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Assembling Your Web Toolbox

Building a website means building Web documents (whether interactive or not), creating graphics, constructing a set of files that let you present the right combination of words, pictures, and functionality to get your message across, and to serve the needs of your target audience. For this kind of work, a certain basic toolkit is really important. I'll talk about the kinds of tools you'll want to pull together, and mention a few personal favorites I've used for years to help me work on the many websites I've brought to life. I'll also share some other good tool resource sites, so you can check out other experts' top tool picks as well.

Although there are many more tools you could add to the very basic set I describe here, you'll find it difficult to get much done without at least this minimal collection:

  • HTML or Text Editor: Any simple, plain text editor will do, but more specialized tools make the job easier. HTML (and XHTML) documents are nothing more than ASCII text files, so Notepad does quite nicely, if you're willing to do lots of grunt work yourself. One step up from Notepad and other similar text-only editors (like Programmer's File Editor, or pfe, from www.lancs.ac.uk/people/cpaap/pfe) is the terrific freeware program called HTML-Kit (available from www.chami.com). It has all kinds of great capabilities, including the ability to convert between HTML versions and to validate HTML documents. Macintosh users are uniformly wild about BBedit in much the same way I'm wild about HTML-Kit (visit www.barebones.com for more information about BBedit). At the apex of this class of tools you'll find website authoring and management suites like Macromedia Dreamweaver and Microsoft FrontPage, among many others. These are overkill for the kind of sites I'm talking about in this article, but if you already know how to use them, why not?

  • Graphics/image editor: A decent image editing and graphics authoring tool is a must for anybody who wants to add some visual interest to a website. Sure, you can do a lot with clip art and graphics lifted from other Web pages (don't forget to look for copyright notices, and don't take what's not freely given to the public), but sooner or later you're going to want to build your own images, or touch up your own photos. Basic built-in tools include items like Microsoft Paint or MacPaint; they're fine for simple editing, building icons, and low-grade stuff like that. I recommend a general-utility graphics package like JASC's PaintShop Pro. High-end packages like Adobe Illustrator or PhotoShop are probably overkill, but again if you've got 'em and know how to use 'em, why not?

  • File transfer utility: For visitors to see your images and documents, you've got to copy them to the Web server where they'll go to view them. Sure, most modern operating systems include some kind of File Transfer Protocol (FTP) client that you can use to move files, but better tools include what some experts call "Web transfer agents" that can synchronize a site image on a remote server with what's on your hard drive (or vice versa), greatly simplifying the job of updating a website as needed. Programs like NetLoad and Internet Neighborhood are low-cost tools that do this kind of job particularly well. Here again, if you've got access to FrontPage or DreamWeaver, those "do-it-all" tools can handle this job as well (but I still like the others better, and use them by preference anyway).

  • A bag of interactive Web widgets: To enable your site to process forms, handle user input, and otherwise interact with users, you've got to make canned software available to your users through your Web pages. On a hosted site, this means using whatever widgets are available on your home server. It's important to know what's in this bag of tricks, and how to use them, which is why I cover this topic in more detail in the next section.

  • HTML validator [optional]: Modern Web browsers are pretty forgiving when it comes to making ill-formed or syntactically incorrect Web documents look good on screen. I say "the heck with that," and urge all Web neophytes and hobbyists to take the extra step of validating their Web pages at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to make sure your work adheres to well-known rules of the Web road. It's free to all comers, and a bit frustrating to learn to use, but worth the satisfaction that taking the extra time to validate your work should bring. Visit http://validator.w3.org/file-upload.html to upload your HTML documents for a good check-out; visit www.htmlhelp.com or www.webdeveloper.com for help in interpreting what the validator will try to tell you!

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