Web sites are one of the greatest revolutions of the information age; but is their purpose being undermined by bad design?
I recently logged on to Friends Reunited to see exactly what had happened to all those people I hadn't given a second thought to since leaving school. To my surprise, almost everyone who'd been heading for careers in subjects like accounting, physics, biology and pure maths had become web designers. It was the same classmates that had cared nothing for design subjects who'd transformed themselves into digital artists working at the cutting edge of information technology. Those who, at one time, would have shivered at the prospect of sketching anything more complex than a stick person, had subsequently been empowered by the wonders of image-manipulation and Flash animation software. Liberated from the restrictions of conventional layout technique, they had found their inner Neville Brodie and somehow gained the confidence to become masters of their own multimedia empires.
At first I was impressed by their success, but pretty soon I began to make a few connections. For a start, it occurred to me that these were possibly the same cretins who were responsible for the growing trend in Flash-heavy web sites that had turned what was once the fastest way to gather information into the fastest way to crash a computer.
If, like me, you're interested in music technology, many's the time you'll visit a manufacturer's web site to find out product information, view a few images, read and compare some specs, and, if all is satisfactory, buy something. Unfortunately, such simple requirements are becoming hard to satisfy.
A typical example of what happens more and more when I surf the web is that I log onto a website, confident that, through the power of global networking, I'll be able to surf effortlessly to a manufacturer's site armed with nothing more than the correct address. I take with me the expectation that within a matter of seconds I'll be able to gather the relevant up-to-date product information and, on the basis of that data, make good my purchasing decisions. But my heart sinks as my browser stalls, the timer spins, and a message tells me that one percent of so many 'K' has loaded. My worst fears are realised: a revolving banner begins its passage across the screen, shortly followed by a collection of dancing bears, swimming fish, and an irritating and unnecessary blast of rock music that proves difficult to turn off.
I try to find a useful link hidden within the page, but each thing I hover the mouse pointer over makes a sound like a pool ball being potted and turns, quite inexplicably, into a pineapple. Eventually I click on a link that starts loading a new page, but this too is slowed, almost to a halt, by Morris-dancing badgers choreographed to the music of ABBA. Suddenly, after waiting for two minutes, the link to the info I want loads; but naturally the link is broken. In fact, all the links to product information are broken, which I discover just as a Flash animation crashes my computer.
As I curse the site and swear to take my revenge on the new brat pack of web designers, my eyes glaze over and I begin to dream of a world where web pages contain clear links to useful, sales-bollocks-free information and practical, useful pictures that don't move or sing. So I ask the question, what makes people design sites like this? I can only conclude that it is just people showing off their new toys, trying to outdo one another and strutting their stuff on the World Wide Web.
It's the equivalent of the movie trailer for a film where a booming voice describes 'the most exciting ride of your life', while space ships roar at 150dB, passing through a 5.1 speaker array accompanied by exploding bombs, slamming doors and fists cracking -- all in the loudest and most unrealistic way imaginable. Of course, films like that have no story, in the same way that a web site with over-the-top Flash often gives you no information.
Compared to having to visit the local library and leaf through shelves of books, the Web is still fantastic and it's a huge step forward in terms of making information available. But now the technology's here, it would be a terrible shame if careless people clog it up with badly designed, poorly programmed sites. I fear that any increase in bandwidth within the telecommunications network will, rather than speeding up the service, be taken up by even more Flash. And quite apart from the complete lack of good taste, it is bad business sense to have something that just doesn't perform its basic tasks because the web designers are too busy showing off. I wonder how many people have, for example, bought a microphone from one manufacturer rather than another, just because their site was more informative and faster.
So let's have more web pages designed by programmers who write their code properly, only resorting to Flash where absolutely necessary. And to all those distributors, manufacturers and retailers thinking of getting the latest web design company to jazz up their site with loads of Flash: think again. Anyone can be a web site designer these days, but, as with most things in life, there are only a few who are any good.
Tom Flint has been a full-time member of staff at SOS for over five years. When he isn't cycling up French mountains, he divides his time between making music in his home studio and moaning about web sites and numerous other subject matters.