Pages Are the Problem

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.

Early On(line)

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.

  1. This brings up a personal peeve I had in mind when I designed web sites (not “pages”) for a living. At least in my neck of the woods, the common rule was to charge web design “per page”, and some went as far as using a screen equivalent of a 8.5″ x 11″ sheet as a charging measure yardstick. Clients were often puzzled when I explained to them I didn’t work that way.

    The mentality of “web pages” – a term I always have been uncomfortable with- implies you created a static bunch of pictures and text, finished it, then moved on to another, then another, and so on. Which probably was true in ye olde days of the Web circa 1998, but a highly impractical concept in these days where even the most personal web sites feature a database-backed CMS behind the scenes. The term “web page” is a huge misnomer because it’s not just about “pretty design”, but rather, about developing a way to experience hyperlinked data in a constant state of flux – something definitely absent from the traditional printed page concept.

  2. I generally refer to them as “screens”. I still don’t find that term to be remotely adequate to overcome the whole web-page-as-finished-object fallacy, but it’s a start.

  3. Oh boy, this has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Like David I find that when talking about the “Application Web” I say screens and revert back to pages when I’m talking more “Document Web.”

    But neither of those terms work well and as the lines get all burry and grey it gets harder and harder to pin this stuff down.

    And it goes beyond the “page” problem. What about “content” – I mean, what does that mean? It’s usually seen as words on a “page” but that leaves out all sorts of good stuff. And at a higher level, what about “Web” as a medium? Is that accurate or is it more of a context now that we’re spilling beyond the browser?

    In any-case, there are more questions than answers here, but certainly we need to get away from the “printed” page metaphor.

  4. ‘Page’ is essentially a metaphor for what we’re looking at and I think that metaphors are often inexact. Other terms we use for computer interaction such as ‘windows’ and ‘menus’ can have quite different interaction methods in real-life.

    It is quite difficult to come up with a perfect metaphor for the things we do/use when those words already imply other objects and behaviours.

  5. I believe, as I am now immersing myself in Silverlight technologies, that as web technology progresses there will be no need to make comparisons between print and web interface. In the near future, content we view within a web browser will not only parallel the power of real applications but will create a new paradigm within which we explore world wide web content.
    The NY Times Reader is a perfect example. While perusing the beta version I have constantly been in awe of the power of it.

  6. However, it is hard to find any other suitable analogy to the web design paradigm; it is quiet accurate to define as “page” a flat bright surface, filled with symbols and images, gathered up to communicate something, put it in front of our eyes, ready to be scanned and interpreted, and fastly changed and removed as we acquire the main information or concept we were looking for.
    I always sustained that the best examples of what we called good web design are based upon editorial and print design, coming from ink and paper; while in the other hand we have several overrated cases of misunderstood design appliances, most of which fail to effectively communicate the main idea, in favour of colorful and trendy interface widgets and useless visual paraphernalia.

    Moreover, the origin of the “page” analogy is truncate; ┐do we refer our print publications as a bunch of “pages”?. As well as we have newspapers, books, magazines, brochures and plenty more ways to define print communication, we are also trying terms like “portals”, “searchers”, “mailers”, “feeders”… That would be a good starting point.

  7. Being “Marked Up” is the basic difference adding an interactivity on top of the same print page. Obvious stuff, it’s a Page in a Web format, didn’t everything go there too? “Second Life”? “Communities”? now if a medium change is going to change the semantics, then god help us we need to change a lot of names just because the Medium has changed, right?

  8. Excellent post. The term “page” is ostensibly meant for end-users and is intended to make the feel comfortable by alluding to a familiar, pre-digital artifact. It is hardly the only term that has been expropriated from the world of flesh and bone and placed inappropriately in a digital context.

    There was a time when this felt post-modern and cutting-edge, but today it seems to be getting in the way. Virtual reality needs to give way to our current realities. The kitsch appeal is wearing thin.

