Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Style is the dress of thought
Style is the dress of thought
Keywords: Internet, Websites, IMAPS
Programmes on style are very popular on many TV channels, at the moment. I'm not going to tell you how you should dress, though, but how to make your Web site a little stylish. I know that I'm walking a tightrope here, because it is so easy to either under-do or over-do the style and neither will help your site to be a success. But it also depends on what you hope to achieve. If you are disseminating a scientific paper, then the style should reflect that you are serious. In fact, many published papers appear very much as they would were they to have been published in Nature or another highly-regarded scientific publication. Start adding gimmicks, such as the Internet allows, and you will actually lose prestige. At the other end of the scale, if your site aims to attract young children, it has to be made colourful and vivacious. So far, I have stated only the obvious.
In this day, many web site editing programs offer a series of standard styles. If you use one of these unmodified, you may well find you are sharing the same style with hundreds or thousands of other sites: you lose a quality of uniqueness which will help to promote your site visually. For example, in my own graphics site, I have tried to evoke the theme of printed circuitry, simply by modifying the appearance and colours of the various features from a standard theme in the Microsoft FrontPage package. I did this by changing the background grid to light blue, evoking the polyester grid we used when hand-drafting the originals; the horizontal line has become a copper conductor with a pad at each end; the menu buttons show either a through-hole pad and conductor or a few SMD pads; the bullets are coloured through-hole pads of different sizes and so on. I don't claim that this is a Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece but I think that it is a fairly specific evocation of the subject that the site is all about. Of course, such a graphical theme has its price to pay: it is relatively heavy on the aggregate file size, making for longer downloading times. As I have mentioned in previous editions of this Commentary, this is not always desirable as surfers tend to get fed up if a page takes more than a few seconds to download: this is why I offer an alternative text-only site, where each page downloads in the minimum time possible for the content. As an example, one of the pages with a medium quantity of text and many menu buttons, but no other images, takes up an aggregate of 38,578 bytes (which is still acceptable) in the graphics form and only 6,384 bytes in the text-only form, a ratio of about 6:1 in downloading time. Of course, this ratio varies considerably from page-to-page. Now, which page do you think would be the more popular? In fact, over the past 12 months to 31 August 1999, surfers have downloaded the graphics version of this page 5,879 times and the text-only version 5,936 times. This ratio of 1:1, give or take 10 percent, is repeated on every one of the 80-odd pages throughout the site, even though the number of "hits" for each page may vary according to the subject, from a few tens to nearly ten thousand. My conclusion is that half the surfers like seeing the graphics presentation and half like the fast downloading.
Is it possible to add just a few graphical items to an essentially text theme? The answer is affirmative, but just a few will, at least, triple even a small page. I feel it is better to go the whole hog and offer an alternative text-free, frames-free mirror web, as well. As I have said so many times, remember there may be someone in Africa or some other part of the world with a 1,2kbit.s-1 modem on the end of 500km of copper wire, attached to a 286 server, along with another 1,000 other subscribers to his Internet Service Provider, trying to download your pages - if he is a potential customer, have pity on him!
Of course, colour is an important feature of style. For goodness' sake, avoid a black or other dark background. Not only it it more difficult to read light text on a dark background, but it is also impossible to print it out in many cases - not to mention that many of the sexually-oriented sites use dark backgrounds: do you wish to have thousands of visitors per day, each looking for a cheap thrill and blocking your bandwidth? Where possible, use colours consistent with your corporate image. For example, if your logo is navy blue, you may care to use a general background which is a very pale blue, say 16/10/0/0 on the CMYK scale, certainly no darker, and titles in navy blue. Always keep your body text black for maximum contrast and legibility. Never "watermark" your background so that it is obtrusive.
In conclusion to this part, suit your style to your subject and be moderate. Rightly enough for this context, the word style is derived from the Latin stilus, originally the tool used for inscribing on wax tablets, much as our keyboard and mouse write our Web sites. In turn, the Latin word is derived from the Greek
a column used for decoration, so this is still appropriate because the decoration of your Web site is part of its style.
