BRIEFLY: Good broadband design isn't just about lobbing in a load of multimedia - we
discuss the pros and cons of creating a high content site.
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Designing for broadband
A guide for designers considering a broadband site
Mike Slocombe for Internet Magazine, May 2004
Whether you decide to go for broadband or not is a mighty important decision - the success of your site could depend on it!
Although it's easy to be seduced by the prospect of all those glittery multimedia baubles making your homepage sparkle, it may not be what your visitors want to see.
Finding the appropriate tone, style and presentation for your site is absolutely essential and should be researched thoroughly before you hungrily dig into your Big Box of Flashing Widgets.
It's also important to remember that creating a broadband site doesn't just mean foisting a load of heavy files and whirring animations onto your homepage - it's about offering a different kind of experience to those on dial-up connections and, above all, providing the kind of rich content that users can't get elsewhere.
And content is what broadband is all about. The only problem is that those super fast connections eat it up faster than Billy Bunter in a lardy pie-eating competition.
So before you embark on your multimedia extravaganza make sure you're able to provide enough content to keep your broadband-gorging surfers happy.
Broadband content can come in all shapes and sizes: streaming video, audio streams, interactive games, webcams, news updates etc, but they've all got one thing in common: creating and updating the stuff is a time consuming and expensive business, requiring specialist skills and a lot of hard work.
If you can't deliver this kind of content to your site, perhaps you should reconsider before you start telling the world about your funky broadband-tastic site (and don't go thinking you can fob people off with a rubbish 'broadband portal' affair - it won't impress anyone!).
How much content should I cram in?
For designers used to spending long hours squeezing web pages down to itty-bitty, modem-friendly chunks, plugging into broadband is like experiencing a triple tequila slammer after a lifetime of dandelion and burdock.
Instead of seeing your creations spluttering into life like a one-legged, asthmatic climbing a slippery hill, your pages will sprint down the wire like Colin Jackson on amyl - and on big-budget multimedia sites, things get even better!
Kiss goodbye to creaky, crappy old animated GIFs and plonky MIDI files and say 'bonjour' to a sexy spread of streamed audio and video, all running smoother than the sweat down Iain Duncan Smith's baldy bonce.
After feasting your eyes on this multimedia treat, your own site starts to look deeply, deeply boring.
Surely the only way you can compete is to break out the ten-ton multimedia files and get your homepage buzzing like an amphetamine-fuelled fridge?
But, woowargh! Hold on there, boy!
Although there's no denying that all that eye candy can deliver one hell of a pixel rush, there are some important things to bear in mind - like your visitors!
Just because people can access sites faster, that doesn't necessarily mean they want a shedload of whirrs, clicks and spinning wotsits to accompany their every mouse click.
And just because you've got the extra bandwidth, that's no excuse to burden every page with pointless heavy animations and clunky graphics.
The rules of good design apply no matter how fast the connection speed is, and responsible designers should make every effort to ensure that pages download as quickly as possible and only use multimedia where absolutely necessary.
Just because something wriggles, bounces, animates or makes an amusing sound, don't expect your visitors to find it inherently interesting.
Ultimately, what's important is finding the appropriate presentation for the content and theme of a site, taking into account the target audience and the purpose of the site.
What do I need to create broadband content?
The hugely increased demands of broadband authoring means that very few individual designers are going to have all the necessary skills or resources to create and manage broadband content
Although anyone with a head full of HTML, a graphics editor and a copy of Notepad can still produce a functional website, the hungry, hyperactive world of multimedia demands more - much more!
After all, it's not unusual for a broadband project to demand proficiency in sound and video editing and a good knowledge of Flash, Director, HTML and database programming - all of which is a mighty tall order for any individual keen to maintain a social life.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't give it a go, with a little help from your friends. There's a whole new community of freelancers, programmers, Flash designers and coders who have sprung up to fill in these skill gaps, and there's no reason why such a set up couldn't compete with the bigger agencies,
Sadly, this flexible, ad hoc approach doesn't seem to impress the major league clients right now, who inevitably award big budget broadband contracts to the likes of 'EnormoAgency.com' rather than the equally capable 'Kevin and his bunch of freelance chums'.
But all that's likely to change: as broadband expands across the UK and the anticipated growth of web-based TV services becomes a reality, such skills will be in high demand.
More info: Multimedia and the web:
Should my own site be broadband?
Before you start creating your very own multimedia 'Ben Hur' of a homepage, ask yourself a few questions:
Will you have enough content?
Will you have the resources to run and update the site?
Will your broadband content offer any extra value to visitors?
And what's going to happen to those who haven't got a broadband connection?
In other words, is all that extra work really going to make much difference and will all those extra bells and whistles be appropriate to what the site's about?
For example, if you're creating a page about your local scout troupe, perhaps you might reconsider the wisdom of including a streaming death metal soundtrack, but if the site is about your scout-eating death metal band, a satanic soundtrack might be ideal!
More seriously, a broadband-optimised site could provide the perfect showcase for designers, film-makers, artists etc, with the extra bandwidth giving plenty of scope to wow prospective clients with their multimedia skills.
But even the 'umble hobby homepage can benefit from a light sprinkling of broadband content with fast connections allowing authors to share their, err, 'fascinating' home videos with the world and set up compelling webcams of the view from 3a, Acacia Gardens.
But offering any kind of broadband content comes with an industrial sized caveat: all those chunky multimedia files are going to eat into your web server's bandwidth allowance and you may find your site being unceremoniously closed down or - worst of all - be hit with a thumping great fine for exceeding your bandwidth allowance.
More info: Bandwidth explained
Should I build a broadband site for my clients?
As broadband finally makes inroads into the UK, some designers are finding it hard what to recommend to clients.
Should they suggest that clients stick with 'narrowband' content and reach out to the maximum amount of customers (while running the risk of looking outdated) or do they insist that they go for a full multimedia onslaught (and possibly lose customers still dialling up on cranky connections)?
It's not much point asking the client, of course - mention multimedia, and they'll inevitably glaze over and point you in the direction of some multi-million pound, award-winning extravaganza and demand the same for their Metal Widget Manufacturing Company.
Like most things, simplicity is always the best policy when it comes to websites - there's no point foisting a budget-sapping all-singing Flash interface on the home page if customers can't work out how to use it!
When implemented correctly, multimedia content can add real value to a website and significantly enhance a customer's experience.
Well designed interactive interfaces, 3D walkthroughs and relevant audio/video footage can all help companies persuade their customers to part with their cash, so investing in a broadband site could prove a lucrative strategy.
Get it wrong though, and they'll be lumbered with a site that's both expensive to maintain and difficult to update.
Accessibility/ designing for all users
In all the excitement of creating this brave new broadband world, it's easy to forget those surfers still battling with aged modems or those with accessibility issues.
Although broadband sites are, by definition, a predominantly visual medium, with a little effort you can ensure wider accessibility by including simple, text-only versions of the site's key content.
Be sure to add ALT text attributes for your images and include captions and/or transcripts for any important audio and video content on the site.
But if all that sounds like too much effort, bear in mind that ignoring accessibility issues may come back to haunt you later: recent legislation insists that non-text content be rendered in an alternate format that is accessible to disabled users.
Find out more about web accessibility and multimedia here:
Royal National Institute of the Blind web guide
Web Style Guide: Accessibility
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