|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 33||February 2, 1998|
The old saying, "One picture is worth a thousand words," is not necessarily the case in cyberspace. Even with state-of-the-art high-speed modems, it takes more time to download a Web site loaded with graphics than it does to download a text-only site, or one with minimal graphics. So if the primary purpose in creating a Web site is to share information, Internet activists would do well to keep graphics to a minimum, or skip the pictures altogether.
NetAction's Web site contains minimal graphics. The site was created as a volunteer project by Judi Clark, a member of our Advisory Board and president of ManyMedia, a graphics communication and information services consulting business. Unlike some of her Web consultancy peers, Judi advises clients to make "appropriate" use of graphics so that the graphics serve to underscore the site's message.
"Graphics for the sake of using them, so one's site is as "cool" as another's, is rather silly," Judi explained. "Other sites (may) have a different mission, and a different set of users."
I was somewhat skeptical about Judi's advice at first, since graphics provide a lot of visual appeal. But over time, I've learned that Judi's instincts were on the mark.
This issue of NetAction Notes includes examples of activist Web sites with a range of graphic content, so readers can see for themselves what a difference it makes in the site's accessibility.
Earth Vision (http://www.earthvision.net/) is a useful site that makes heavy use of graphics. The site functions as a clearinghouse, allowing environmental activists to exchange information on a range of issues, including sustainable development, environmental policy and advocacy, and eco-friendly education, business, technology, and recreation. The site was designed by the Global Environment & Technology Foundation, a non-profit organization working to solve environmental problems through the use of technology.
Because the graphic content is high, visitors with slower modems have quite a wait while the site is downloaded. It's possible to download the page a little faster with the browser's "image" feature off, but the icons that replace the graphics are so overwhelming that the page is practically unreadable. Judi tells me that it's increasingly not possible these days to view sites with the image feature off.
Some organizations make their high-graphics sites more accessible by creating a separate "text only" site. This approach was used by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), which recently revamped its site to highlight the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision. The NARAL site (http://www.naral.org/) makes heavy use of graphics.)
Setting up a "text only" alternative is definitely a compromise, however, since it requires duplication of all the work involved in setting up the site. Since this also means extra costs if you're paying for site development, Judi advises watching the Web site logs to see how much difference the graphics make in use of the site.
Organizations like the Latin American Information Agency (ALAI) are using a similar approach to reach multi-lingual audiences. Like Earth Vision, ALAI is a network (http://www.ecuanex.apc.org/alai/indexeng.html, NOTE: this URL is no longer valid as of 05/23/2001). It serves Latin American and Caribbean social movements by promoting the democratization of communications and providing a clearinghouse for documentary material on human rights and social movements in Latin America. Unlike Earth Vision, ALAI is a low-graphics site that downloads quickly -- in English, with links to versions in Spanish and French.
There are several advantages to building a Web site with little or no graphics content:
Graphics may offer visual interest, but they take up space that could otherwise be used for information. With a text-only layout, its possible to store more information on the site. This is particularly helpful to organizations with limited resources to pay for Web hosting services.
In some cases, Web sites with little or no graphics content are easier to create. So it may be possible to create and maintain a text-only site with the help of volunteers, or existing staff, who have little experience in Web site development. In contrast, creating and maintaining a site with lots of graphics content may require paid help from a Web development consultant. And every dollar spent on a consultant is one less dollar available to support the organization's mission. Even organizations with strong financial resources should think carefully about whether this is the best use of those resources. The flip side of this, as Judi points, out, is that good designers can use more tools, and will know how to get around any limitations imposed by their tools.
Many Internet users are surfing the Web with older versions of browsers. Java applications, video streaming, and other "bells and whistles" are wasted on viewers using older browsers. (And if you've paid a consultant to develop a site with such features, that means the dollars are being wasted!) More of your site will be accessible to more people if the graphics content is minimized.
Sites with heavy graphics can take a minute or more to download with an older, slower-speed modem. Some potential visitors will move on to another link if the site doesn't download right away. Since there is rarely any delay in downloading a text-only site, there is less risk that a potential visitor will give up before the transmission is completed.
Jakob Nielsen, a usability expert at Sun Microsystems, Inc., has information on low-graphics sites at http://www.useit.com/about/nographics.html.
Other useful items on his site include:
(Much thanks to Judi Clark for contributing to this issue of NetAction Notes.)
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