About the December 2003 Web Site Redesign

Author and Page information

  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Created Wednesday, December 31, 2003

At the end of December 2003, the global issues web site was relaunched with a new design.

The layout is similar to the old style, and visually, in most cases it might not actually look different in any other significant way.

What you might notice is that:

  • The color scheme has changed
  • The fonts are different
  • The navigation looks slightly different, visually
  • The navigation appears on the screen after the main text has loaded

And yet, most of the rest looks the same (unless you are using an old browser, such as Netscape 4, in which case the page looks a lot simpler). So why the big deal?

On this page:

  1. Why The Redesign?
  2. Benefits of the Redesign
    1. Richer Features
    2. Accessibility for those with visual and hearing impairments
    3. Slightly Reduced Page Size
    4. Standards Compliant
    5. Standards Help Reduce Costs
    6. Why Now?
    7. But There is Still a Lot More to do
  3. Technical Issues
    1. Font, Text and Web Site Sizes on Different Screens
    2. Why Do I Have A Horizontal Scroll Bar?
    3. Why Does The Navigation Appear After a Long Delay?
    4. I am using Netscape 4. Why is it so basic looking now?
  4. More Information

Why The Redesign?

Even if on most web browsers the changes here look to be cosmetic only, behind the scenes there has been considerable change.

Ever since near the beginning of the site in 1998 and 1999, I have written my own web server software to help easily maintain the siteWhat this means is that I use this software to help dynamically create all the parts of the web page that the reader requests through their web browser. This way, I don't have to change some 400 pages each time I want to make a subtle change throughout the site or large parts of the site.

However, since then, web technologies have moved on. These technologies include web browsing technologies (also known as client side), software tools to develop web sites, and technologies employed on the web server (also known as server side). The area of change I am primarily concerned with here is the client side and how I create the output that you see.

I felt it was about time to take advantage of some of these changes, especially given some of the practical benefits that should, in theory, be realized.

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Benefits of the Redesign

What would I get for making up-to-date changes?

Standards that dictate how browsers should interpret the HTML (the language or markup that web pages are written in) have improved considerably. There is a single standards body, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that defines these standards. Browsers that support these standards confer more benefits for developers, and hopefully, users!

Quoting from the Web Standards Project, an organization fighting for more standards to ensure simple and affordable access to web technologies for everybody,

The World Wide Web Consortium, along with other groups and standards bodies, has established technologies for creating and interpreting web-based content. These technologies, which we call web standards, are carefully designed to deliver the greatest benefits to the greatest number of web users while ensuring the long-term viability of any document published on the Web.

Designing and building with these standards simplifies and lowers the cost of production, while delivering sites that are accessible to more people and more types of Internet devices. Sites developed along these lines will continue to function correctly as traditional desktop browsers evolve, and as new Internet devices come to market.

WaSP: Fighting for Standards, The Web Standards Project

Unfortunately, it would seem that there are a lot of major web sites out there that do not conform to such standards. This site used to use technologies that were defined by the W3C, but not in the most optimal way. Hence, for this site, a redesign that moves closer towards adopting stricter web standards will allow the potential for

  • Richer features
  • More facilities for those with visual or hearing impairments
  • Reduction of the size of each page to download
  • More adaptable for the future
  • Reduced costs

I will try to explain some of these below:

Richer Features

As new internet devices emerge, and as browser technologies improve, as long as they implement the standards, newer features can be taken advantage of on this site. The nature of this site is not really such that there will be any dazzling visual effects, but there are already many areas where I can provide more context and help for the reader. Over time, I hope it will be easier to add such new features.

Accessibility for those with visual and hearing impairments

One of my hopes for this web site is that it will reach a wide audience. Already, I am very happy with the numbers. As of the end of December 2003, the site's usage was peaking at some 7,000 to 7,500 visitors per day (or about 12,000 to 25,000 page views per day. Side NoteI ignore hits, which would be even higher. Hits include requests for all the images and other bits and pieces that make up the page.)

The other hope is that pro-democracy concerns are bought to the fore, to highlight social injustices, etc. In the spirit of democracy then, making the information here available to as many people as possible would be ideal. In that context, the site redesign allows me to make hopefully important steps into making this site more accessible to people with visual and hearing impairments. Side NoteSome have asked why I don't have forums on the site, as that would be a huge step in terms of democracy being demonstrated on this site itself. The short-term answer is that at this point I just don't have the time to either write software to support this or look into third party solutions. I work on this site spare time, on my own, and out of pocket, so am quite limited. If I were to be able to get something going, I am not sure how much time I can devote to it, or participate myself. Because the site is about political issues, which will no doubt arise strong feelings in people, I don't want a forum to become a forum for abuse and hatred, though at the same time, in the interest of free speech, I would rather not want to police the site either. In short then, I hope one day I can have a forum on this site, but I will need time to think about this properly.

