[UPDATED 5/30/2013 for HTML5/CSS3/Responsive Design]
Developing a great website or web application is really very easy, but there are many ways to do it badly, and that makes it difficult.
Here’s how to do it “right”.
- A URI identifies each unique resource
- Gather your content, and code it in straight, standard, valid HTML
- Lay out your content using CSS using responsive design techniques.
- Ignore the flashy new technology, stick with well-established basics
- Get the user’s language from the Accept-Language header.
These 4 simple rules are all you need to design great sites. Companies are constantly trying to push their fancy new technologies, and browser makers put proprietary features into their browsers hoping you’ll use them, and force people to use their browser. Unfortunately, this just makes your site unusable to people not using that browser.
A URI identifies each unique resource
URI means “Unique Resource Identifier”. Originally, and sometimes still, this meant that a unique string identified each page on a server. It’s a great, simple concept: any given set of content should have a unique URI (yes, that’s redundant). This blog page has a unique string that identifies it. You can send that string to your friends (hint hint), and if they put it in a web browser, they’ll see this article. Seems straight forward, but many many web sites break this rule. For example, if I’m searching for flights on a travel site and have a certain set of flights displayed, I should be able to copy the URI and send it to my friend. Unfortunately, this rarely works. If I load up my shopping cart with stuff at Amazon.com, I should be able to send that cart to my friend. I can’t.
Make your sites RESTful. That’s a fancy word meaning “use the web the way it’s designed”. The O’Reilly “RESTful Web Services” book is excellent extended reading on this subject:
URIs are fancy things that can include a LOT of information. Let’s take the examples I gave above and do them right:
I see filters on web sites done wrong all the time, and it drives me nuts. It’s so easy to do right, and would be so convenient. I apologize, because now you’ll be driven nuts too.
Each element of a filter should be included in the URI. Let’s say you’re setting up a travel site. People fill in departing and arriving airport, dates, and preferred time range. They click a “search” button. The button should encode that search into a GET request (NOT A POST!), which then displays the result. So it might look like
http://www.mytravelsite.com/flightsearch?dep_loc=lax&arrive_apt=nyc&dep_time=12&dep_date=2011-10-20&ret_date=2011-10-30. (I’ve left a lot of potential detail out, like return time, for brevity).
Say your “flightsearch” page has more filters. It’s really fancy, and clicking a column header sorts by that column. When a user clicks a filter, say selecting a max price of $500 per flight, the URI should change to, say, include “max_price=500”.
Now we sort by price:
Now that’s a nice URI I can email to my friend and say “look at the cool flights to New York, let’s go!”. It’ll have the exact filters I selected and even be sorted the same. This URI represents “Flights from LAX to NYC departing Oct 10, 2011, returning Oct 20, 2011 that cost less than $500 ordered by price”.
Sadly, you’ll see similar results on sites that might include the flight info, but once you start clicking on options like price, time windows, and sorts, those don’t factor into the URI.
I’ve never seen this done right, but it’s so easy to do right.
To be RESTful, (and have Unique Resources to Identify), you shouldn’t maintain “state” on the server. That means no session cookies (although I’ll concede to an authentication token, but I’ll get to that later). “But how do I store my user’s shopping cart” you ask? Let’s follow the rule: A shopping cart with certain items in it is a resource. That resource should have a unique identifier. If I go to that identifier (URI) later, I should see the same cart. If I send the URI to my friend, they should see the same cart.
So as I shop and click “add to cart”, my items get POSTed to /cart/myusername. A GET to /cart/myusername returns the items in the cart. Ideally, this would be a basic XML document that gets wrapped with a page layout via an appropriate CSS style sheet (sticking to the content/layout separation rules). That way, you could use it in an API to an iPhone app, or as a mobile web page, or as a normal web page by just using the right style sheet. But we’re not talking about that yet.
From here you might want to let the user set up multiple shopping carts. You could have:
A POST to http://www.myshoppingsite.com/cart/myusername/ now would create a new cart and return its ID (e.g. in the resulting web page). Subsequent pages would then POST to /cart/myusername/12345. The user could then create carts specifically to email to friends, e.g. “here’s a cart of all the stuff you need to build the game PC we were talking about”.
For details on how to formulate RESTful URIs, read that O’Reilly book above. And notice that handy URI that takes you to a page on Amazon.com and tells them I sent you. 😉
I’ve mentioned “GET” and “POST” above. These are HTTP methods. There are four total methods: GET, PUT, DELETE, and POST. These tell a server to GET a resource, PUT (change or replace) it, DELETE it, or add to it (POST). So if we were maintaining a database of products, product number 12345 might be identified by the URI http://www.mysite.com/product/12345. A PUT to this URI would change the product. A DELETE would delete the product. A GET would return the product’s info. You wouldn’t POST to this product. However, to create a new product, you would POST to http://www.mysite.com/product/, which could create a new product and return a new product number for it. You can read all about that in the RESTful Web Services book.
I mention HTTP methods because there’s a sub-rule that’s often broken in web pages: GET should be used to retrieve information, and POST should be used to change it. When you’re writing a web form in HTML, you can specify the method in the “form” tag. If you’re doing a search form, this method should be “GET”. If you’re changing a user’s password, it should be “POST”. HTML doesn’t support PUT or DELETE. If you use the wrong method, you’re hindering your site, and you could end up doing real damage in some cases. For example, if you POST a search form, the user can’t bookmark it and send the results to his friends. That could be (lots of) lost business. If you use GET in a form that adds a new product, you could accidentally hit “back”, and that product would be created again. If you reload the page, it’d be created again and again. What if you did that with a credit card order form? That could be hard to explain. Stick with good URIs, and use GET to get, POST to change, and you’ll make great sites.
