Website Design

For Information Technology Professionals

Tom Worthington FACS

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, the Australian National University, and
Director, Tomw Communications Pty Ltd, Canberra

For Internet, Intranet, and Document Systems (COMP3400/COMP6340), May 2001 (Module M3)

Note: New Version now available



The World Wide Web (Web) is a computer system providing a network of information resources, with a uniform naming scheme for locating resources, protocols for accessing them and hypertext navigation among the resources. Information technology professionals have decades of experience in developing and applying computer and telecommunications technology to processing, presenting and managing data. That experience can be applied to the web. No one profession has a monopoly on the design of web sites. Graphic design, library science, journalism, usability engineering and marketing fields have a role in the design of material for the world wide web. However, as web sites become larger, more complex and more important to the community, IT professionals are uniquely placed to provide a deep understanding of how to build such systems well.

The Discipline of Web Site Design

The information architect of a large, complex web site should be two things: someone who can think as an outsider and be sensitive to the needs of the site's users, and at the same time is enough of an insider to understand the site's sponsoring organization, its mission, goals, content, audiences, and inner workings. In terms of disciplinary background, the information architect should combine the generalist's ability to understand the perspectives of other disciplines with specialized skills in visualizing, organizing, and labeling information.Rosenfeld & Morville (1998)

Rosenfeld & Morville (1998) argue that information architecture is a new field, not clearly part of an existing discipline.The Australian Computer Society defines Information Technology as: "the development and application of computers and communications-based technologies for processing, presenting and managing data and information" (ACS 1997).

Thinking about how a computer and telecommunications based information system can help an organisation is part of the core body of knowledge for Information Technology professionals. Looking at the big picture view of the organization, identifying duplicated processes and scheduling projects is what IT people do. However after being involved in pioneering many early web sites, IT professionals have tended to be relegated to a technical support role in web site development. This is starting to cause problems as the scale of web sites and their increasing functionality exceed the skills of graphic designers, librarians, journalists and marketers.

What is the World Wide Web?

There is no formal definition of what the World Wide Web (Web) is. However, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which develops web specifications, describes it as:

... a network of information resources. The Web relies on three mechanisms to make these resources readily available to the widest possible audience:

  1. A uniform naming scheme for locating resources on the Web (e.g., URIs).
  2. Protocols, for access to named resources over the Web (e.g., HTTP).
  3. Hypertext, for easy navigation among resources (e.g., HTML).

W3C (1999)

The web can be summarized as:

Web Mechanisms
Locating uniform naming scheme URI
Accessing Protocols HTTP
Navigating Hypertext HTML

The web was built on the foundation of the pre-existing Internet, which was built on pre-existing information technologies. Many of the challenges which look new to web site developers were faced by IT developers decades before the Internet or the web existed. What are those challenges and how can that experience help now with the web?

The ACS Core Body of Knowledge for Information Technology Professionals

To make the discussion of the disciplines for web site design more concrete, the Australian Computer Society's Core Body of Knowledge for Information Technology Professionals(ACS 1997) will be used. Similar work by other professional IT associations, such as BCS and ACM, will be discussed.

Areas of Knowledge

  1. Computer Organisation and Architecture
  2. Conceptual Modelling
  3. Database Management
  4. Data Communications and Networks
  5. Data Structures and Algorithms
  6. Discrete Mathematics
  7. Ethics/Social Implications/Professional Practice
  8. Interpersonal Communications
  9. Program Design and Implementation
  10. Project Management and Quality assurance
  11. Information Security
  12. Software Engineering and Methodologies
  13. Systems Analysis and Design
  14. Systems Software

Selected areas will be examined in detail.

The major challenge in IT is to discover what the client wants, what might achieve that need, to reliably build a system to meet the need and then ensure the system operates into the future.Web sites are just the latest form of IT system to be designed to meet the needs. As they become larger and more complex they take on more of the characteristics of traditional IT systems and the methodologies developed can be applied. Some issues:

Elements of Web Site Design

The recommended book (Rosenfeld & Morville 1998) comes from the library studies discipline and attempts to apply those disciplines to web site design . Chapters referenced:

Construction of information technology systems, including large web sites are a battle to handle complexity, uncertainty and change. Software Engineering involves the design of large systems which can have 100,000 lines of code, 20 people and take years to build (Petersen 2001). Large web sites have a similar level of complexity. As with program code, web sites need to be reliable, reusable and modifiable. However, unlike software engineering few specific methodologies have been developed to deal with these issues. IT professionals will need to adapt techniques developed for other parts of the discipline, as required, to fill the gap until specific tools are developed.

