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Problem

Many developers start out writing source code without paying attention to the primary goal of the site: to provide a simple but highly functional graphical application for users to interact with. Developing the user interface seems like a very basic task, but if not done properly, you may have to revisit it several times during development. Every time you go back and change fundamental features it will require a certain amount of rework, not to mention a whole new round of unit and integration testing. Even worse, if you take the user interface too lightly, you will likely end up regretting it because users may choose not to visit your site. There are various elements to consider when creating the site design. First, you must convince yourself of one simple fact: appearance is important! You should repeat this out loud a couple of times. If your site doesn't look good, people may regret being there. It's easy for a developer to get caught up with the difficult tasks of organizing source code into classes and coding the business logic — the cosmetics of the site just don't seem so important, right? Wrong! The user interface is the first thing presented to the end user: If it is ugly, unclear, and basically unusable, chances are good the user will be left with a bad impression of the site and the company behind it. And, sadly, this will happen regardless of how fast and scalable the site is. In addition, you need to consider that not all users have the same opinion about a site template. Some users may find it difficult to read text in a site with a specific color scheme and prefer a different color scheme that might be unclear to many others. It's very difficult to make everybody happy with a single template and color scheme. That's why some sites have multiple color schemes and possible layouts available from which users can choose, enabling them to customize their own user experience according to their personal taste — and possibly physical impediments such as color blindness. Studies have shown that a surprising number of people suffer from partial color blindness that makes it hard for them to distinguish certain colors, so they must be able to select colors they can distinguish, but that still appear somewhat pleasant.

After you choose the layout and colors to use, you need to ensure that the site will look the same on different browsers. A couple of years ago, Internet Explorer (IE) was the absolute dominant browser among Windows users, and if you were developing a technical site targeted to Windows developers, you could assume that the majority of your user base would use IE to browse the site, and thus develop and test it only against IE. However, Mozilla Firefox is now gaining popularity among the Internetians and it is available to other operating systems, such as Linux and Mac OS. You are not targeting just a small niche of users (i.e., not just Windows developers, but all people that go to your client's pub), and because there are other popular browsers besides Windows, it is absolutely necessary to ensure that your site works well for the most popular browsers. If you ignore this and just target IE, Firefox users may come to the site and find a layout much different from what they would expect, with wrong alignments, sizes, and colors, with panels and text over others — in other words, a complete mess. As you can guess, a user who is presented such an ugly page would typically leave it, which means losing a potential client or customer for the online store. At the very least, this person's visit would have generated page views and thus banner impressions. Since you don't want to lose visitors, we'll consider both Internet Explorer and Firefox.

Designing the user interface layer doesn't mean just writing the HTML for a page; it also involves the navigation system, and the ability of the webmaster or site administrator (if not the end user) to easily change the appearance of the site without requiring them to edit the actual content pages (which are numerous). It is helpful to develop a system that enables people to easily change the menus of the site, and modify the site appearance (the fonts, the colors, and the size of the various parts that compose the page) because this minimizes the work of administrators and makes users happy. Once you're done with the site's home page, developing all the other pages will take much less time because the home page establishes layout and navigation elements that will apply throughout the site. And if you need to modify something in the site's layout (for example, adding a new poll box to be displayed on the right-hand side of any page) you will be able to do this easily if you've developed a common user interface shared among many pages. This is why it's definitely worth spending some additional time thinking about a well-designed UI foundation layer instead of firing up Visual Studio .NET and starting to code right away. This is really a strategic decision that can save you hours or even days of work later. Remember that fundamental changes applied later in the development phase will require more time and effort to implement.


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