Case studies: the basis of criticism and improvement

Before criticising the design or functionality of the UKAPW it's worth asking whether anyone has done it better. We take four financial websites as case studies. How do they lay out their sites? Is their content comparable in depth and nature to that of UKAPW? Can we learn anything from them?

Our contention is that there are indeed many things we can learn from other financial websites, especially from the US Society of Actuaries There are common themes which emerge from an analysis of these case studies:
  • Use of clear site elements, repeated consistently across the site aka "good layout"
  • A strong and focused home page which signposts high level site content
  • Consistent navigation and sitemap
  • Tightly written content with "doing" the focus as much as "telling"
  • Little "design for design's sake"; a user-centred approach

Consistency

The major lesson from all four case studies is consistency. This manifests itself in various ways, but primarily in terms of appearance (layout) and hence ease of use. There are few bad surprises on these sites; one page looks much like another. This is good news; you can quickly gauge what the site has to offer, whether it's of interest and where you're likely to find the material you want.

How do we ensure consistency?

One answer is to use website templates. We can do this in two ways.

[1] DIY templates

You search online for "free website templates" and download one you like. You then use it every time you want to start a new page. This is rather like picking up last month's Word report and updating it with this month's material. Of course it's clear how this works. But there's nothing stopping you altering this month's format for good or ill. You can changes the section titles etc of the report or accidentally delete a section.

[2] Formal templates

A good website development programme will support website templates. The approach is:
  • Take a typical page with its columns, header, footer etc.
  • Consider which parts will be the same page to page.
  • Mark the other areas "editable" – this is a key feature of the software.
  • The software will allow you to edit the editable areas and not the others.
  • Base every new page on the template.

Dreamweaver is a well known example of a commercial web development program. There are some free web editors which support "formal" (i.e. not DIY) web templates. Examples are given in the right hand pane.

DIY and formal templates: a comparison

The DIY template is a page of text, all of which can be edited. Pages based on the template are quite simply a copy of the text file. Elements of the template can therefore be overwritten, accidentally or otherwise.

A formal template is more than a text file; the Dreamweaver version has a .dwt extension. While pages are "based" on the template they are not copies of the template. Indeed, updating the template updates the format/appearance of all of the pages based on that template. That's the clever point.

myFIA is based on two templates: Fixed312.dwt for the 3-column pages and Fixed12.dwt for the 2-column pages. The author thoroughly recommends the use of formal templates compared to the DIY approach. Of course an informal template can form the basis for a formal template. The best of both worlds.