February 24, 2002

I think a note of clarification is needed regarding the frames comments from the other day. I am a huge fan of the Content Management Bible and have been perusing it for a couple months (or so) now. The use of frames is not all bad, if used in a proper context.

One reason to use frames is using the browser client as an application interface and there are distinct sections with quasi-interrelated functionality. A mapping application (select any one of these elements on the page to see the use of frames - keep in mind there is a heavy use of JavaScript that requires a version 4.5 browser or higher). The application interface often has command elements that are essentially toolbars and definition selection elements that set the metadata layers of the information to be displayed. These toolbars direct the actions of the other frames or provide tools to be used in other frames (a zoom tool, etc.). The functionality in a toolbar is not an element of the map display and it should not be an incorporated element of the map as it has a much different functionality from the map display. Conversely, our users are familiar with navigation being incorporated into the Webpage and that is now a common and preferred construct. But, we are looking at an application being displayed in a Web browser, which requires a different mind set.

Another use of frames is in a controlled environment that has a plethora of distinct content items that are within a contiguous text, such as an extensive table of contents. Here the Metatorial CM Bible is a good example of when to use frames. There table of contents is a helpful information tool to quickly scan through the information to place the reader at distinct point in a larger body of text. The table of contents is a large (long) element of text that could work as an element is one distinct page, but that would require rebuilding those elements of the page with every snippet of information delivered to the browser.

Frames should be used when the distinct content elements require each other. The table of contents and the page display elements should not work with out the other components (if they can we really have to ask ourselves why we are using frames). If we can enter a page in the CM Bible without the table of contents the functionality of the site is broken. The navigation is not available and the assistive information (navigation and/or metadata elements) is not available.

The last item is to ensure that if a frame can stand alone as its own page, please ensure there are the needed navigational elements on the page. In the example that drove my frames rant (largely because the CM folks understand information and its need to be used, but the site breaks information use constructs we know from experience and research to be proper and needed) the thing that was disconcerting was each of the frame elements needed the other to provide complete information for the user. The user needs context. We need to provide the user a means to get to our front page or to other areas within our sites, because if they like our information we should offer them more. If we build a site using framed elements and these elements can be used on their own (no JavaScript sniffers to ensure the other frames are open as a requirement for displaying the content, or other similar technique) the content must have navigation elements (the footer is an unobtrusive placement) and really should have some branding or other statement of ownership.

We know that users of information have varied purposes and methods of using our information. We need to provide the users the tools to help the user provide this information. We are often proud of our information work, but if a user does not know it is us or we do not want to claim our work is decreases credibility.

We need to embrace functional information architecture to ensure proper information use. This bleeds in to user experience design, but understanding how information is used and the information interface is used must be integrated into the IA. Proper functional IA should keep improper use of frames from occurring. Functional IA would walk through a string of questions using a wireframe of a site and ask how the frame sections would interact. We would ask what information is lost if not all the frames function (a surprisingly common occurrence). We would ask if frames maintain context for the information. We would look at methods of insuring the whole of the frames remains so to provide proper navigation, proper context, and proper metadata to help understand the information provided. Not asking these questions is not being responsible to the information, those that collected the metadata and spent time understanding how the information is to be used, and is not responsible to the consumers of the information.


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