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scientific and technical website design projects news

Articles on website design

Member Newsletters

Screenshot of the DARE Newsletter at Mobile screen dimensions.
Most societies make use of Newsletters to keep in contact with membership; to let them know what their society is up to, and advertise up-coming conferences or other events. The mechanics behind getting this information out are varied, but for small and medium-sized groups the Emailed Newsletter is the most cost-efficient. The mechanics of actually getting the Newsletter out, however, are very varied, with a number of excellent online services.

Here, we will look at an entry level option, ALO Newsletter. This is a plugin available for WordPress users that allows you to compose your Newsletter using the tools you are familiar with. I have used ALO Newsletter for a number of years now for Lancashire MCS, so suggesting it as an option to clients was quite natural, and I felt pretty confident that the plugin was both up-to-the-job, and well maintained!

ALO handles the basic mechanics of an Emailed Newsletter very well, offering HTML and text versions, and throttling the mailing process to help prevent your mail server getting shut down as a spam source. This latter process allows you to use the Newsletter on a standard commercial hosting package without too many problems. Finally, ALO offers a report, giving you feedback on how successful your mailshot was, with estimates as to how many people actually read the Newsletter.

Clearly it is quite important to make the Newsletter both attractive, and easily readable! Normally, you would also want the Newsletter to reflect your society’s branding, and this will require the development of a custom template for the Newsletter. Generally a Newsletter works better with a simplified layout (as email clients are not as clever as web browsers overly complicated styling is punished), so development costs can be kept down.

Here we will just look at a coupe of new and updated designs for Newsletters. The main recent change is to design them so that they display well on a mobile device. Here the HTML based newsletter offers massive advantages over say an emailed PDF version of your print or Word Processed Newsletter. Font sizes stay at a legible size, and in a mobile-friendly design the content will re-flow automatically to work with the narrow screen!

The DARE newsletter (top right, shown in mobile view, but links to a full-screen image) is a standard Newsletter design (as is our MCS Newsletter). Visitors to your website can be invited to subscribe to the Newsletter, and the copy in the Newsletter offers offers the usual ‘view in browser’ and unsubscribe links, plus customisation, referring to the subscriber by name. This example was a test put together by Jean at DARE, and is very clean, attractive (and easily read), with short articles offering links for more information on the main website.

Mobile version of the ESB Newsletter.

We have also recently updated the European Society of Biomaterials (ESB) Newsletter (right). This serves the membership of the society, and takes its subscribers directly from the membership database (as a member of the public you cannot subscribe to it). As a consequence we are able to do some clever tricks in the back end.

This Newsletter has sender groups determined by membership type (Academic member, student, industrial member), and by status (whether or not the member has paid the current subscription), and by mailing preference (the member can ask only to receive essential society news concerning their membership). This allows the Society to remind members when their subscriptions are due (without having to badger members who have already paid), as well as do the usual communication jobs required of a Newsletter…

Soft Matter Physics website

Soft Matter Physics - polymer diffusion

We have just completed our update of Mark Geoghegan’s research website. Or original design from 2007 was extremely clean and distinctive. Much of this is retained in the new site, offering visual continuation. The main additions have been to improve mobile compatibility, which is essential for a modern site, and back end updates to make it easier to maintain. The new mobile interface is particularly approachable, with icons offering a choice of menu, and quick links to the main site pages…

An important part of the update has been to convert Flash based animations to browser native formats. At one point Google offered an adequate translation service for simple animations, but unfortunately this is no longer available, and we found that none of the online translation services available at present could manage complex movies with Actionscript driven interactivity.

As you might expect, translating ‘linearised’ animations into video formats resulted in both large file size and a pixelated, poorly resolved movie. As a consequence we spent some time developing a CSS/Javascript framework that would allow us to re-write the features making use of current technology, with no third party script libraries. An instructive example, the linearised (simplified) Flash movie for ‘Single Polymer Diffusion‘ weighed in at 125kB, its .mov standard (raster) movie equivalent was over 10MB!

Converting the moving items into GIF or PNG sprites got the raster version down to 1.5MB – a massive improvement, but moving items showed significant graininess, and the file size was large enough to result in noticeable delay before the movie could be played.

