The content and functionality of Web pages have evolved immensely since the first Web page became available on the Internet in November of 1990 (Connolly, 2000). The information that we browse and read has increased in volume, but more importantly the Web has developed to offer us functionality useful for everyday life. Nowadays, Deborah Fallows reports that in addition to getting information, 85% of people use the Web to communicate and interact with others and 75% to conduct everyday transactions (2004, p. i).
Below you will find discussions of common dynamic elements. The list is not intended to be comprehensive and the selection of features is based largely on personal experience.
Web applications range from the most minimal form handling that focuses on either recording or acting on user input to the most complex e-commerce check-out applications that allow for multi-step transactions. Any functionality that allows users to complete a task in a sequential manner would be considered an application. Common communication tools, such as forums, chats, and lately blogs, constitute some common examples of Web applications. The main information architecture concerns in the generation of all types of Web application would be data integrity, security, accessibility, and obviously the continuity of the task at hand. It is in the design of such applications that article 6 of the WCAG standard mentioned above can be most useful. According to Richard Roth, a software architect and the CEO of On-the-Net , some general rules to be considered are a simple user interface and flexible, clear functionality.
Personalization is yet another common dynamic element. It has become popular not only in the context of Web applications where identifying the user might be necessary, but also in information services online. News pages like Yahoo News, for example, offer personalization. Even Web pages within E-Government try to offer this feature as they push toward a greater number of official citizen-government transactions on the Web. A pertinent example of this trend is the Department of Agriculture site ( http://www.usda.gov/ ). Huge sites that serve diverse audiences or provide a multitude of services stand to benefit from personalization, which offers flexibility while enhancing the burden of generating accessible dynamic content and maintaining the continuity of tasks independent of user customization.
Syndication has become a popular method of adding dynamic content generated initially by other sites. It brings in both data and metadata from the Web and incorporates them seamlessly within one’s own site. It is widely used for display of news and updates. One file format for syndication is the RSS 2.0, which uses XML. It was released in 2003 through Harvard under a Creative Commons license (RSS History) and is supported by online periodicals, blogs, and other sites.
Finally, animation is a common dynamic element that has a somewhat dubious status because of the wide potential for abuse. It is utilized in marketing and for entertainment, but hardly ever to convey useful information. Ping Zhang of the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University illustrates, in a study, animation’s potential negative impact on meaningful interaction with a site due to distraction and visual interference with the users’ task (p. 25). Main information architecture concerns related to animation would be its interaction with other content elements, its visual effects on users, and its usefulness in conveying meaning.
Given the variety of features and the purposes they serve, information architects bear the responsibility of considering how those purposes can best be accomplished for a specific audience with the most appropriate choice of technology. Every project would present unique challenges and opportunities, which would ideally be considered on a case-by-case basis. Below you will see discussions of several technologies for generating dynamic Web pages, each accompanied with an analysis of advantages and disadvantages.
<a href=”rainbowline.gif” onMouseOver=”status=’rainbow’;return true”>See a rainbow</a>
<object width=”550″ height=”400″>
<param name=”movie” value=”somefilename.swf”>
<embed src=”somefilename.swf” width=”550″ height=”400″>
Figure 2. Flash in HTML (Flash Tutorial)
Another technology that enables dynamic Web pages is Flash. It offers a different approach to interaction by building it into a movie file in SWF or the Flash Player format. Many software packages can be used for the creation of Flash movies, Macromedia Flash MX being the most powerful and expensive of all. Other examples include SWiSH and FLASHtyper, as well as interactive tools on the Web. Flash achieves interaction by combining graphics, animation, sound and scripting. It uses vector graphics, which means that the graphics can be scaled to any size without losing clarity/quality (Flash Tutorial) combined with code to handle actions. Once the movie is created, it can be embedded in HTML for display, with a Flash Player being the only requirement for viewing the movie. Embedding can work differently across browsers, so the use of EMBED and OBJECT tags is recommended, see Figure 2.
