A friend recently wrote to me regarding an issue with Web site layout. Of course, I’ve dealt with Web design issues in a number of my books—most notably C# Design and Development and Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements. If you look at most Web sites today, they all have three serious problems:
- The line length is too long—forcing the eye to work extra hard to read the material because the eye loses track of the line and actually making it tiresome to review the material.
- The page contains too much material, which makes it tiresome for anyone working with a screen reader to listen to all the material before finding the one bit of information actually required from the site.
- The use of vertical scrolling is contrary to the historical use of horizontal scrolling. If you look at how people worked with scrolling in ages past, it was always horizontal, making it easier to read the material.
She even sent me two articles that describe the problem in greater detail. The first article is entitled, “Are Horizontal Website Layouts the Wave of the Future?” and points out that research shows that most people don’t even read the excess material on a Web site. If nothing else, the strong research showing that my efforts are being wasted would tend to make me rethink my design. The second article is entitled, “Horizontalism and Readability” and it places more emphasis on the historical approach to horizontal layout, rather than focus on modern research. I tend to prefer tested approaches to presenting information when I can get them (new ideas are fine for someone else to test).
Of course, a Web site is not the same as printed material. Trying to equate the two could very well be a mistake. Here is my take on how the mediums differ:
- The method of presentation differs. You’re not relying on paper, you’re using a video screen of some sort and that does make a difference in how the reader perceives the material.
- The environment differs. I don’t usually sit in my easy chair next to the fire when I read materials online. I’m normally in my office in a formal work environment.
- The approach to reading differs. My paper reading environment is relaxed and long term. It’s nothing for me to spend an entire day reading a good book. My online reading is more like a sprint—I find what I need quickly and never read for more than a half hour at a time.
- The technology differs. When I read a book, I get print in one size. So, if the print is less than appealing or causes eye fatigue, I’m just stuck with it. My browser allows me to change the font size a Web site uses so I can make the print eye friendly. In fact, I can even use a CSS file to change the typeface and other features for some Web sites.
The obvious question now is whether the two environments differ enough that considerations normally made for paper don’t apply to Web sites. My thought is that creating Web sites with smaller amounts of material, eye friendly design, and shorter columns are all great ideas, but I’m not completely sold on the idea of horizontal scrolling. What is your take on this idea. Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.