The final movie (see Prof Geoghegan’s website: Single Polymer Diffusion) has a raster (JPEG) background (33kB) with HTML native sprites (~0kB) and 70kB of Javascript to position and move the sprites over the image. The final movie was, therefore, slightly smaller than the equivalent Flash file*.

* Technical note: In most instances Flash files would be smaller than the equivalent HTML/CSS/Javascript application, because they can be delivered in compressed binary format. In this instance, however, text is handled by the HTML page (so no overhead for downloading fonts), and the moving items could be represented by duplicating a simple HTML native shape, so the shape of the moving item could be coded in perhaps 200 bytes – leaving us with the task of positioning these shapes on our back-drop using Javascript (which is consequently quite ‘windy’)…

High Polymer Research Group update

Screenshot of the high polymer website on a wide screen device.

The High Polymer Research Group (HPRG) has been running polymer science and technology conferences annually since 1960. Over this time polymer science has changed dramatically, from Flory’s Nobel address to the group in 1972 on polymer conformation, to functional materials and nanoparticles in this year’s conference.

We had the pleasure of re-designing the High Polymer Research Group website in 2007, and have subsequently managed the site for the trustees. A lot has happened in the WWW since 2007, with the development of CSS3 and HTML5, and the increasing stability of Javascript as a client side scripting language. The adoption of these web technologies has been driven by the move from desktop to mobile browser platforms, necessitating the adoption of ‘adaptive website design’ – web designs that allow the same content to be displayed across a wide range of display types and sizes (see, for example Websites for smart phones take centre stage (2013)).

The High Polymer conference site has a simple advertising role to members, it needs to be robust, and good for a few years service! We therefore looked at organic styling changes to the existing site, rather than following the latest design trends (which will likely look quite passe this time next year) while working in mobile-device compatibility.

Navigation designed with the user in mind

From the array of site enhancements now available, we selecting simple features that would assist the visitor in getting about on the page, and navigating the site as a whole. The fixed top banner provides context sensitive links to the top of the page and the home page, and opens the full screen width menu for mobile devices, if it detects a narrow screen device.

Flexibility – adapting the site to each year’s theme

The new site banner is designed to be replaced to match each year’s theme, while permitting old program listings to retain this identity. Banners based on the conference location were added to old conferences on the site (which did not have individual banners). This will allow the site to change a little each year, and help avoid it becoming ‘stale’.

Crisper graphics

The final change was to re-master logos and line art in SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) format. This has been around for a few years now, and all current browsers can now support it (we offer PNG’s as fall backs if you are still running IE7 or 8!). The SVG format, being a vector file, rather than a pixelating bitmap, adds crispness to each graphic. Its use ensures that visitors with newer ‘retina’ or similar high resolution displays see cleanly defined logos with no blur or distortion. SVG has been a long time coming, but looks set now to displace Adobe’s ‘Flash’ platform where high resolution coupled to a small file size is required.

Alloy research in the UK

DARE alloys research splash screen.

The United Kingdom has a long history of industrial metalworking, and even though a lot of our heavy industry has moved overseas, there is still a significant steel industry, and strategically important industries engaged in high tech alloy manufacture. It has therefore been a great pleasure to work with the DARE research project, which combines the strengths of some leading UK Universities in alloy research with key industrial interests to look into the development of the next generation of alloys. My brief exposure to their research programme, writing copy based on the submitted brief to EPSRC, was also quite a learning experience, as the scientific development of new alloys depends on control of non-equilibrium crystallisation dynamics from atomic to macro-scale – which explains why this process is so demanding (for which we can also read slow and expensive!).

The website includes a logo designed by Sebastian Conran Associates, which is base on a crucible, and employs the orange Pantone 151C – that closest to the melting colour temperature of Titanium (1941K or 1668°C). The logo design informs the colour choice throughout the site.

