diary of a mad
househusband

19 july 2000

 

 pizzas, peppers, and pixels

I stayed up all night reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, so I wasn't at my househusbandly best when I began contemplating what to prepare for the evening meal for the Heir and HRH the Queen of the House. In fact, as I was contemplating, I fell asleep. I awoke long after mealtime, to discover that HRH had ordered pizzas delivered.

I was so grateful to be relieved of the meal preparation responsibility that I didn't even complain about having to pick off the green peppers and onions, which HRH knows I can't stand on pizza. I was even more grateful because she gave me, albeit belatedly, a metaphor for a point I had been trying to make in an online discussion about a Web site.

The site in question is a message board. I objected to the designer's decision to specify the size and face of the font in which messages would be displayed, and spelled out my reasons in detail.

That was my mistake. What I should have said was, "Look, I want a pizza, but the only kind you're willing to let me have comes with peppers and green onions, and I hate peppers and green onions on pizza. If I have to pick off the peppers every time I come here, I'll just find another pizza place instead."

Several people earnestly assured me that I could fill out a form only once, and that my pepper-free preferences would be respected on every subsequent pizza. Either they didn't read or didn't understand my explanation that I use two different operating systems (Windows and BeOS), which render fonts very differently; thus, plugging in a pepper-purged preference in one piles on a plenitude of peppers in the other, and vice versa.

And not a single person who participated in the discussion showed any indication that s/he understood my principal point: That if it's absolutely necessary to put peppers and onions on the first pizza, it's nonetheless easy to present a perpetually pepper-purged preference possibility, which will work regardless of the viewer's operating system.

Perhaps the pepper metaphor might have enabled me to make that point. I doubt it, though; for many Web site designers, the power of peer pressure far surpasses that of mere usability.

I think it worth noting, though, that if you visit the world's busiest Web site, Yahoo, you're allowed to read news, sports, stock quotes, etc. in the font face and size you set in your browser.

Interestingly, the same is true of the online versions of the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the San Jose Mercury News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Dallas Morning News, the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the Toronto Sun, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Could it be that these "old media" stalwarts, so careful of typography in their dead-tree editions, "get" the Web better than the "new media" pixel-pushers? Could it be that they realize we've already specified, by neglect or design, our pepper and pepperoni preferences in our browsers, and that changing them is an unneccessary and user-unfriendly act which can have only negative consequences?

If not irritating readers is important to news sites, how much more important is it to message board sites, whose readers also provide such sites' only content?

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