IMAPS have made some small modifications to their Web site. The corporate members list has been slightly reorganised, but I propose to continue our tour of the first company under each letter of the alphabet, starting at where we left off in the last issue, K (see Table I).
KOA Speer Electronics is a multinational group with headquarters in Japan. Their main manufacturing facilities are in various factories throughout Eastern Asia. They have distributing companies for the main regions of the world and local distributors covering most countries. Their product line includes all forms of passive components with a slight incursion into active with diode networks and sensors. The range of R, L and C components is excellent, from 0201 (for resistors, from 0402 for inductors and capacitors) packaging upwards. What I really liked about this site was the amount of information easily available for any of their hundreds of products. Each type of component has a dedicated page on which there are links for downloading the appropriate catalogue, in PDF format, detailed specifications, technical bulletins, value ranges, packaging details and so on. In addition, there is a reproduction in GIF format of the appropriate catalogue page, in itself sufficient in many cases for deciding on a product and determining the part number. I think this is the best site for technical information on products that I have ever come across and I can almost forgive these pages for being a tad on the long side to download, because I know that the data I need are there when it is over. The site is a wee bit difficult to navigate, at first, but the learning curve to do it is very quickly surmounted. However, the "search the site" engine is downright bad. Many keywords are not recognised at all and others give irrelevant results. My advice would be to forget this feature. The Home Page is a bit better than average to download, but my personal view is that the colours chosen, throughout the site, are somewhat unfortunate, ranging from a dark beige background to a darker beige for the navigation buttons and some panels, to an indescribable darkish-pinkish-orangish-reddish colour for the background of various other panels. On this latter, the titles are either in a light maroon or in red, so that the contrast is not extraordinary. Yet the company logo is black and blue on a white background, so that the choice was not dictated by the company image. I can think only that it is a legacy from printed documents, showing the danger of confiding Web site design to graphics artists whose stock-in-trade is the printed word. By the way, I don't like the advertisement for Lotus Domino on the Home Page, either: it is irrelevant to the site and may distract the reader from the business in hand. The Home Page has a meta description and keywords list, but the latter is painfully small and incomplete, so that anyone typing in a detailed description of a component in keyword form onto a search engine is very unlikely to end up on this web site. Communications are, on the whole, good in that it is possible, with a few mouse-strokes, to find where one can buy the products from any region of the world or to contact the company. Hyperlinks exist to a whole range of company individuals' e-mail addresses in various departments, which is excellent. Less good, there are no co-ordinates of any address, telephone or fax numbers on the Home Page. By diligent searching through the site for ten minutes or so, I eventually found that the company is situated near Bradford, Pennsylvania, even though it is obviously targeted to US customers. Similarly, I found phone or fax numbers on the same page, but they are also listed on the reproduced data sheets.
The first two companies under L on the IMAP's list did not have Web sites, so I took the third, LaBarge Inc. of St Louis. The Home Page is simple, unfortunately with a graphics with three photographs, illustrating the sectors in which the company works. I would have preferred this to be half the size. The one thing I cannot understand about the site is that there is a small horizontal frame with a graphics menu at the foot of each page, yet the same menu is displayed in text at the foot of the main frame on the other pages. It seems to be that this frame (not visible on all browsers, remember) is really superfluous. On the hand, the full name, address, phone and fax numbers, but not an e-mail address, appear on the Home Page. On the other hand, the "Contact Us" page happily gives the precious e-mail address, as well as a form for transmitting a message. The Home Page Frame Set has an impressive list of keywords, but no description, the latter often used by search engines to inform "searchers" what to expect. The style of the Home Page is fairly nondescript, but it improves within the site. Navigation within the site is simple from the bottom-of-the-frame/page menu, with one level of hyperlinks below this hierarchy, on some pages. With such a small number of pages, it is obvious that the rationale behind the site is to give a very brief survey of the facilities available in their plants in four states. It is therefore a "first-contact" type of site: no one would ever send the company an order by e-mail because they saw what they needed. As such, it is simple and effective, but a little more detailed information on the services and products offered would not have come amiss.
