Back to information

Originally published in Personal Computer World, December 1998. Yes, a very long time ago – but some of the sentiments here probably still ought to be waved at certain web designers.

Back to Information

Readers of a certain age might remember Darlene Love, the Ronettes and other bands produced by Phil Spector. in which case you might remember his trademark production technique – the “Amazing wall of sound”. True afficionados of the era may even recall badges proclaiming “Back to mono”. With pressure mounting on us to switch to digital broadcasting, perhaps it is only a matter of time before we start to sport badges labelled “Back to analogue” or “Keep your hands off my wireless”.

Switching off

There is a serious point to all this. On one hand, stereo. digital broadcasting and similar advances are all things we have to get used to. On the other hand, sometimes we think it’s harder than it really is to do without them. Try switching off the stereo on your radio or listening to an AM radio station, and it’s really not so bad after all. The same cannot necessarily be said of the internet; while there is a certain ring to “Back to V.32” it would be accompanied by a fourfold increase in your phone bill, too. And that wouldn’t be progress of any kind.

It’s not, of course, the users of the internet who need to be donning Spector-esque badges. With the slow connections most people have, the problems arise at the other end when the server tries to send you a huge file for an obscure plug-in and you end up spending ages just finding a contact number from a company web site.

There is a lot to be said for simplification. I’m not recommending badges that read “Back to Mosaic” for web browsers, but it would make life so much easier if designers thought about other things besides how many graphics they can bill their client for. How many times have you visited a site, only to be greeted by a page that reads “Click here for fast version… here for slow version” or something similar? Do we really need it? Something has gone slightly wrong when people are designing web sites that begin with an apology and a link to a different version, so that the majority of home users will be able to access it at a reasonable speed. Of course, there’s a place for features and goodies on web sites. But there is a place for information, too. Try visiting the Symantec web site at and see if you can track down information about Norton Utilities for Macintosh. You might almost imagine they no longer make the product. And, if you think the problem is bad for casual users wanting to find information, think about those who have to rely on other technologies to help them navigate (for instance, people with poor sight). Try turning off the images on a web site or firing up a copy of Lynx, and see how easy it is to find your way through a page that just reads “image image image”. Some of these problems are being addressed. There are new standards being set for HTML all the time and the latest revisions make it mandatory to include ALT tags to specify information about an image. There will still be bad pages out there, but it’s a start as is the initiative by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to make the web more accessable to people with disabilities.

Time for action

Initiatives from the likes of W3C are not enough, though. When you visit a web site and cannot quickly find what you want, don’t just sigh and carry on clicking. Click the link for the webmaster and tell them. When you’re bombarded with multimedia just because you want to find out how to complain about something you have bought, or choose the “Text only” version of a site and find it’s three months out of date, then it is time to make a fuss. Multimedia and all those other features can make a difference to the internet. Just like multi-channel digital television. The two have something else in common: many people are telling us that they are good for their own sake. Anyone for a “Back to Information” badge?

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