    PS: the use of such terms as page, window, menu, and the phenomena of brushed metal and hyper-reality in user interfaces, being, as they are, post-modern devices, is not so much metaphor as metonymy. And therein lies the problem upon which Khoi’s post elaborates.

  9. Ah, Khoi, you’ve seemingly just touched on an issue that drives me batty – and it has for several years. It all boils down to a basic impulse to avoid creating new names for new things. Considering that a good bit of English is Germanic in origin, it’s funny that the Germans have the exact opposite impulse.

    This has been bothering me for years, ever since I first started editing with Final Cut and, the more fool I, building in Flash. Yes, at the same time. Yes, I made it through. Several people on my QA team almost didn’t.

    Both have frames, keyframes, and timelines. Heck, they even have layers, composite modes, filters, Bezier curves and more in common – at least, when you look at the names. And when you work in two different arenas using the same vocabulary, it’s very easy to get lost, frustrated, or drunk. Again, personal experience.

    The function of a frame in Flash versus a frame in Final Cut about encapsulates this problem for me. One is a container to build on, the other is a panel to compose. (And for those of you who don’t know the complexities of the frame in Final Cut, think about what you go through when choosing your new HDTV, and then imagine composing imagery for that mess.)

    What we need is someone to name things, not create superficially accurate yet specifically disastrous metaphors using words that have already acquired multiple meanings.

  10. I completely agree, Kevin. It seems the entire computer world is defined by recycled terminology. Especially in a creative field such as web design (even web is a recycled word!) we should be able to come up with something new every now and then.

  11. Like everyone else here – I’ve been dealing with this a lot recently. I just left an interactive design firm where people were pretty comfortable thinking outside page based architecture to work as design director at an ad agency that has never done a single interactive project. Trying to get people to think around the notion that a site is collection of pages, each having little or no relation to any other has been a challenge. One thing I’ve been trying to do is introduce the concept of state driven design, where instead of moving from page to page, the viewer is simply changing the state of the site. Using this model – people seem to be more comfortable with the idea that interactions, design, or functionality in one area can alter or relate to those in other areas.

  12. Early in my designer to web architect career I worked at the ISP level, and there was this argument about the free dinky ftp Web sites offered to dial-up customers. Marketing folks wanted to pose a distinction between that offering and the “” hosting products. So sadly they called them “Free Web Pages.” Note the plural.

    Now I find it more appropriate to use terms like site and location. Even now I refer to those dinky sort of “sites” as “spaces” to hosted end-users.

    But, sometimes it can still seem easier to refer to that singular document as “page” although the true “pages” are becoming rare.

  13. Right on the nail, this has been a discussion for a number of years, ever since the ‘web page’ started to take on form and function, and therefore allowing the user to interact with the content therein. Khoi, I like the concept of a ‘container’, yet these are the elements within the page (or are they ‘promos’, ‘modules’, ‘spots’, ‘chunks’ … another area of contention?), as there are a number of ‘containers’ for content, functionality and ‘furniture’.

    I was asked the other day to find out ‘how many pages X site has’, and it drove me mad. This is so off the mark, yet you are right it is the only term which executives (not all I have to say) and corporations can use to describe what they have within their ‘sites/offering/services’, as they are used for the primary metrics of success ‘page views’ or ‘pages per user’.

    Until that is changed, then the term will live on, but with increased function over form, then it will not long until this is no longer used as a metric, and interactions and ‘dwell time’ are used as the key metrics, but in the meantime, the page holds the key to advertising and KPIs for nearly all web properties.

