This document is intended for a dual audience:
association decision makers who are responsible for determining
the directions of an association's online presence and
association software developers who need an overview of the
technologies that are used in developing web sites. It does not
assume that the reader possesses any particular technical
background. As such it necessarily covers a number of web
There is an emphasis on some problems that are of
special importance to developing web sites for associations.
More specifically, it is intended for associations with a
significant membership or donor base relative to the staff size.
If there is an emphasis, it would be on problems specific to
professional associations because that is where most of my
experience is. Though much of the content is applicable to any
web site, very little of the association specific content
will have much applicability to trade associations with small
numbers of corporate members which pay high membership fees.
To the extent that geography matters,
it assumes the reader and their association are located in the
United States of America and is written for this audience.
It does not cover any problems related to making a web site
available to an international audience.
Most of the document is devoted to examining
the functional role of the various components of a web site and
the pros and cons of various choices and their contexts. A
variety of issues that have no right or wrong answer but on which
decisions must be made are addressed.
This document is based on several premises.
First and foremost a web site is a computer application system
and often a very large and complex one. A web site is the first
computer system that an organization builds primarily for the
direct use by members, customers or the public rather than staff and as such
may be the most important system built by an organization. It will
surely be the most visible.
This document does not deal with any issues specific to an
intranet but does frequently deal with a web site as an extranet.
These terms are defined in Types of
Networks in The Basics section.
A web site is a client server system delivered primarily via
modems to an increasingly diverse and largely
uncontrollable client population. A web site must be considered
from the perspective of graphical user interface design. Web
sites undergo continuous change and growth but this is normally
of an evolutionary rather than revolutionary nature.
The author has a clear point of view on
several important topics. He believes that the widely used
metaphor that describes the web as
"electronic publishing" is one
of the most inaccurate and misleading notions ever to gain
widespread acceptance. If it ever had any applicability, it was
obsolete by 1997 when dynamic web content was becoming common
Because the author firmly believes that every web site is
first and foremost a computer application system even when the
primary purpose of the site is the delivery of information in
electronic form, it should be developed like any other software
system. Therefore this document covers some of the basics of the
software development life cycle.
Regarding the "debate" between those who
believe the focus of web page design deals with structure versus
those who believe it deals with appearance, the author believes
there is no debate. Though there is likely to be some time in the
future where high speed connectivity can be taken for granted and
esthetic issues can be given a much greater importance, this time
is years, perhaps many years, away. The growing diversity of
devices accessing the Internet and especially web sites may
preclude ever being able to approach web site design as primarily
a visual design problem.
Those who think they can design a web
site based on a print or television oriented, graphic design
background should withdraw from the web development field and
return to what they know. Web site design and construction
is properly the province of computer professionals who have the relevant
training and experience. Where web sites require the type of graphic
content typically provided by graphics design professionals, it should
be fit into a framework provided by computer professionals.
Most mistakes made in designing web
sites that are the result of a deliberate decision, are a result
of confusion caused by the "electronic publishing" metaphor.
Nothing here is meant to suggest that web sites should be ugly or
that design does not matter. Rather, the design that matters is
graphical user interface design. The reasons for these beliefs
are examined in detail at the beginning of the section, "The Web
Site As a Software System."
The author does not particularly like these
conclusions and is not unaware of esthetic issues. Prior to a
seventeen year career as computer professional that has included
all phases of software analysis, design and development, the
author was a professional freelance illustrator with a Summa Cum
Laude Commercial Arts degree, and an award winning academic art
training past that includes nearly four years of college level
fine and commercial arts courses. These conclusions regarding
the relative importance of esthetic versus functional issues are
simply an acknowledgment of the diversity of client systems and
the current and near future reality of Internet connections,
especially modem connections, and the simple fact that computer
users don't like to wait for their computer.
Throughout this document when "web site
design" is used, the actual appearance of web pages is only a
small part of what is meant. Because the author understands a
web site as a computer application system, the design of a web
site includes the visual appearance, the organization and
structure of site navigation aids, the development languages and
tools used to create dynamic content, programming and style
standards, the directory structure and naming standards, the
methods used to maintain and update the site and everything else
that is planned systematically for the entire site. Almost the
only thing that it does not include is the individual page
content. A fundamental problem with many web sites is that there
is no design for significant components of the site.
Some of characteristics that differentiate
associations from other organizations have an impact on web site
design. While associations must maintain a revenue stream to
remain in business they are typically not driven by a profit
motive. Besides their publicly defined mission, associations are
often subject to volatile political agendas of their
Associations are typically diverse and
complicated organizations when compared to commercial
organizations of similar staff size.
Associations may have an
audience that is quite different than the general web surfing
public, especially where the association's web site is used to
deliver member benefits in private member only areas. The
security needs of an association web site may be especially
complex when the site is used to deliver benefits that may depend
on different membership levels, chapters, sections, special
interest groups or other sub divisions within the association.
A core function in many associations is to facilitate communication
between members. These communications may need to be kept private from
the public. At a minimum the member only communication facilities
need to be restricted to current dues paying members. Access to some
or all member communication areas
may also depend on specific membership criteria.
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