Main considerations to keep in mind related to Flash have to do with the Web page’s interaction with the browser and potentially with search engines. Jakob Nielsen criticized Flash in 2000 for breaking fundamentals, such as the BACK button and text resizing, as well as offering gratuitous animation and reducing the granularity of user control. Later on, he amended his criticism as some usability features were improved (Nielsen, 2000), but there is more to be demanded from Flash, especially for whole Flash sites, which practically disable browser functions such as bookmarking, text re-sizing and the BACK button. Meanwhile, advantages to offset those limitations are the design control that can ensure standards compliance and the integration of technologies, the final result of which works well with HTML code. Common uses of Flash include animated page headings, Web site intro pages, or creative/concept animation, such as the one created by Free Range Graphics ( http://www.freerangegraphics.com/).
Some choices for scripting languages are PHP, Perl, and ColdFusion. PHP has become very popular because it is light-weight, open-source and was designed from the ground up to work with web pages (Gesker, 2001). Perl has been considered a very mature and viable alternative as a web-scripting language, even though it was not designed with the Web in mind and its power comes with a bigger learning curve (Gesker, 2001). Finally, ColdFusion can be efficient and easy to use, but it is proprietary and has serious hardware requirements (Gesker, 2001).
Once the choice of a scripting language has been made, the decision of which database to use must follow. Again, there are many options available, with some of the commonly used ones being Oracle and MySQL. Oracle has been a well-respected relational database because it is full of features, fast and reliable (Gesker, 2001), but it is proprietary and quite expensive at that. MySQL has been favored, especially in combination with PHP, because it is very fast, multithreaded, multiuser and robust (Gesker, 2001), in addition to being open-source.
The choice of this technological combination has both advantages and disadvantages. Some of the limitations include slower loading, especially with great amounts of data in the database. At the same time, big Web sites that contain tabular data, as is the case with e-commerce Web sites, for example, can benefit from a database, which can enable customized display of content based on user preferences and queries. Finally, this approach can ensure standards compliance and validation of the mark-up without taking away the flexibility of displaying customized, dynamic content. A server-side scripting language and a database are often used in e-commerce, blogs, online periodicals, and digital libraries.
The needs for interaction on a Web page can be diverse, ranging from attention-grabbing animation and browser controls to complete customization and dynamic display of the content. Based on the purposes of a Web page, its intended audience, and the nature of the interaction required, information architects can consider different technologies. With the variety of choices, however, comes the difficulty of weighing the advantages and disadvantages of every available technology. Currently, no single approach has established itself as dominant for a specific dynamic feature, so it is entirely up to an information architect’s judgment and understanding of the projects at hand to participate in making the best choice for adding dynamic elements to a Web site. Some of the main considerations to be used in the decision-making process undoubtedly include but are not limited to accessibility, usability, hardware requirements, speed, and cost.
Connolly, Dan. (2000). A Little History of the World Wide Web. World Wide Web Consortium. Retrieved on October 20, 2004, from http://www.w3.org/History.html.
Gesker, Dennis. (2001). Alternatives for Dynamic Web Development Projects. Linux Journal, 2001 (83es), Article No. 6.
Fallows, Deborah. (2004). The Internet and Daily Life. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved on October 21, 2004, from http://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~i385ef04/readings/PIP_Internet_and_Daily_Life.pdf .
Flash Tutorial. (2004). W3Schools. Retrieved on October 16, 2004, from http://www.w3schools.com/flash/default.asp
Nielsen, Jakob. (2000). Flash: 99% Bad. Useit.com. Retrieved on October 16, 2004, from http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20001029.html.
Roth, Richard. (n.d.). Dynamic Content for the Masses � Dynamic Web Server Functions for Non-Programmer Webmasters. On-the-Net. Retrieved on October 21, 2004, from http://www.on-the-net.com/rr/www8-remote-hosting.html.
RSS History. (2004). Technology at Harvard Law: Internet Technology Hosted by Berkman Center. Retrieved on October 20, 2004, from http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/tech/rssVersionHistory.
Standard ECMA-262: ECMAScript Language Specification. (1999). ECMA International. Retrieved on October 21, 2004, from http://www.ecma-international.org/publications/files/ECMA-ST/Ecma-262.pdf.
W3C. (1999). Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. World Wide Web Consortium. Retrieved on October 20, 2004, from http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT/.
Zhang, Ping. (2000). The Effects of Animation on Information Seeking Performance on the World Wide Web: Securing Attention and Interfering with Primary Tasks? Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 1 (1), 1-28.