The site itself is rather different to other recent sites by CookandKaye, in that we are using a splash page, screenshot above right; this features a reduced menu, a brief strap line for the project, and a large logo overlying a full screen background image of metal turnings from a lathe. The whole combines to give an instant picture for visitors to the site, letting them know that they have got to the right location (or not!). This is particularly useful on mobile devices, as the simple message can be readily scaled down to whatever real-estate the visitor has to hand.

DARE optimise the alloy manufacturing process.

Interior pages (as above) can carry banner featured images, which are derived from DARE project partners and from stock photos – reflecting the wide scope of the research outcomes. These images give interior pages a strong visual impact, whilst keeping the message simple and easy to read. These pages have a traditional ergonomic menu down the right hand margin of the page at full size, but this folds away to a drop down menu at the top of the page on mobile devices. This allows us an extensive, but easily navigated menu system, while allowing us to devote the full page width to content on narrower screens.

Taking the trial and error out of alloy design.

The image above is a mobile view of an interior page of the site, one that describes the project objectives. The production of modern alloys still depends a great deal on the craft approach of trial and error, and approach that the DARE project aims to put on a sounder scientific basis…

DARE, designing alloys for resource efficiency

Mobile statistics

In the headlines today (6th August 2015) is the Ofcom report on the Communications Industry in the UK (Their data summary is here). This shows that 61% of people in the UK used a mobile device to access the internet in the last year.

Going beyond this statistic to a meaningful measure of how important mobile compatibility might be for your web site is a little more tricky. Global statistics (from Statcounter) indicate that data access through mobile devices (including tablets) is now at around 35% of all traffic.

This data does not tie in well with other statistics – including probably your own server statistics. A ‘typical’ website, such as that run by W3C Schools indicates that 5.4% of all visits are from mobile devices (W3C schools). This figure shows a slow but steady year-on-year increase of about 1%…

So, what is going on? Explanations range from the mundane (people watch a lot of video on their phones) to the apocalyptic (independent websites are dead!). The lesson, however, is clear. While desk or lap-tops are still the most used devices on the internet, nobody can afford to ignore mobile devices …

New site for Noahgene

Noahgene provide state-of-the-art molecular genetic services to animal and plant breeders, conservationists, and researchers worldwide. Their new site has been some months in development, but its now live, and making good progress up the search engines!

noahgene

As normal with a website, we had a separate test version, visible to the client and her employees, where each proposed development could be viewed and adapted before being made live. We first looked at developing a DNA movie for them, but this did not work well given the requirements for getting information about the business over easily; the animation was too distracting…

In the end site we made some developments with our Javascript based slide show, to pause when the visitors mouse (or finger) hovered over a slide, so that the content could be easily read. Additional content appears in the hover state, so as not to distract from the slide image when this is in auto-run mode. This makes a change from our previous shows, where text content was normally shown in full to one side or below the relevant slide.

The slide background was a custom development, and is a codon-coloured DNA sequence from Arabidopsis (one of the species that Noahgene have worked on). To create this we built a small application that read (short) DNA sequences, and spit out the appropriately coloured codons.

The site is fully mobile compatible, offering easy viewing and navigation on screen sizes larger than 360px in width.

To see the final site, please visit Noahgene’s website.

CSS3 animated slideshows

Slide-shows have become commonplace on websites, and there are three reasons for this:

A slide show makes good use of our page, using the time dimension to tell our visitors about what we do lets us get over a lot of content easily without their having to scroll about the page, or navigate through the site. Well scripted slide-shows are, therefore really helpful tools…

Dependable Javascript libraries such as JQuery and Moo Tools, allows pretty much any web designer to script a simple show – and most browsers will display it!

Loss of Flash before the mobile browser, most designers would build a fancy website using Flash to create an immersive ‘experience’. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons Flash is not supported on many mobile platforms, and as more people browse the web on their phone Flash has become less attractive. It is hard to script animation in Javascript to the same quality that you could achieve easily in Flash, so even well funded sites have opted for the slideshow!

What is the best technology to drive your slide show?

The question is, is a Javascript (or Flash) driven slideshow your best option? Whether you use Javascript or Flash you visitor needs either a third party plugin, or a third party Javascript library loaded into their browser before the slideshow will work.

