Get behind the wheel…

As many people have said before, there is a great correlation between the car industry and web design. While at first glance there may be little to compare a great big piece of machinery with a tiny set of tags, look under the bonnet (pun intended) and you can make some interesting comparisons. Please bear with me while I demonstrate my utter lack of understanding about the automobile industry … and the web industry.

1) Aesthetics

When you buy a car you (at least partly) buy it for visual reasons; how cool does it look. Will it make people jealous when they see it? Will it make me, when I’m sitting inside it, look good? It’s the same with websites; how cool does it look? Will it make competitors jealous? Will it make me or my company look good? Looks matter, as first impressions count for so much.

Some websites show loads of information but still manage to look great, some websites, well … don’t. Just as there are a million different ways to design a car, there are a million ways to design a website. What?s important is that the design supports the content – in other words, look at what you’re trying to say and then work out the best wrapper for it to go in.

2) Under the bonnet

However, as all good developers know, the important bits are the bits you don’t see. After all, it’s no good buying the best looking car in the world if it doesn’t have a good engine. Likewise, a great looking website that doesn’t work is as much use as a chocolate teapot. The “engine” of a website includes the navigation, forms, searching facilities, feedback facilities (comments, forums etc) and other interactive elements. Basically anything that “does” something, rather than just “is” something.

With web applications the engine is just as important as in a car, as it includes all the dynamic scripting, functions, administrative elements and databases. Get the engine wrong in a car or a website and you may as well give up and go home.

3) A smooth ride

So once you’ve got your car or website looking good, and the engine is running smoothly, the next thing to do is add all the additional features that make for a smooth ride. You know the things: in-car CD player, electric windows, air conditioning, seat warmers. All that stuff that you can pay extra for at the car dealership.

For websites, a smooth ride is just as important. If the people you carry – your visitors – aren’t made to feel comfortable then they won’t come back for another ride. So make sure you add features that will make their lives easier. Remember their login details so they don’t have to type it all every time they visit (but remember, keep it secure). Don’t make them type in their address details multiple times. Make searches easy and intuitive (and give good results!). Make navigation simple and obvious. Add JavaScript interaction for smooth effects where it adds to the usability of the site (but degradable, unobtrusive JavaScript only, please). And, most importantly: show relevent information! Don’t make people have to hunt for ways to contact you, don’t hide prices where people can’t see them, be open and honest about your policies.

You get the idea. Giving a smooth ride is one of the major ways you can get people to visit your website – and keep them coming back for more.

4) Safety features

Howwever, sometimes things don’t go all that smoothly. Thankfully cars are reasonably protected from problems. Firstly you’re wrapped in a big piece of metal, held in by a seatbelt, and if anything hits you then a big balloon pops out to protect your face.

On the web, if something goes wrong, you have to protect your users as well. If an error happens make sure that you tell the user that an error has occurred. Apologise for it, and make a suggestion about what they can do to continue. Those “Error 800041251 at line 17” messages are no good to your users, and can provide valuable information to nasty individuals wanting to infitrate or break your site.

And, of course, part of making a site safe is to validate any input from the user, whether that’s text entered in a form, or a querystring link. So, just as modern cars will flash big red signs to tell you that you’re driving without a seatbelt on, so a website should nicely remind users that if you’re asking for their email address, then there really should be an @ sign in it somewhere.

Actually, thinking about it, why don’t cars stop you from opening the doors when you’re going fast? Or stop you from putting it into first gear when going 70mph? Not that I’ve made those mistakes, of course…

5) Meeting the standard

As you can imagine, the car industry is one of the most regulated of all industries. And rightly so, because Standards Are A Good Thing. I’m sure pretty much every car has to meet standards of one kind or another, otherwise I certainly wouldn’t feel safe driving round. So, as I imagine it, the windscreen has to be able to withstand a high-velocity impact from a stone without shattering. Axels have to be able to take a certain load without snapping. Seatbelts have to be able to withstand large pressures.

Websites, too, have standards that they should adhere to. Notice I say “should” rather than “must” because, as we all know, the number of websites that adhere to the standards, although growing, is still very small. And even the fact that there are legal guidelines forcing companies to produce standardised and accessible website hasn’t stopped many people from putting any old rubbish on the internet.

So, for website, Standards Are A Good Thing. They make sure that your site will function in as wide a range of browsers as possible. That your website can withstand a high-velocity impact from the W3C validator. That the code is lean, mean and very green. That you’re future-proof, as much as possible. I’ll say it again: Standards Are A Good Thing.

6) Depreciation

And here is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Depreciation means the lowering of an items value over time. I learned that all too well when I sold my car last month. Way back in 1996 when it was new it would have been sold for about £14,000. I got marginally more than 1% of that, less than 10 years on. Yet some websites are still using techniques invented back in 1996 – and this is using one of the the fastest-growing technological advances ever!

Times change, and just as I had to get rid of that car because it was costing me more to keep on the road each month than it was worth, sometimes websites need putting out to pasture. Got an old table-based design, full of spacer GIFs and tags? Put it out of it’s misery, and get yourself a new, sleek, fast and funky modern website. It’ll be worth is, as it will make you look good, make people jealous, and might just bag you some hot chicks.