Forsaking Frames & Other Frivolities

Stephen Yagielowicz

One of the benefits of longevity, in this business, or in any other, is that you are able to observe the progression of techniques and technologies over time. Forward thinking ‘visionaries’ are then able to see if they were ‘right’ all along, while the more conservative have the opportunity to say “See I told you so…” when the ‘visions’ are proven to be ‘fads.’ The upshot of this is that what worked yesterday may not work today, while what was shunned in the past may be appropriate in the present. The use of frames is one example of this evolution, an example I’ll discuss today:

The ambitions of youth put me on the ‘bleeding edge’ of technology, while wisdom throttled me back to the ‘cutting edge,’ and now experience drives me to seek a comfortable ‘middle ground’ that ‘pushes the envelope’ for 80% (or more) of my users, while seeking to accommodate the needs of the remaining 20% of my users with ‘functional,’ if not ‘fully featured’ access to as much of the presented content as possible.

While the cross-browser / platform compatibility challenges for adult site designers are far less daunting than they are for mainstream / technical site designers, many considerations must still be evaluated. To explain what I mean, let me tell you a story: The first design company I worked for lambasted me for my use of those new-fangled ‘.jpeg’ images rather than ‘.gifs’ for rendering photographic image files, due to the fact most (90%+) surfer’s did not own computers capable of displaying jpegs – they were overwhelmingly limited to 8-bit, 640x480 displays.

My argument that not only did I have one of those brand new, high-tech ‘486’ boxes with a hot 800x600 24-bit display, but so did other folks – the one’s with the money to actually be paying customers, and therefore our main target market, and so they should be catered to, didn’t wash. Well, the boss is the boss, and so always ‘right’ – even when he’s wrong. Eventually, they had a ton of transparencies that had to be rescanned and prepped, but they did evolve. Still, the last time that I visited one of their sites, all of the thumbnails were still being rendered as gifs, while the full-size images are now mercifully jpegs.

But much of their content is informational, with many surfers still coming via command line Web browsers like Lynx, which doesn’t even support images. This is a *very* different situation than what designers of adult sites face, where those who are surfing for porn typically have sharper, higher resolution displays, and the latest generation of browser, regardless of flavor. For these customers, beautiful images, snazzy JavaScript, and eye-catching Flash animations are not only the norm, but have come to be expected. While it is easy to over-do it, the judicious use of these current technologies, along with sprinklings of ‘next level’ implementations where appropriate, can dramatically enhance the user experience, and provide you with a competitive advantage.

Fooling Around With Frames
It is with these thoughts in mind that I challenge the time-honored (and in my opinion, false) mindset that “the use of frames should be avoided.” Sure, once upon a time the vast majority of Web browsers were unable to properly render them, and those that could, revealed that frames were often used by lazy designers as a replacement for a well thought out navigational system.

Today, nearly all browsers – and certainly the vast majority that are used to surf porn sites with, are capable of rendering frames. And far from being simple navigational crutches, a myriad of useful and innovative techniques can be employed by using them. Sure, ‘frame overload’ is still a serious problem on low-resolution displays, but as with many things, a little can go a long way, and moderation is the key… As for the other perceived limitations of framesets, knowledge is a valuable thing, and there are basic steps that you can take to mitigate any remaining drawbacks to the use of frames.

While the argument that many surfers do not like frames is an ‘emotional’ one, based on their individual preferences, I contend that the qualifier “misused frames” should be added, since it is the misapplication of the technology that offends people. Indeed, a properly executed frameset may be transparent to the user, and presented in a way that enhances the surfing experience, while protecting your intended traffic flow, and thwarting ‘malicious’ users and “monkey boys.” Sure, frames present challenges to search engines; challenges that they, and the designers of framed sites, have had years to overcome, rendering this objection “dated” in my opinion.

Another frequent objection is that “Some search engines do not like frames.” Sure, frames present challenges to search engines; challenges that they, and the designers of framed sites, have had years to overcome, rendering this objection “dated” in my opinion. Direct text linking of the individual pages allow for easy spider traversing, as well as enhanced user navigation, while the use of descriptive text within the <NOFRAMES> tag can dramatically mitigate “content loss” on a primary frameset.

Another common area of concern is page scrolling within frames, a controllable feature that is often set to “yes” or “no” – but there is a third option (the one I most commonly use), and that is “auto.” Setting the frame’s scrolling property to “auto” allows browsers to display scrollbars when necessary, and to delete them for a “cleaner” appearance when possible. This misused feature (with all scrollbars set to “on” or “off”), led to the “cramped” appearance of many sites that used nested framesets, or the “disappearing” content / navigation on non-scrolling pages rendered on low-resolution monitors.

While traditional e-commerce sites that endeavor to reach the general population should always focus on the lowest common denominator in an effort to garner as many customers as possible, remembering your target market and their capabilities is important too. After all, porn surfers can see, and expect, a higher level of glitz and glimmer than does a more mainstream audience, so why not give it to them? Especially if you can do so without forsaking WebTV or other alternative, non-mainstream systems… ~ Stephen