MIC Technology is a subsidiary company of Aeroflex Inc., and is situated in Massachusetts. They have a small sub-site of their parent company. The site is small and simple, just a few pages, but it is not well designed. The Home Page is, believe it or not, over 100 kilobytes, because of a wide angle photograph of a yellow room, full of detail but not contributing any useful information. There are just five pages beyond the Home Page, selectable by links therefrom, but not from each other, without having to go back to the Home Page. Again, this site is a "first-contact" type, as there is little technical detail. The company is a specialist in thin film circuitry and claim to do everything from the initial design to the completed device, but some details other than a catalogue of what they can do would have been welcome. Under the title "Facilities", for example, we learn little in the six lines of text, other than they have 55,000 sq ft of space and various clean rooms from Classes 100 to 10,000. Communications are not brilliant, either, an address but no fax number on a sub-page. For European customers, an e-mail address exists, with a French ISP, but no clue as to where to mail, phone or fax them. One wonders whether sites like this are not more likely to hinder contacts and resultant sales than to promote them. I am sure that prospective customers who use the Internet to find new suppliers to qualify are more likely not to shortlist sites which lack information and where communications are not apparent.
NAS Interplex make a very wide range of leads, such as for sub-assemblies, hybrids, MCMs and suchlike. Their site opens up to a double frame Home Page. The left-hand frame gives the company address, phone and fax numbers and e-mail address (incidentally with a typo describing it as its phone number!). Bravo for these good communications, even if the frame technique is a little bit of a hammer for cracking an egg, in this case. The frameset page has a good meta description and a modest set of keywords. Somewhat more unusual, these days, there is also a start-up for when the browser does not admit frames. There is also an invitation to browse an online catalogue on the left-hand frame. The other frame consists of a large graphics, albeit of a relatively modest 28 kilobytes, and five interactive menu buttons, which are less modest at over nine kilobytes each, even though each one has a surface area of just 1.9 percent that of the big one. This does not make much sense, especially when these buttons seem to be a small part of the big one plus an even green splodge. Each of these buttons leads to a new frame set, except the last one which is a hyperlink to their group Web site. The left-hand frame, in most cases, has a sub-menu and the right-hand one has some text and some other page links. The five buttons are reproduced, in miniature, at the top of each page. Cleverly, each of these pages has the company telephone number in the title, so that it appears in the title bar, at the top of the window, quite a good idea. Logically, I would have thought that, if I were to wish to buy a product, I could choose it by clicking on the button "Products". Unfortunately, this is not the case: this just gives the broad lines of the products and it is not possible to enter into a catalogue from there. To do so, you need to enter the online catalogue from the Home Page. Even more unfortunately, going back to the Home Page through the menu system gives you a different frame set and the catalogue icon no longer appears. You have to go back either by clicking the "Back" button of your browser the right number of times or by manually editing the URL: why this should be defies the imagination (at least the e-mail address in the left-hand frame is labelled "E-mail" if you go back through the menu!). The catalogue itself is fairly complete but I have a severe reproach to make: like some other companies, they have taken the easy way out, for them and not for the customer. Each catalogue page has been scanned in, as a graphics file, from the printed page version. Even worse, these pages are JPG files and not even GIF ones, possibly because the pages were generated using Adobe Photoshop on a MAC. That makes the pages from about 175 to 250 kilobytes long - and the server is not the fastest one. Result: typical download times of three minutes per page. This is simply far too long. How should NAS Interplex have done it? The drawings could have been scanned in as a black and white file per page in GIF format, perhaps typically between five and ten kilobytes. The tables should have been translated into HTML tables and the text into HTML text. This would have reduced the aggregate file size by about a whole order of magnitude. Furthermore, the legibility of the tables and text would have been very much improved, because it would not be graphical. At the same time, the required disk storage space and bandwidth for the site would also be considerably reduced, as well. The cost: perhaps five or ten minutes of Webmaster's time extra per page. This is a pity, as the site would have earned much higher marks without this poor, but important, feature. Otherwise, the data are all there to enable customers to decide on the exact model of connection they need for any application and the technical data side is irreproachable, once you find out how to navigate. By the way, I have two other "beefs": the Home Page button on most of the catalogue pages does not work and the "Trade Shows" page lists five shows - great, except that they were all between June and November 1998, while this is being written in September 1999. With a little more attention to detail, this could become a good and informative site.
