* Effective Web Site Design, Development, and Graphics Since 1996 *

Interviews: Interview by Ron Scheer

Originally published as “Music and Web Design, an Interview with Shirley Kaiser,” April 2000, by Ron Scheer at saywhatyoumean.com (Web site no longer online).

Shirley Kaiser is a Web designer, musician and composer living near Sacramento, California. Her business site skdesigns.com has grown from a single personal page that first appeared on AOL in July 1996.

Your site reflects a wide range of interests and talents: graphic design, music, and content areas including healing and spirituality, Web tutorials, and California floods. How did it get started?

I wanted to learn HTML, so I decided to create an annotated resource site. It was a great way to learn. Internet Resources was born using my then one-year-old 486 PC.

Today, I have over 300 webpages of material in about 20-30 different categories across 4 domain names.

On my site, there's a timeline showing the last 4.5 years and how these different business areas developed.

What caused each of these areas to evolve?

  1. My own interests in a variety of subjects,
  2. Feedback I've received from visitors to my site,
  3. Public service needs at specific points in time,
  4. My needs to promote my business and provide clients with information.

My overall site reflects many of my own varied interests and passions in life, even though that has not been a conscious or deliberate intent.

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You're a musician, composer, and Web site designer. In what ways is creating a Web site like composing music?

They are both creative expressions. They both require a commitment of my entire self, total concentration, being totally enveloped in creating, and I MUST let go of any kind of judgment of whatever flows out.

When I truly allow the creative energy to flow, amazing things can happen.

This is the case whether I'm sitting at my piano playing or if I'm sitting at my computer seeing what happens with Photoshop. Feeling unrestrained and completely free is the key.

How does this feeling produce good Web site design?

The music I create and the Web sites I create all contain elements of space, clean lines, simplicity, and purpose. They all relay what cannot be told in words.

In music, silent space, such as a pause, makes a point of its own. So does white space on a page. Silence within music emphasizes the sounds just as white space on a page emphasizes the text and graphics.

I don't care at all about fancy bells and whistles and superficial splash. I may have the ability to create fancy, detailed graphics that impress someone or to play dazzling, incredibly complicated and difficult music, but that's not the point.

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How does what you describe apply to a business Web site?

I concentrate on a deeper connection. That may sound rather corny regarding a business Web site, but ultimately it's the connection that prompts someone to submit an order, to email for more product information, to return to the Web site, to recommend a Web site to someone else.

It's the connection between myself and someone else when I play the music I've composed, and the connection between myself and the piano or the computer. They are both instruments expressing in a different medium.

For a graphic designer, you have been very restrained in the use of graphics on your site. Care to comment on that?

Absolutely! First of all, I see content as the most important ingredient. Graphics accentuate or illustrate the content, to provide an impression, to help maintain product branding, company recognition, or help promote a certain mood or feeling.

It's also critical that pages load quickly because, as you know, people tend not to stick around very long if they have to wait for a slow loading graphic.

It's also definitely a challenge to build a Web site that that maintains a consistently good appearance on the variety of operating systems, monitors, and resolutions (then there's wireless coming into play, too!). This emphasizes to me the need for judicious use of graphics.

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Does this preference reflect your overall design philosophy?

My approach leans toward simplicity and open space (although there are certainly exceptions to that, depending on a particular client's needs).

It's not necessary to fill every single pixel of the page, and I feel that it is in fact detrimental to do so. It's a lot to take in.

As the technology improves I'm sure this will all change so that download time is no longer much of an issue. Will my overall philosophy change? Nope, as that isn't related to bandwidth issues.

How did websitetips.com get started?

From a one-page Web design category within the Internet Resources site. However, due to my own interest and growing traffic, I continued to expand it, finally buying the WebsiteTips.com domain name.

I write articles based on common questions I receive and helpful tips that I can provide to others. I am also beginning to accept articles and tips from other authors.

I've also written tutorials with clients in mind, such as a series on basic HTML to update their own content, how to organize email, the benefits of subscribing to newsletters and discussion lists, and an overview of shopping cart software.

Additionally, I have provided over 1,000 annotated resources on a variety of topics related to Web sites, from HTML and fonts to search engine optimization and cross-browser accessibility and disabled access needs.

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ShirleyKaiser.com is the music area of your site?

Yes, this site is a direct result of wanting to promote my concerts and upcoming CD/audio cassette. It lightly touches on my lifelong passion and academic studies with the piano, performing, and my first hand experiences with how music can so deeply impact (and help) our lives at its very core.

And linkwaregraphics.com?

My main Web site design and development business is centered around custom design and Web site architecture. Linkwaregraphics.com is in the development phase, with a projected online date slated for this summer.

It will offer reasonably priced complete Web site sets to those who wish to build their own Web sites but want high quality graphics for them (I'll offer customization of the sets, too, if needed).

How does your site happen to have flood information?

The 1997 Floods, Northern California Information Resources site grew from an immediate local need to provide information as quickly as possible during a severe crisis situation where I've lived my entire life.

I started up the only one-stop Internet resource for flood victims and volunteers to quickly and easily locate help at that time.

Why have you continued to maintain this material?

Because of steady traffic flow and interest from educators, historians, researchers, and students. With about 150-200 unique visitors per week, it's certainly worth keeping available to the public.

How did you come to put both your personal and business interests on the same site?

I did not originally intend to integrate my business site with my other more personal sites. However, over time I continued to refer clients to various areas.

So by latter 1998 I began to consider how to best design the information architecture and visual design to integrate this huge variety of contents, both for easy navigation to visitors and for easy maintenance.

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Organization of so much content must be a challenge. What have you had to do to make it easy for visitors to get around and find what they're looking for?