Introduction to Information Architecture

The Role of the Information Architect

Who Should Be the Information Architect?

The designers of web sites typically have backgrounds in graphic design, library studies, journalism marketing or computer science. Web design has not been existence long enough to create its own discipline and each designer beings their own biases as to what is needed to the job. An essential element is to recognize the need for other people to contribute to the design.

Collaboration and Communication

Small web sites can be designed by one individual. Large sites take on the character of the production of a publication or of an IT system and require a team of people using project management techniques, formal project documentation and communication.

See: Chapter 2 of Rosenfeld & Morville (1998)

Organizing Information

Organizational Challenges

Information technology is making the management of information a common corporate responsibility. Several information disciplines, including IT professionals, journalists, librarians and record managers are having their traditional separate domains challenged. Staff with a personal computer and an internet connection can create and disseminate electronic information. Professionals first reactions are to ignore or eliminate these as unauthorized amieture work, then engage in interdisciplinary debate as to who owns all corporate information. Such activities are of little value to the organisation. The professionals need to demonstrate how their skills can improve on what staff are attempting to do.

Organizing Web Sites and Intranets





See: Chapter 3 of Rosenfeld & Morville (1998)

Designing Navigation Systems

Browser Navigation Features

Commonly used conventions for web navigation have been established by popular browser programs. Some applications, such as micro-browsers embedded in appliances, may justify not using these navigation conventions. Also it is possible to switch off or override some browser controls for some applications, such as public web kiosks. However, for most web site design it should be assumed that the conventions will be worked with.This also assists where additional hardware or software is used to provide access for the disabled.

Building Context

Readers can get lost as to which web site they are in and where they are. The navigation system can provide clues as to where the user is and was. Examples are a navigation bar across all web pages or a fixed menu frame in a multi-frame site. Examples are the fixed top and bottom menus on the the Commonwealth Government Entry Point. and the fixed left frame on the Department of Defence home page.

Remote Navigation Elements

With most web sites based on a paper book model, it is natural to include a title page (or "splash page"), table of contents, a site map (detailed table of contents) and an index. In some designs the site map doubles as a more accessible table of contents. Few sites have an Index, but instead have a search facility. This provides less context for the reader.

EdNA (The Education Network Australia) has a "splash page" which appears for a few seconds before the contents page loads. The site map uses a simple design with headings from the contents page and then one level of details. A confusingly powerful search facility is provided. An index called a "browse map" is provided.

See: Chapter 4 of Rosenfeld & Morville (1998)

Conceptual Design

Brainstorming with White Boards and Flip Chart: Design of web sites, particularly large ones, is a similar collaborative process to the design of other IT systems. While complex automated tools may be used, a lot of the work involves communication within a group of multi-disciplinary people for which simple white boards may make a better tool.
High-Level Architecture Blueprints: No widely accepted modelling or diagramming techniques exist for web site design. IT professionals may be able to adapt Conceptual Modelling methods, such as those used for relational data and Software Engineering Methodologies used for requirements analysis functional and technical specifications process, data and object orientation models.

An example of an attempt to develop web site modelling is WebML (Ceri et al 2000).

See: Chapter 8 of Rosenfeld & Morville (1998)

Production and Operations

While Rosenfeld & Morville (1998) describe design and production techniques similar to those advocated for software development, in pratice these tend to be used with differing levels of enthusiasm, as with software development.

See: Basic interface design from Guidelines for Commonwealth information published in electronic formats

See: Chapter 9 of Rosenfeld & Morville (1998)

Next: Issues in Web Site Design

See also:

This document is Version 3.0 - 16 May 2001:

Comments and corrections to:

Copyright © Tom Worthington 2001.