We are returning to Massachusetts for the first site amongst the Os, to a company called Olin Aegis, manufacturer of hermetic enclosures. This site is strong on style and a little weak on Internet technical know-how (see Figure 1). The style is very striking, using a three-frame frameset, with a red menu frame on the left, red tabs at the top and a white main frame with a slightly obtrusive pink and grey "watermark" of the company logo: this would have been better some 25 percent lighter. The "watermark" does not appear on the Home Page. The general policy is one of short, neat and crisp pages, with rapid downloading, even on the many pages with photographs. There are few pages with an aggregate file size exceeding 40 kilobytes and this is cause for congratulations. However, strangely, for a company that has such a neat site, the "watermark" background file, which is tiled, is one of the largest, barring the photographs, clocking in at about ten kilobytes. This is rather excessive but is a price that is paid for its unusual style. You may be asking why I accuse the company of being weak on Internet techniques, if they have produced such a good-looking and fast-loading Web site? The answer is simple. Many of the pages are without titles and the Home Page frameset and other key pages have absolutely no descriptions and keywords. Just to check how important this is, I took three keywords which are used extensively throughout the site and submitted them to ten major search engines: only one of them (Alta Vista) came up with the Olin Aegis URL, once in the top 20 of each but other competitive makers came up several times in a number of results. There is no way of knowing whether this will lose the company business, but it certainly won't help much towards improving their market share. Navigation is simple and straightforward except that the logo tab, which should take the surfer back to the Home Page, doesn't: instead, it produces a dreaded "HTTP Error 404, 404 Not Found". Communications could be better. There are no indications on the Home Page of where the company is, or anything. Clicking the "Contact Us" tab will give the postal addresses, phone and fax numbers of both the Corporate Headquarters and the European Offices. Clicking on the top item of the left-hand menu of this page will produce the names of representatives throughout the USA and a few elsewhere, with telephone and fax numbers, but no addresses and no e-mail addresses or URLs. Only by clicking on the next item down on the menu do we find some e-mail addresses of the key persons within the company, from the President down to the Marketing Reps. This is a long trip to find out how to send an e-mail. There is a page to request a quotation, but this will be of use only if your browser is forms-enabled: there is no straight e-mail address to which to send the same information. There is a brief run-down on the major product lines, with no pretence at being a detailed catalogue. On the other hand, there is a "Catalog Registration" page, which requires a User ID and Password to access. This is a stupid bureaucratic procedure which is possibly designed with a view to inundating the registered with junk mail and e-mail. However, it does accept false data, including e-mail addresses, so you will know what to do if you do not wish to take the risk of unwanted communications. Once you are through this unacceptable procedure, the catalogue itself is grand. Each type of standard item is listed according to its dimensions and other characteristics. This is done in tabular form and, such is the quantity of data thus listed, some of these files can be quite large. However, the culminating feature is that a separate window is also opened with an engineering drawing of the package types. This is a very logical answer to my complaint in the previous paragraph because the GIF graphics are limited to two or three kilobytes. Unfortunately, the negative point is that the tabulated data seem to be presented only in the X and Y axes, the Z axis (package thickness, depth, etc) being ignored. As I have never had to specify hermetic enclosures, this strikes me as a little peculiar, even though there may be a logical explanation. This site could be made into an outstanding one with a little more attention to detail and "user-friendliness".
Figure 1Olin Aegis Home Page
Brian EllisMosfiloti, Cypruse-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
1 "Style is the dress of thought; a modest dress, Neat, but not gaudy, will true critics please". Rev. Samuel Wesley (1662-1735), from a letter to a friend concerning poetry (1700).