Gather your content, and code it in straight, standard, valid XHTML
People often do this step backwards, and it gets confusing. They think they want a site to look cool, so the focus on graphics and/or use a template. That’s like painting a picture before you know what you want to paint.
One thing is true of every single web site: its sole purpose is to get some information to someone. Someone wants something, and a great site gets whatever that is to the user as easily as possible. If your site is a store, the perfect site would read the customer’s mind, charge their card, and ship the item they wanted to them. Your job is to get as close to that as possible.
So when you start designing your site, get your content together before ANYTHING else. If you’re starting a store, gather your inventory and marketing text. If you’re advertising your company’s services, get the info about your company together.
Break the information into chunks that are easy to search and navigate. e.g. on most basic company sites, you’ll have a page of contact/location information, a basic introduction page, a page with more detailed info about the company, and a page about your products or services.
Each chunk becomes a resource, and gets its own URI (for a basic web site, that means each page gets a URI, which is what happens if you put a page on a web server anyway. So you’ll get http://www.mysite.com/about.html, for example.)
The content goes into straight, boring XML or XHTML. No layout information. If I look at it, it should look like a linear outline. This means any device or browser will be able to display it. Or, an iPhone app could read it.
If you find yourself thinking about layout here, stop it. If you output a navigation menu, it should look like a bullet-point list. Use attributes to give classes and IDs to your elements. Then the CSS can use that information to create any layout you want.
Your page output should look something like this:
My Company - About Us css" TYPE="text/css" MEDIA=screen> <ol> <li><a href="/index.html">Home</a></li> <li>...</li> </ol> <h1>About Us</h1> We are a company that does stuff and things ...
Notice there’s nothing about layout in there. The navigation information is just in “li” tags, and the content of the page, if displayed without a style sheet, will just look like a boring outline.
The navigation menu, in REST parlance, provides information to the client about available resources based on the request for the current resource. In short, it tells you places you could go from here. The client (e.g. the browser) could choose to display that information, turn it into buttons in an app, or hide it completely.
Lay out your content using CSS
CSS is magic. It can do incredible things, including making the boring HTML above look like a full-blown web page. You can add background colors and images. You can place things anywhere on the page you want. You can (must) even have the content resize based on the browser window width. You can specify layouts for different media types, including “screen”, “print”, and “speech”. You can change the color of a button when you click on it. You can turn the navigation list above into a tab-like navigation menu that changes colors when you click on each tab. You can anchor the nav bar to the side of the screen while the rest of the page scrolls. Read all about it at w3.org.
The point here is, use CSS to lay out the content. If you want to support a different layout on a small screen than a big one, do it in CSS. You can do this through what’s now called “responsive design” (which we called “dynamic layout” back in 1996, but without “media queries”). Responsive design is very simple: lay out your content so that it moves dynamically instead of sitting like it’s on a piece of paper. There are many great articles on responsive design on the web – a couple of my current favorites are responsive design in 3 steps, 5 Useful CSS Tricks For Responsive Design, and iPhone Website Development. There are also excellent responsive WordPress themes (such as “Responsive”, which I’m using at the time of this posting).
I’d like to say a word about “mobile” sites: some sites provide a subset of their main site’s content for mobile devices. This is stupid. Responsive design helps fight this, but some sites still drop content from the mobile versions even then. Bad. Decide if your information is useful enough to include on your site or not. When you find yourself thinking “well, this page has too much information for a smaller screen”, maybe your page just has too much information. Consider breaking it up into smaller resources, or consider just dropping the “too much” part of the information. Don’t clutter the user’s browser and bandwidth just because it’s there. Again, this goes back to the “gather your content first” rule. If the user just wants to know the time, don’t give them a map of the world along with it. [The fancy phrases for this now are “progressive enhancement” or “mobile first design”.]
Ignore the flashy new technology, stick with well-established basics
There’s always something new and cool. The problem is that most of it doesn’t work well, or doesn’t run on a user’s browser, or breaks the rules above.
Get the user’s language from the Accept-Language header
A note about REST and sessions
RESTful services don’t store “state” on the server. That means it doesn’t matter what browser I use, where I come from, or how long I wait between requests. On a RESTful site, I could start a flight search on one computer, bookmark my URI, go to another computer, click the bookmark, and keep going. Or, I could start a shopping cart order on one system, email my friend the URI, and have him place the order for me. Of course, this isn’t how sites work. One big issue is “authentication”. In a RESTful web service, there are a few extra components to that URI request: Authentication (who are you?) and Permission (are you allowed to perform this method on this resource?).
So for our shopping cart, my friend would first have to prove to the server who he is, and then he’d have to have Permission to see my cart. It’s the Authentication step that gets tricky. Ideally, the user would prove who he is (usually using a username and password) with every request. Browsers do support this, but it’s not very friendly. This is usually worked around by using session cookies, which is difficult, non-RESTful, and causes annoying problems like taking the user to a page they didn’t request after logging in, forgetting the information in a huge form they entered, etc.