  14. Excellent topic. I think that one of the related issues is the complaint I get from a client here and there about having to scroll. The idea that all info should “fit” to a single screen resolution (usually the client’s) so that all you have to do is click (i.e. “turn the page”) and not be bothered by scrolling is a relic of the misconception that online pages should be like printed pages – and a confining and frustrating misconception that designers often have to carefully wade through.

    p.s. I also used to work for a firm that would “count pages” every time they were approached by a new potential web project to help determine the cost of the project…

  15. I tend towards the word “layouts” when referring to “web pages”. Layout is an arrangement of items within a definite or indefinite space, which fits both the current and former idea of a “web page”. The bonuses are that almost everyone understands the concept of layout, they are comfortable using it interchangeably with “page” or “spread” when referring to a printed piece, and it doesn’t restrict the mind to think of a finite area, and it’s scalable.

    From there, content blocks can be called just that, or “elements” as I prefer. An element is always part of a larger whole, but it too is a scalable idea.

  16. “Page” is an apt metaphor, but it’s still just a metaphor.

    How about:

    web “instance”
    web “instantiation”
    web “iteration”
    web “actuality”

    “Page” is nice, though, because it’s only one syllable.

    Why not “web thing”?

    A “web happening,” perhaps? No, let’s not go there.

    Perhaps a neologism is called for. Let’s see what happens.

  17. The major problem with the new term of ‘web page’, is that we’ll be required to explain it to the common users first, as most people seems to get familiar with ‘page’ for now.

  18. Interestingly, we can discuss this here and the discussion stays civil. Move the discussion over to Web Accessibility and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.0, where reference is made to Web Units and it causes an uprising.

    Either way, you are correct. Page just doesn’t cut it.

  19. Hey, I like “web leaf” a lot. It’s monosyllabic (a good thing) yet evocative, and it fits in both the “web site as book” and the “web site as tree” metaphor. Good work!

    “Web units”? Ewww. Too sterile.

  20. Actually, Khoi, I totally forgot to mention a trend that bears directly on the question of nomenclature — the increasing use of CMS software to deliver dynamic content, and the terminology generated to accommodate this trend.

    So, for example, Within a CMS like PHPWCMS, you have ‘sections’, ‘articles’, and ‘content parts’. I think ‘content part’ is inelegant; I’d prefer a term more like ‘element’. Alongside blogging’s ‘posts’ and ‘categories’ and ‘tags’, these all focus more on content than containers.

  21. I’ve started to talk about ‘views’ and ‘feeds’ instead of pages… I find that particularly when talking about dynamically published information the idea of the ‘pages’ is unhelpful and reinforces a misleading paradigm.

    I like the idea of a ‘view’ because views are like windows onto information; and a single piece of information can be seen from more than one view.

  22. “Leaf” is elegant, simple, meaningful, brilliant and not terribly internal or cryptic (any name change will have an adoption and grasping curve.) After reading this post and its comments I went back to work and it finally made sense why the mark for the development application I use, Coda, is in fact a leaf.

    I love the concept of growing sites. Code changes and grows (or shrinks) with each re-factor and designs can progress or mature much like an organic process. Calling what we build “pages” puts too much permanency, finality and way too much sterility on them. Khoi, thanks for sharing your thoughts and facilitating discussions like this.

  23. What a wonderful topic! And I spied some thoughtful suggestions. Leaf is good: short, organic(-ish) and alludes to the protean character of web design. However, like ‘view’, or ‘screen’, leaf may be a little awkward because of its original meaning.

    Metaphors, I believe, should be synaesthetic, subliminally prompting a speaker to recall them. Perhaps a hint of onomatopoeia, like the sibilants in ‘flick’ or ‘slide’ to suggest the movement as one scrolls. Perhaps even ‘scroll’ or ‘screed’…a ‘web screed’. Mmmm, not sure.

    Better still, a neologism: Technology comes of age when it stops defining itself by what preceded it. How about combining ‘scroll’ and ‘page’ to create ‘scrage’ or ‘proll’? A ‘web scrage’ anyone…?

    Such a form (and it’s a suggestion that I’m not totally crazy about as it does not feel suitably poetic) meets all the criteria: new and distinctive; short or monosyllabic; and subtly synaesthetic. Or so it seems to me.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.