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Dumbing Down

Dumbing Down

Teacher: Jeffrey Allan

I was recently reading an article about broadband Internet access and how many consumers balk at utilizing these services that currently exist due to the fact that the content which is currently on the Internet really doesn't require much more than the standard 56.6K modem that the normal home PC comes equipped with.

This article actually brought something else to light for me that was in contrast with the actual topic of it, which was the "dumbing down" of content so that it can be accessed easier by mobile professionals over WAP enabled devices such as PDA's and cell phones. Dumbing down of course is the process of making Internet sites that are as compatible as possible across all devices, whether they be standard PC's, PDA's, or services like WebTV. It was also especially relevant given the fact that our South East Asia edition recently ran a review on Nokia's new 7110 model cell phone which allows users to surf the Web using just the standard display on the phone itself. This is different than previously models of cell phones, like Nokia's 9110, which could only retrieve e-mail and used a pseudo PDA type interface contained inside of the phone's casing.

As a Web developer, when I'm developing a site, I most often think about how I can incorporate the most cutting-edge and latest technologies, such as dHTML and assorted plug-ins, but have never really stopped to consider the large group of users who may wish to access one of my sites using something other than MSIE 5.0 or the latest offering out of Netscape. What will these people see? How many of my users come from this demographic and how will incorporating good design techniques that allow all-around access affect my site's traffic? Maybe the most basic question I could pose would be "Should we be developing the most innovative technology or sites that are accessible by the largest potential audience?".

When it comes down to it, this is quite a controversial issue. On the one side, you've got users who invest a lot of money in software and hardware that is able to utilize the very latest and greatest in Web technologies, and want to see their money put to good use. Should we punish them by developing very basic sites that in effect bring us back to the days of the pre-1996 Internet? On the other hand, should be exclude users who either choose not to, or cannot for practical reasons use a full-featured PC to view the sites we create? There's a very fine line between catering to loyal users and alienating potential new users, so we must stride it carefully.

One of the first things we must take into account when making these primary design decisions is what exactly the function of our site is. Do we serve up mainly written content, or are we a site that is focused on rich multimedia technologies? In the case of the latter, it is probably advisable to utilize a more text-based approach, keeping graphics and multimedia to a minimum (for example Cyber Aspect's own format). The visitors who are coming to sites of this type are here mainly for informational purposes and not a lot of bells and whistles in design. To go overboard in the visuals is only going to serve to slow them down, and also limit the amount of content you can effectively place into a single page of the site. Now, on the flip-side, if you have a site that is mainly geared towards delivering examples of vector graphics animation, it goes without saying that a text-based approach isn't going to work too successfully. Trying to describe a multimedia concept without actually showing one is like to trying to describe a sunset to a person who's never seen one. A picture is worth a thousand words as the adage goes, but the key is in deciding when a picture is the right tool for the job.

When you have this decided, then you're already 90% ready to create a site which best suites the needs of your potential audience. The main after thoughts that you need to deal with at this point are going to be with what alternatives you can offer to users who are not using the expected delivery platform. When reaching the largest possible audience is your ultimate goal, then the only real alternative is to create a multi-version site that allows users to choose what version best fits their needs. Just how far you go in creating multiple versions will again depend on the content you are presenting. If you again for example are dealing mainly with presenting multimedia technologies, then you can probably safely assume that many users who utilize WAP enable systems are not going to have much interest in a site of this type. Why? Well, the fact that they're using a WAP system in itself goes to show that they are not from the design or multimedia crowd, but more likely from the business and mobile exec crowd. Their orientation is more likely to be towards checking stock quotes or news headlines, not downloading MP3 files for immediate playback.

In short, your greatest asset when deciding whether to go high-tech or dumbed down when creating an Internet presence is common sense. When you've put this into the light of your likely user demographic, then you can basically see how much effort you're going to need to put in, as well as what basic approach best suites the site overall.

About the teacher:
Jeff is a frequent columnist and product reviewer. When he's not busy writing away about what's happening in the industry, Jeff specializes in the development of e-commerce and 3D virtual reality systems (not usually together at once...) for deployment over the Internet and other related outlets. Before coming to the "elite" and "prestigious" world of Internet development, Jeff worked with the venture capital finance industry, specializing in media and high-tech. Before that, he served as a U.S. Marine where he was highly decorated for service during the Gulf War conflict.


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