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On the line;Hands on

It's time to ditch those sticky-eyeball sites and promote ease of use and accessibility, says Niel McLean.

I 'm continually surprised by the people I work with at the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency. A sober-suited colleague, known for his technical acumen and precise language, recently used the phrase "sticky-eyeball site" at a meeting on the grid's development. Unsurprisingly, the term originated in the US. It seems that just as we're beginning to win the argument with those who think the Internet is populated by people with J R Ewing's business ethics, Homer Simpson's vocabulary and Caligula's morality, another term appears to reaffirm the sceptics' prejudices. I'll save my views on jargon for a later column. Now, I'd rather think about the implicit assumptions in the phrase "sticky-eyeball site".

In the competitive world of commerce, the trick is to attract you to a site and keep you there. Given that the average time spent viewing a webpage is measured in seconds, this is no mean feat. The tricks used by site designers are up there with those used by Las Vegas casinos, where there's always the feeling that, if you stick with it a little longer, great things will happen. It's not that the Internet shouldn't be fun - it should. It's just that sometimes I want to get on the web, find what I want and then go and get on with my life. The bells and whistles are about as appealing as the talking lifts in Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy. Just because the technology allows you to do something doesn't mean you should do it.

The Eighties were once known as the "designer decade". Ironic, given that they gave rise to the Ra-ra skirt. Where it worked, the application of design led to an essential simplification. The unnecessary twiddly bits were jettisoned in favour of elegant functionality. Compare modern hi-fi design with earlier versions - it's at the lower end of the market where the designer tries to disguise a poor product by making it look like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

The pattern is the same across a range of products: elegant simplicity in the well-designed; unnecessary "features" in the tat. Websites are the same. Flashy front pages to mask ill thought out content or navigation.

So the grid shouldn't be a "sticky-eyeball site". Well designed? Yes. Easy to use? Yes. But how should the principles of good design be applied to the grid?

The grid now contains thousands of separate documents drawn from hundreds of linked sites. Each individual site carries its own design features. The grid couldn't, nor should it try to, impose bland uniformity. Nor should it try to compensate for a lack of control over its constituent sites by having an overly-complicated home area. The main consideration should be getting users to the information they want as swiftly and effortlessly as possible.

Niel McLean is head of the schools directorate at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency

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