September 1, 2006

Domain of Digital Design Includes Strings

Many of us around the digital design profession consider visual pixels our domain, information as content and its structure is our in our domain, and the ease of use as part of our domain (all of this depending on what label or design community we align with). Strings do not fall into the design camp. By strings I mean data strings, which include date stamps, URLs, identity strings, etc. These often fall through the cracks.

In the last year or so these have become quite important to me as I look at the URLs on this site (vanderwal.net) and they are not as friendly, readable, or guessable as they should be. There is no understanding what http://www.vanderwal.net/random/entrysel.php?blog62 will lead to. Do people actually care about this?

Attention to Strings

I find not everybody cares about data strings, but some people do and many devices and services do too. We know many people do not pay attention to their address bar when surfing the web, but when they copy a link to send to a friend or IM a friend, they often look at the URL as a double-check. This is where confusion comes in, they have no idea that blog62 is the post they are wanting to share and it takes them out of a simple flow if they want to make sure it is the right thing.

Not only do people care by devices and services care about what is in strings. When a site is scraped by a search engine one of the important components in weighing the validity is the words in the string. If "blog62" were some thing that I wanted to ensure had optimal opportunity to surface in any of the major search engines I would want to ensure some key terms were in the URL that was being scraped and used. To the search engines 1862 means very little.

Human Readable

The goal is to have these data strings human readable, which leads to text that machines can read and used in algorithmic and automated filters and optimization tools. Not only do URLs need help, but so do date strings. Date strings should be easily understood and they should be labeled with relevant time zone if time is displayed as well.

Ground Control to Major Thomas - Where Are You

Again I turn to my own blog and its less than optimal state of being for my fodder. Since Fall of last year my vanderwal.net site has been hosted in Australia (a wonderful hosting company Segment Publishing (SegPub)). Part of this means that my time stamp for posting my blog entries grabs the local date and time. Since last Fall I have been blogging from the future, or so readers have been thinking. In a couple weeks I may actually be blogging from a the local timezone for my blog, but it is something I need to change.

One complication I have is I post content from various timezones. I could make all dates local to where I post, or choose the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as a default and label it properly as such. One of the things that the date and time stamp for posts does get mostly right is it is understandable. Many times we see sites with the tech generic "2006-7-23T2:44:03Z" rather than a more easily human readable "7 July 2006 2:44:03AM GMT".

Data Strings Design Worthy Too

I hope these examples from my own site (a self-built blogging tool that I have not touched much since 2001 or 2002, which I use but not fix or move away from) help illustrate the confusion unattended to date strings play. If we care about the experience for people coming to our sites we build and design we need to care about the little things, the details, like URLs and date strings.

[Yes, I will fix my site eventually. I have been waiting for that magical downtime to sort through porting all my posts and related metadata into a real blogging tool, as I really do not see me finding the time or desire to start tackling all that I want and need to fix in my own dear little tool.]



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