Introducing CSS animations

The alternative, a CSS3 driven animation offers the advantage that the animation code is included in the page, no calls to anything external, so a faster page load. In principle this technology also offers better cross-platform implementation. Being part of the W3C specification for CSS3/HTML5, all browsers will someday be able to run this – the only remaining question is should you be using it now?

We’ve been very pleased to see how well CSS3 based animations are now implemented – our tests indicate that all current browsers support this technology [1].

We’ve found CSS3 animations to be quite easy to write – so we can focus on what we want to do, rather than how to do it (and keep costs down).

Being a core part of the HTML specification, it is quite easy to offer alternative content, if a visitor is using an older browser.

We’ve been working on the technology for a while, our first public implementation is now available on the Electronic and photonic molecular materials research group website:

Electronic and photonic molecular materials research group, University of Sheffield.

And the future?

CSS3 animation is good, and can take on the role of a simple slide-show without problem, as well as adding some nice interactive effects to the page. Clearly it is a technology that we will be developing with our clients over the coming years.

A more complete web animation platform, however, will rely on the integration of CSS3 with Javascript and SVG graphics [2]. These technologies are also in active development at CookandKaye.

[1] Current versions of Firefox, Opera and Internet Explorer support CSS3 animations as native, Chrome and Safari still currently require the proprietary -webkit- prefix.

[2] SVG or ‘scalable vector graphics’ are pictures based on mathematically defined curves. They need very little bandwidth – so they are quick to download, but they are also scalable – so you can expand a picture made up of them as much as you like without it breaking up. This is useful if you want to use the same graphic for a phone (perhaps 600px wide) and a wide screen monitor (2400px or more across).

WordPress 4

WordPress logo

WordPress 4 is now available, this offers better integration with social media, and improved embedding of video and other content into your posts and pages. There are no known issues with the update from version 3 to version 4 for CookandKaye customers, so as long as you back-up before you start, you can use the auto-update feature to enjoy the improved performance! (Contact us if you need any assistance).

IMPORTANT NOTICE: If your WordPress version is before 3, you may require a couple of tweeks to your database settings to keep plugins running, please contact us before updating!

Redesign of Lochaline Dive Centre’s website

Lochaline Dive Centre screenshot

Working from the existing WordPress templates to keep control over costs, we have updated the Lochaline Dive Centre website to match their current printed identity.

The re-designed site features a home page slide-show, with visual guide to the Dive Centre’s booking system, to allow visitors to plan their diving or snorkelling holiday on the West Coast of Scotland. These, and pre-existing features, such as the interactive map of dive sites in the Sound of Mull, have also been converted to a flexible layout, permitting the site to be more easily used on mobile devices with smaller screens.

Lochaline Dive Centre

SEM Calibration Standards

SEM Calibration Standards – is a new website for Eastern Analytical, a long established company developing software and standards for analytical electron microscopy. Their products have a broad range of applications including forensic work.

Screenshot of the Calibration Standards home page

Above: Screenshot of the Calibration Standards home page, shown at about 50% scale. The home page copy links directly to the four primary sales areas for the company.

SEM Calibration Standards icon in the form of an SEM stud Products available from calibrationstandards.net include innovative sample holders and software, that can allow you relocate a trace of contamination – such as a gunshot residue – on a large sample quickly. Motorised stages that permit you to compare wear marks from two cartridge cases, to establish in a visually convincing manner that they were fired from the same weapon.
Above left: The icon design from the Calibration Standards website is in the form of an SEM stud.

Calibration Standards on a small screen We built the website in WordPress, which makes it as easy as possible for the site owner to add or edit product information and other details. The site uses a bespoke template which provides pages in ‘HTML5’, and uses the latest style sheet code (CSS3) elements to permit page resizing. This allows visitors to review the site on a large screen attached to a PC, or on the move on their smart-phone.
Right: A screenshot of the Calibration Standards website as it would appear on a small screen, with the menu tab displaying the menu.

The smart phone (small screen) design has a simple flip-out menu and shopping cart, to make site navigation as simple and intuitive as possible.

The WordPress template permits the addition of extended meta-content to pages, to assist with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).