Furthermore, it is a human right for all to be able to access information, so accessibility is more than just a nice feature.

Behind the scenes, the site's use of HTML (the markup language for web pages) has been improved and structured more appropriately.

  • This should allow utility software to better understand and explain the different parts of the site to the end-user.
  • For example, blind people may have software to read web pages to them.
  • Those whose eyesight is poor may have pages magnified for easier reading and may disable or override the default styles the web site provides.
  • The more accurately the HTML structure reflects the structure of a page, the more accessible the site can be.

The analogy I often think of is when using a word processor, such as Microsoft Word or Open Office.

  • They allow you to make a heading quickly.
  • It is common for people to do this by simply marking some text as bold and increasing its font size.
  • However, the most appropriate and structurally correct way to do this would be to use the predefined styles such as Heading 1, in this example.
  • If you want to change the appearance of this heading style, you use style editors for the word processor.

In the same way, web technologies such as HTML define the structure, while CSS allows the creation and maintenance of styles. Doing so, allows the site to be meaningful for those who have special needs when using the web.

Standards should also make it more accessible to search engines, because appropriate use of structure gives appropriate weight to things like headings and sub-headings. Time will tell if this is the case for this web site...!

Old browsers are more likely to interpret basic, well-structured HTML even if it doesn't look aesthetically appealing. That is, it will at least function. Web developers have often struggled with Netscape 4.x in particular for crashing or partly rendering a page when there has been a mistake in the HTML or the HTML being used gets too complex. Keeping to simpler HTML (and using CSS for the visual presentation) allows more browsers to understand the site.

Slightly Reduced Page Size

Poor adherence to standards and low quality software products to produce web pages have contributed to many web pages having more HTML than necessary. This leads to bloated pages, which is bad on at least two accounts:

  • The page takes longer to download for the end user.
  • There is increased cost for the individual, company or organization to have the web site hosted. For example,
    • More bandwidth may be required to serve these larger files. This can often mean more cost to the web hosting company.
    • Sometimes, additional servers may be required to handle the load, which also adds to the cost.

This web site's HTML structure in the past was not too bad, in my opinion, although in a few places there was unnecessary HTML markup leading to unnecessary bloat. In other cases, there was less than optimal use of other technologies, such as Cascading Stylesheets (CSS), which allow the style of the web pages to be defined. Such cleaning up has allowed the final HTML to be a bit more streamlined.

The Home Page has perhaps seen the most improvement in this respect. Before, the home page used to be about 12 to 12.5K in size. This has been reduced to about 8 to 8.5K -- saving roughly one third of the page size. This should imply a quicker download time.

However, for many other pages within the site, there is a lot of content; so unfortunately, the saving isn't that large, though there is some.

(Cost savings are mentioned further below.)

Standards Compliant

Using HTML and other web technologies in the most appropriate way that adheres to the standards will also mean that as the technologies change in the future, the web site should still function correctly in newer web browsers. In addition, should I need to make major changes, in theory it should be more easily possible, if needed. This is because the standards will always need to be supported by web browsers and other internet applications that claim to be standards compliant for reading web pages.

Note though, the web site isn't fully standards compliant in all pages yet. There are over 450 pages on the site, and it will still take me a long time to go through all the pages to ensure that each one is compliant. However, this redesign has accomplished a large percentage of the work already.

Standards Help Reduce Costs

In terms of saving raw dollars, I don't personally save much. While the site is quite popular for these types of issues, it is not so large that bandwidth costs are of concern at this time. Other on-going costs remain. Yet, costs can implying at least two things: time, as well as money.

Without standards adherence, web developers have in the past (and continue to do so) write software twice or more.

  • In essence they have to write software that follows the rules of If the browser is Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 or newer, then show all these features. Else, if it is Netscape 4 or older, show just a minimal set of features and so on.
  • This approach, although still unfortunately very common, doesn't cater for newer emerging browsers that some could even argue as being technically more superior to the dominant Microsoft Internet Explorer.
  • That is, this approach doesn't scale very well.
  • For businesses, people would have to plan projects and budgets to support extra browsers, which is costly.
  • Alternatively users would have to make do with limited functionality even if their web browser is feature rich, or be redirected to an alternative site, which is another cost.

Browsers such as Mozilla (or the leaner Firebird) on which Netscape 7 is based, and Opera, amongst various others, offer richer standards support than Internet Explorer, as well as many useful browsing features.

In working on this redesign, some of my opinions about