The names we give things can be so important because they can cause so much havoc. The fact that we call the basic organizing unit of a Web site a “page,” as in “Web pages,” has made the lives of Web designers immeasurably more challenging, and it’s a disservice to those coming to the Web from the world of print, too.
I’m not going to propose an alternative to the term page here — I may as well tape a “kick me” sign on my back if I’m going to venture in that kind of folly. I just thought it would be useful for me to articulate the confusion that I’ve seen that’s arisen from this particular terminology.
You Say Page, I Say Page
A Web page and a printed page are so materially different from one another that it’s almost ridiculous to use the same terminology to describe them. It’s nearly as counter-intuitive as using the terms “episode” (for a television show) and “issue” (for a magazine) interchangeably.
When Web designers think of a page, we tend to understand that it’s a page in name only, and that in fact its true nature is as a container for content, features and behaviors. But the idea of a page has such a deeply rooted connotation in centuries of printed matter that Web novices tend to think of Web pages as simply finite blocks of text and images, with functionality and interactions as only superficial garnishes.
The term burdens the digital page with the false expectation that it will share many similarities with a printed page, where a more accurate term might clean the slate. For someone who works in print, either as a content author or a designer, this semantic fuzziness can be a difficult hurdle to overcome, both because it’s an unfamiliar interpretation of the page concept, and because it’s an evolving and not always knowable idea — even to those of us so-called experts..
Web pages as a concept are still incredibly young and immature, such that Web designers barely understand what they’re capable of ourselves. We never know if we’ve created a truly successful Web page unless it’s been tested and tested again: in different browsers, under different conditions, before different audiences. And in many, many cases, we bear a burden to teach the user how to use our pages and their contents.
In the world of print, though, a page is a relatively straightforward construct, and learning what makes for a successful page is also relatively straightforward. In fact, the author or designer of any page can bring to bear centuries’ worth of prior art and practices when they develop a page. That is, creating a printed page can be done intuitively, with the benefit of knowledge that, as Don Norman might put it, is already out there, ‘in the world.’ There’s no need for a print designer to worry about teaching a reader how to turn a page, forward or backward, for example.
This pre-existing knowledge is a trap for print designers working online, and clearing the trap is one of the most challenging things about becoming comfortable with the medium. A lot of Web design today barely escapes the traditional confines of a digital translation of a printed page. But it’s also a trap for Web designers, too. It’s too easy to forget that the defining characteristics of a Web page are in continual flux; we’re creating new innovations regularly, and the pages of today are materially different from the pages of tomorrow.