Elly Williams' Weblog

Caught Between Industries

Incremental Building

Jeremy Keith has written a post about evolution of web sites/apps and how it doesn’t relate to the frequent “websites as buildings” mental model. After all, he argues, once a building is built that’s it, right? Except that’s not entirely true. If it were then then there would be half as many ‘home improvement’ shows on the TV.

Besides upkeep and refurbishment there’s also extensions – anything from adding a conservatory to the back of your house, through extra teaching space at the local comprehensive to entire wings being added to existing hospitals.Of course, none of these additions would have been added in the original plans – usually because at the time there wouldn’t have been funding for them. But, the possibility of future extension is usually considered at some level.

So, how does this relate back to designing and building web sites/apps? Well, any changes to a building will be a series of incremental changes – and that’s something that’s the same. The most important thing is knowing what you need to build now, while still allowing for the changes that may or may not happen later.

Lessons from Architecture – Space Constraints

A while ago I wrote ?If Some Web Designs were Shopping Centres“. The post itself was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it had a serious edge. I made the point that in the case of some websites the entrance page was equivalent to walking into a room full of unhelpfully labelled doors.

Obviously in the case of a building this is ludicrous. For a start there would be insufficient space to put hundreds of rooms off one room in the real world. Even if it were possible, it would not be desirable; yet time and again it happens on the web. After all, they’re just files, right? Adding in an extra link is much easier than adding in an extra room – web pages don’t have a 3-dimensional size.

Parts of a building, however, do have a fixed size. In some cases the area will be determined directly by the client (“I need *m² office area”) or by the requirements of the intended use (“how much space do I need to provide for 25 workstations?”). Either way, before you can propose a design, you have to know how big any particular element is.

In many situations early building designs will be created using paper cut outs (or in some cases lego or plasticine) to represent a required area (or volume). Using this method it is less likely that any requirement will be overlooked, included twice, or occupy the same space as something else. Equally, when presented with an architectural plan it becomes much harder for a client to add new requirements when there is obviously no space for them.

So, given the confusion that over complicated website structure can cause, should we treat web pages as if they had a size limitation? The intangibility of web pages within a site structure makes it possible create ‘crowded’ content structure in cyberspace. Real world constraints help make it easier to adopt and promote ‘simpler’ content structure in the design of buildings.

The challenge with web content design is to constrain the possibilities provided by a pixel-thin medium, but still take full advantage of the flexible nature of the web.

is an Architecture Student and Web Designer based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, (UK)