The Home Invaders
Doorstepping in the Digital Age
There's a knock on the door...
You answer it, quite eagerly - friendly soul that you are. But as you
swing open the door, someone breezes past you, without a word of
By the time you've caught up with them, they're in your living room. But
it's not your living room anymore. They've changed the lighting, they've
moved the furniture around, they've draped brightly-coloured fabrics across
your sofa, they've put some strange music on your hi-fi.
You try to get an explanation from this person, but he shushes you -
because he's on the phone (your phone) getting further instructions from
some unknown source.
Finally - and it does take a very long time to get round to it - this
stranger deigns to acknowledge your existence. With one last check that
everything is just the way he likes it, he addresses you as if you
were a public meeting, "Good morning, madam. I'm here to sell
Didn't like it, did you?
No door-to-door salesman in his right mind would behave
like that. Not because all salesman are polite, considerate and want to be
liked. Nor because there's some salesman's handbook which tells him not to.
No - they wouldn't behave like that because they know that the householder
would explode in their faces, wield heavy objects, call the police. Above
all - they wouldn't buy anything.
So, it couldn't happen?
It happens every day.
Every time a website takes 30 seconds to load, insists on the
installation of a plug-in, presents the reader with a unique set of
navigational tools, uses an unchangeable fixed-sized font, runs incessantly
animated banners - and then deigns to allow the reader to try to buy some
goods or services.
It happens every time an unasked-for window pops up to hide the original,
every time the Back button's function is nullified. Every time a web design
is tailored precisely for a specific resolution. Every time a web form
throws the reader back to the beginning because they didn't fill in a field
(which probably wasn't relevant to them anyway).
It happens every time a website behaves as if its creators were doing the
reader a favour, just by being there.
Who's computer is it anyway?
Putting together a website can be hard work - getting all
the content, deciding on a structure, getting approval from everyone
involved, writing and testing the code. Then you've got to find someone to
host the domain, sort out FTP access, a web-log analyser. Even when
everything is apparently in place, people will report broken links,
misspellings, inaccurate data. You can get quite absorbed in the process
It's very easy to imagine that the people who "visit" your site
are, in fact, entering into your domain, your territory, and are therefore
subject to your rules.
But it isn't like that for them.
You are the guest. In delivering your message to your (potential)
customer, you are using:-
- their screen,
- their processor,
- their modem,
- their phone line,
- their Internet account.
Above all, you're using their time and their patience.
Behave yourself; behave like a good guest.
Rules for a good guest
- Don't keep your host waiting while you lug all your baggage into the
room. You're not staying that long. Really.
- Don't re-arrange the furniture.
- Don't communicate in some private language you use at the office; you're
not at the office.
- If you want something, ask for it - clearly and explicitly. Don't drop
hints and then complain that you haven't got what you need.
- Don't whisper - your host may be deaf. Don't shout - your host may not
- Don't invite extra guests along - especially ones who curl up in the
corner and refuse to leave.
- Don't play loud music when the baby might be (finally) sleeping.
OK - enough analogies
What does this mean - in terms of a website?
- Don't create a home page which takes longer than 10 seconds (at 56k) to
load. Don't create home pages which require a plug-in to work. Above all -
no Flash intros.
Flash (or equivalent) can be a very useful tool for explaining a process or
illuminating a range of products and services, but let the reader choose
whether to view it or not; don't make it a condition of entering the site.
Even with a "Skip Intro" message - your reader is much more likely
to skip your entire site.
- Don't re-arrange the furniture. The "furniture" of a website
is its navigation buttons and links. Whatever navigational scheme you decide
upon - it must be consistent throughout your site.
But also be aware that most of your readers will be first time visitors; a
button label which may seem obvious to you, may meaning nothing to them -
don't be obscure.
And links - there is a standard set of colours and decoration for
links. Style sheets will let you change all of that - but why deprive your
readers of one of the few visual standards the web has got?
- Don't write in jargon. Even if you explain your terminology on the home
page, you can't guarantee your readers have read the home page.
- If you invite readers to fill out a form, make it clear what each field
means, and which are mandatory. (And, don't insist on a "State"
field for non US citizens. Most of the world doesn't have states.)
- Don't set fixed-sized fonts. All decent browsers allow users to adjust
the text size - smaller for small screens, bigger for big screens (or poor
eyes). You have no business insisting on a specific text size.
That also means that you'll have to test your pages in those extreme sizes -
does it still work?
- Pop-up windows are anathema - except for very specific purposes, like
Help or Warnings. It is especially annoying to leave a site, and discover
that the webmaster has plastered your screen with one or more useless
Worst of all are sites which disable the Back button, Terribly rude, that
- Don't launch a music file without the reader's explicit
permission. You have no idea what the circumstances are at that moment.
Good behaviour is a habit
The upshot of all of this is very simple - don't behave
as if you're doing your readers a favour by putting your material on a web
server. I can't emphasise this enough - you are a guest
in their home, their office, their pocketPC.
They can throw you out of their life with less thought and less effort
than swatting a bug. And they will, if you annoy them, patronise them or
confuse them. Indeed - face this awful fact - they may consign you to
oblivion because they find a bug, crawling across their keyboard, more
interesting than you.
Life's tough, isn't it? But then - you need them a lot more than they
need you, don't you?