Tactics for Template Based Design

The recent meeting of the UK usability professionals get together concerning accessibility is covered in isolanis weblog entry about the accessibility meeting. The blog entry also contained a link to Ian Lloyds presentation on the Nationwide Building Society website redesign. This presentation covered many interesting points, one that is applicable to most projects though is the management of templates in a template driven site. First of all though, what happens when you mismanage templates? The quality of the original template can often be compromised by later additions or modifications, these modifications can have ramifications unknown to the new user. Without clear guidelines on how to use the set of templates the wrong template could be used for the wrong type of page.

Misuse of templates can have disastrous effects on the usability of the site, navigation may become inconsistent within subsections of the site, and also the accessibility of the site, someone with no accessibility training may use an HTML table in an inappropriate manner.

To guard against problems like this manifesting themselves there must be a form of management control exercised over the templates, especially in organisations where more than one person maintains them. A useful tool is to define and document the uses and properties of the templates explicitly. Some useful aspects to note are:

  1. What each templates is for, and when to use it. (e.g. “this is the subsection homepage template”)
  2. How the templates were constructed.
  3. What you can change on the template.
  4. What you should leave alone.
  5. Screenshots of how pages should appear in different browsers.

As with most things, it is important to have a level of modularity in your templates to enable pages to be customised to a particular section without damaging the overall site. Make sure though that the extension mechanism is documented and understood, a useful documentation system is an intranet where everyone can easily get access to how to sue the templates.

Remember your set of site templates is where the usability and accessibility testing efforts are focused, don’t let the investment in usable and accessible templates be wasted, protect them and promote them.