A major key is to think in terms of being the visitor. Visitors must effortlessly find whatever is available at the site.

Easy, clear, and convenient navigation is critical and remains a top priority for all of my Web site designs, whether for my own sites or for clients.

Visitors also land on any page of my sites via search engines, site links, and bookmarks. It's therefore critical that each page can stand on its own.

Someone dropping into a graphics tutorial, for example, will instantly see the navigation and see that they're on one page of a large Web site where they may find further information or resources of interest.

I also use a lot of “to top of page” links, and I nearly always include bottom of page text navigation on each page in addition to other navigation, such as down one side or at the top of the page.

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Any other tips for helping visitors navigate?

Last month (March 2000) I implemented a search engine at WebsiteTips.com. I've gotten positive comments and results, so I'll be expanding it throughout all four domain names during the coming year.

I have continued to consider converting much of my annotated resources to a database to generate pages on the fly based on what people are looking for.

However, I prefer my current approach with HTML pages, especially as the email feedback reflects that people like the sites as they are currently formatted. I do anticipate eventually converting the annotated resources to a database, though.

Besides navigation, what else is important?

I also find it important to organize information logically and simply. Although my site gradually evolved, I had to plan the growth wisely so that it would stay focused and well organized.

I chose main categories with subcategories, making each title as clear and simple as possible. The subcategories usually break down into subsections, too. The result is that it continues to easily maintain and add information, new sections, and new pages.

Do you get any kind of feedback?

Usability testing is an important ingredient. I've continued to have people review my site, and I ask for and welcome feedback.

I physically observe people at a computer going through my Web site. I don't provide any verbal guidance, as I genuinely want to see how they do, if the navigation is confusing or clear, if they can easily navigate without having to scroll much.

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What are the most popular sections on your site?

Music Resources and Spirituality and Alternative Healing. I've continued to expand those two sections the most during the past 4.5 years, adding new sites quite regularly and adding new subcategories and sections several times a year.

Since I've had several dozen people inquire about purchasing prints of my digital art, I'll be adding that function sometime this year, too.

What do your usage logs say about the traffic on your site?

Some areas are definitely more popular than others. I watch the trends on my site and on the Internet in general, making decisions about expanding specific sections based on the trends, patterns of traffic flow, email feedback, and my own intuition.

Although people are generally looking for something specific and tend to stay within a particular category, there are some who float over into other categories, too.

Since I integrated the domain names, all of the new clients I've more recently gotten have checked out my other domain names, too.

How do you use what the traffic tells you?

Knowing that free graphics draws big traffic, I've utilized that to my advantage with starting a linkware music graphics area, for example.

Music lyrics are also very popular, so I more regularly research that section and give it more attention than other less popular pages I base my decision in part on keywords being used, too.

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What do you learn from keywords?

I've noticed, for example, that I have a continued flow of people looking for guitar clipart both from search engines and also a guitar clipart listing at About.com, so I've intentionally made more guitar images at my Linkware Graphics Music Images site.

What trends have you observed on the Web itself?

Regarding Web sites, there's tremendous interest in high quality tutorials, tips and help, so I've built on that interest, too, and plan to focus on that even more this year.

Last fall (1999) I launched a total redesign of WebsiteTips.com and the main SKDesigns business site, integrating these two sites within the navigation and overall design and colors.

I also began promoting WebsiteTips.com more in discussion lists and search engine registrations. My traffic soared from only 100 unique visitors per week last summer to about 2,750-3,000 unique visitors per week right now, and steadily increasing.

I also add new annotated resources to the site several times a week, and I'll be writing many more tutorials and short tips in the coming months, too.

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What's your feeling about the use of music as background on Web sites?

Speaking as a musician and a Web site builder, I find that the technology isn't developed enough in this area to be what I'd prefer on a Web site.

As the technology continues to improve, download time will improve, and motion and sound will also improve. In time I think music, and sound in general, will be an integrated part of the viewer's experience with Web sites in general.

Music and sound can certainly be utilized in far greater ways than they are now, such as using sound and music therapy more, in addition to adding another dimension to a Web site experience. Improved technology will also be of tremendous benefit to visually impaired, too.

I see advantages to improved sound technology for the wireless age, too, as I envision people listening to their stock reports, to the news, or anything else on the Web.

We're not there yet, though.

When used appropriately, I think music and sound can be an exciting added dimension to the visitor's experience. However, many people find it obtrusive at this point.

If they're at work in an office or other setting where noise could be a problem (or even get them in trouble), it's imperative for visitors to have control over turning it on if desired.

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How does the public service content of your site support your commercial efforts?

Tough question, but a good one. I think my community service work may help reflect credibility, knowledge, and that I'm passionate and very involved in the Web business.

I've get wonderfully positive feedback from colleagues and other visitors to WebsiteTips.com, so I've been building a reputation as having sites with quality information.

I've gotten a terrific client as a direct result of the Linkware Graphics Music Images and some small graphics projects from that.

However, most of the reward could NEVER be bought with money -- the tremendous satisfaction in supporting so many educators and students building Web sites for their schools or using my music images on their newsletters.

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How frequently do you work on your sites?

These sites grow each week, and I regularly evaluate how to best expand the information. I work on them in my “free” time, devoting most weekdays to my clients.

How will your site continue to evolve?

As the sound technology improves I'll undoubtedly make more use of sound within my music articles to help explain various styles, moods, and using music and sound to enrich one's life.

There are not always words for what music can do. It must be experienced. In the meantime I'd like to add MP3 versions of two or three tracks from my upcoming CD, Journey Within.

Shirley Kaiser is owner of SKDesigns, a pianist, and composer.

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