up with a new browser in the market was trying to introduce its own technology as standards which sometimes conflicted with the existing web standards. Internet Explorer (IE) from Microsoft was the most disruptive of the lot as it refused to incorporate some of the existing web standards and re-interpreted some others in its own way that conflicted with the way other browsers saw a website.

A good website is browser compliant

This meant additional workload for a web designer as he had to either lose some features from a website so the site would look uniform across the browsers, or he had to employ extra code that let different browsers see different sections of the website while still showing the user what the web designer intended. There were yet a few designers who overlooked the other browsers altogether and designed only for IE, believing that since Windows ruled the world, and most of the Windows users never bothered to install other browsers, there was no point working extra hard to focus on the other web browsers which were used by a minuscule number of people anyway.

The David that turned Goliath

This is where they went wrong. The tiny fraction of people who used the other browsers, like Netscape, Firefox (then Mozilla), Safari and Opera, amongst others, were the tech-savvy people who being early adopters of new technologies and firm believers of uniformity in web standards were the change bringers. And as Firefox got lost in its own complexity, Safari remained the browser of choice of Apple users and Opera unfortunately never gained the prime place amongst browsers that it should have (Opera was responsible for some of the greatest innovations that are currently commonly used amongst all browsers, the biggest of them being tabbed browsing, session control and speed dial) due to unfathomable reasons, it was Chrome from Google that, in spite of being a late entrant, turned out to be the winner.

Google Chrome implemented web design standards and overlooked the standards IE was trying to impose, meaning that due to its popularity and meteoric rise, web designers could not afford to design for IE anymore and had to stick to web standards. Well, as they say, With great power…Google started re-interpreting some of the existing website conventions in its own way and while it did not affect the way websites were designed, they definitely affected the way a search engine (read Google) reads a website. Meta tags like Keywords, Title, Description etc. started giving way to better written and better placed content as the way to position a website better in a search engine’s rankings.

Whose device is it anyway?

Tables and frames had long given way to the various versions of CSS and HTML, the latest in the line being CSS3 and HTML5. However, the latest issue plaguing most of the web designers is not of browsers sticking to web compliant standards (though I’m sure that we are yet to reach complete harmony here), but designing for the various internet enabled devices that keep popping up every few months all over the world. I’m talking about you, the smartphones and tablets of the world.

A good website is device compliant

Where one had to, in the past, design only for a desktop or a laptop screen, where the screen sizes and resolutions were more or less similar, these days with a plethora of devices with screen sizes ranging from 3.5 inches to 6 inches for smartphones and from 6 inches to 10 inches for tablets, for a long time many web designers just ignored it, hoping this monster with multiple sized heads will go away or with time will maybe standardised its head sizes? That is till Google declared that web sites that were not responsive, in other words multi-device friendly, will lose out on their search engine rankings and may not even show up on searches on a tablet or a mobile phone. This woke up the rest of the crowd, web designers and clients included, and suddenly responsive was the buzz-word of the town.

Whereas there are still quite a few websites out there that are still not device friendly, most websites have either converted to or are in the process of converting to being one. The biggest drawback in making a website responsive is only one – creativity. Where earlier the size of the desktop or laptop screen was the limit and the various scripts that could make websites do nearly all sorts of things except maybe make you a cup of coffee, these days most of the responsive websites bear almost the same kind of look. Most of them seem to have the same blocks and sections that have been placed a little more differently than the others to create its own look. But overall they all seem to be cast from the same die. Gone are the days when Flash animations ruled the world wide web. Most of the devices these days are not capable of showing more bells and whistles than simple CSS3 and HTML5 animations can show. But the high level of interactivity that websites could afford earlier is gone and won’t be back unless a new language evolves which can provide interactivity and still have scope of enough creativity that gives each website an original look and feel.

How friendly is my UI?

A good website is user-friendly

So what exactly is a user interface? It is the visual of your website visible on your user’s web browser, irrespective of the platform, browser and device. And the only thing that matters is how easy it is for the user to navigate your website and find information relevant to him/her. Even if you have top notch content, if the relevant information is lost in multiple pages or a complex navigation structure you’ve lost your user.

So, is your website browser and device compliant? More importantly, is your website user friendly?

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