User Interface Stability

or "Why the Web is better than CD-ROMs and why the Netscape 2.0 tags are bad"

by Philip Greenspun for the Web Tools Review

Note: this article has been superseded to a large extent by Chapter 3 of Database Backed Web Sites

CD-ROMs are faster, cheaper, more reliable, and more involving as an audio visual experience than the Web. Why then do they sit on the shelf while users greedily surf the slow, unreliable, expensive Web? Stability of user interface.

There are many things wrong with HTML. It is primitive as a formatting language and it is almost worthless for defining document structure. Nonetheless, the original Web/HTML model has one big advantage: all Web pages more or less look and work the same. You see something black, you read it. You see something gray, that's the background. You see something blue (or underlined), you click on it.

When you use a set of traditional Web sites, you don't have to learn anything new. Every CD-ROM, on the other hand, has a sui generis user interface. Somebody thought it would be cute to put a little navigation cube at the bottom right of the screen. Somebody thought it would be neat if you clicked on the right hand page of an open book and that gets you to the next page. Meanwhile, you're sitting there for 15 seconds feeling frustrated. The CD-ROM goes back on the shelf.

The beauty of Netscape 2.0 is that it allows the graphic designers behind Web sites to make their sites just as opaque and hard to use as CD-ROMs. Graphic designers are not user interface designers. If you read a book like the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines [Apple Computer, Inc.; Addison-Wesley] then you will appreciate what kind of thought goes into a well-designed user interface. Most of it has nothing to do with graphics and appearance. Pull down menus are not better than pop-up menus because they look prettier; they are better because you always know exactly where to find the "Print" command.

Some of the bad things a graphic designer could do with a page were possible with Netscape 1.1. Oftentimes, a graphic designer would note that most of the text on a page was hyperlinks and therefore just make all the text black (text=#000000, link=#000000, vlink=#000000). Alternatively, he or she would choose a funky color for a background and then three more funky colors for text,link, and visited link. Either way, users have no way of knowing what is a hyperlink and what isn't. Oftentimes, designers get bored and change these colors even within a site.

Frames are probably the worst Netscape innovation yet. The graphic designer has no idea what size or shape screen you have, yet he is blithely chopping it up. Screen space is any user's most precious resource and now most of it is wasted with ads, navigation "aids", and other items extraneous to the document that he clicked on. What's worse, when the user decides he wants to undo his last mouse click and clicks on the "Back" button, he finds that he has actually undone hundreds of mouse clicks and is out of the framed site altogether (Netscape would tell you that he could have clicked the mouse inside the document he was reading and then typed ALT-<left arrow>; obviously). In the bad old days, any Web site that brought up scroll bars could be scrolled down with a press of the space bar. With frames, even if there is only one scroll bar on screen, the space key does nothing until one clicks the mouse in the subwindow that owns the scroll bar.

I'm not saying that there isn't a place in this world for pretty Web sites. Nor even that frames cannot sometimes be useful. However, the prettiness and utility of frames must be weighed against the cold shock of unfamiliar user interface that will greet the user. This is very seldom done and that's a shame. The only solution is to patch your Netscape browser to forget about frames.

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Reader's Comments

Having started off my HTML career with "Killer Web Sites" - I was all for frames, bells, whistles, etc. Although I am now a "content convert" and agree fully with Mr Greenspun's views on intrusive and useless graphics, I find frames extremely useful in setting up an easily navigable website which can be updated by someone with little or no web design experience and yet maintain a corporate masthead and a consistent format.

-- Max Hudson, August 18, 1998
Opera, the alternative browser from Opera Software actually has a nice option to toggle frames on and off. You do this through the:
Preferences > Multimedia > Extensions
and choose whether to enable frames or disable them.

-- DrBug --, January 15, 1999
Take a look at Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox to learn why frames are so bad.

-- Agustin Schapira, March 25, 1999
At one time I felt that frames were the bane of the web - before all of the bars could disapear but now I feel that used correctly they can be a nice way to aid in navigation and yes, contribute to asthetics.

-- Georgia Gibbs, May 7, 1999
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