Female face, obviously frustratedWeb browing can be frustrating. Apart from connection problems and slow computers, we can often be thwarted by different kinds of computer problems that crop up on specific websites. These browsing problems are often caused by the particular combination of computer hardware and software, and sometimes caused by human error other than your own.

Stating the obvious, computer hardware and software is very complicated and it changes all the time. Sometimes things are just bound to go wrong when one thing doesn’t talk nicely to another. Something that worked yesterday may not work today simply because (for instance) you have done what you were told by the prompt that nagged you to update your Adobe Flash Player.

Websites that don’t display properly

I recently had a very frustrating experience during an onsite computer session when trying to download a file from Dell. I just could not find the button to initiate the download process. It got so bad that I even checked their help files and wondered whether to ask them for some tech support. The web page kept reassuring me that I had put the file in my “basket” and that I had installed the “download manager” but I just could not find how to start the download. Eventually it dawned on me that the instructions were so straightfoward about telling me to “click the download button” that I wondered if the “download button” was just not being displayed. So I went slowly around the white space of the screen, clicking everywhere. It worked. For some odd reason the button was invisible (probably printing white text on a white background).

In retrospect I should have tried a solution that often works with website problems – use a different browser. It’s just possible that that would have been the quickest solution. For the first half hour of my frustration, though, I assumed that the problem was my own fault of not being able to see something that should have been right in front of me.

Website thats don’t compute

A pencil broken in frustrationNot long ago I was providing some home user support for a client who asked me to help her place an order on a website. Trying to do it on her own, she had been unable to find the “checkout”. Well, when we looked at it together we still couldn’t do it. We gave up in the end. There was just no way that we could follow a path through the website that took us from the stage of “placing the item in the basket” to placing the order. There was some horrible flaw in the design of the website. It wasn’t my client’s fault and it wasn’t mine. We went to Amazon instead.

This brings me to another obvious suggestion. If a website is driving you mad because you seem to be going round in circles then ask someone else to look at it with you. Computer assistance is often as valuable from a family member as a computer support specialist. You may just need someone to confirm that you’re not missing something obvious. My thinking is that if two people looking at it together can’t work it out then it’s a badly designed website rather than a technically-challenged user. It seems to me that a lot of people assume that this sort of problem is “their fault” when, in fact, it’s a badly designed website.

Along similar lines, I rcently tried to buy some copyright-free images online. I’d previously created an account and then I spent ages making my selection of images. When I got to the checkout, however, the website detected that I wasn’t currenlty “signed in” to my account. Instead of giving me the opportunity to sign in at that point it insisted that I either abandon my basket (and then sign in) or create a new account. This is just bad website design. OK, I admit that I have a low frustration threshhold coupled with high expectations of other people’s competence. Nevertheless, my main point still holds: the fault wasn’t mine and there’s no reason why I should criticise myself for incompetence (intolerance, maybe, but not incompetence).

Missing add-ons

Another area of frustration can be that you think you should be looking at a video on a website or some other bit of fancy eye-candy and you just can’t see it. This can be caused by not having an important “add on” installed on your computer that the website is trying to call upon. You’ve probably noticed those irritating nags telling you to update Java and/or Adobe Flash Player. Although this is irritating it’s worth doing as this software is needed to run some of the fancier bits of website pyrotechnics. Also, using out-of-date versions could pose a security threat. So, if you think you should be looking at something fancy and it’s not there it’s worth looking to see if there’s a hint somewhere on the screen telling you that you need to install something before you’ll see the fancy web content. Only do this on websites you trust, though: clicking on links that claim to download add-ons like Java can expose you to risk. See my blog post on download risks for further information.

Printing problems

If you are trying to print a web page and it either won’t print at all or prints very badly (eg with lots of white space and different elements printing on different pages) then it’s worth looking to see if there’s a specific “print” button embedded in the web page (as opposed to starting the printing by using the browser’s print command). This is because the website will then send a version of the page to your printer that is optimised for printing rather than displaying as a web page. And if that doesn’t help, or if there isn’t a special print button, then try a different browser.


1) Not all websites are perfectly written or tested. Having a bad “user experience” could be the website’s inadequacies and not your own. Ask someone else to look at it with you.
2) Try viewing the web page in a different browser. You can have as many browsers installed as you wish. They won’t interfere with each other in the way that antivirus programs do. See my post on browsers for installing more browsers.

Wikipedia defines a website thus:

A website (also written Web site or simply site) is a collection of related web pages containing images, videos or other digital assets . . . A web page is a document, typically written in plain text interspersed with formatting instructions of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML, XHTML)

We have all seen the power of websites develop over the years. Originally they were intended just as a method of disseminating text and pictures. They now include programming that allows sophisticated two-way interaction between the site and the user. We now take it for granted that we can access and change our records in databases such as those containing our electricity accounts or our banking information. We can view TV and videos, chat with each other, and so on. As you would expect, this flexibility comes at a price and the price is the complexity of the design process. Despite adverts to the contrary, a complete novice is very very unlikely to be satisfied with a website that they’ve managed to get online in just a few hours. Web design and creation is a complicated business.

Wikipedia defines a blog thus:

A blog (a blend of the term web log) is a type of website or part of a website. Blogs are usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order. Most blogs are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments…..

So, a blog is a particular type of website – one where the important aspect is that the author can write regular content. The emphasis is on being able to get the content onto the web with the minimum of technical fuss. This is great for authors writing regular text articles who don’t want the technology to get in the way of publishing the material. The articles are generally published one after another and accessed by the site visitor either chronologically (eg all the articles – known as “posts” – for Feb 2011) or by typing keywords into a search box (eg all the articles that mention the word “backups”). As well as the facility to leave comments, another great feature of blogs is that the website author(s) can create a “newsletter” service for subscribers so that as new blog posts are published they are automatically sent as emails to the subscribers. I offer this on my own site – see the box on this page.

Over the years the software for creating blogs has grown more flexible (or “more complicated”, if you prefer). For instance, one of the most popular systems for creating blogs is WordPress. Lots of people write freely obtainable fancy bits of programming to add to WordPress. These bells and whistles are called “plugins” and they enhance the power of the software. On my own site, for instance, I use a plugin that allows me to have different background images on different pages. All of these bells and whistles mean that the flexibility of blog design software has grown. It is now quite possible to satisfy all of the needs of an entire website with blog software alone. Note that blog sites are also sometimes described or defined as “Content Management Systems”. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Content_management_system for a fuller description/definition of CMS.

There are many advantages in having a blog and a website as part of the same site. These include:

  • greater visibility to search engines such as Google
  • less to learn to get get a system up and running
  • easier to maintain
  • much more content for visitors – whether they are initially interested in the blog or the more “static” pages of a website
  • a likely increase in the number of pages each visitor views on the site

All of this leads me very neatly into being able to plug my own site. Until recently I had separate website and blog at different web addresses, written with different technologies, looking different from each other, and gaining different sets of visitors looking for different things. I have now combined these by re-writing both into the WordPress Content Managment System. WordPress is a free “cloud” system – ie you do not install WordPress on your own computer, but do all of the development via the web. This has the distinct advantage of not having to buy any software to develop your system but I’ll risk looking a gifthorse in the mouth by saying that I find it rather tedious doing this development work “in the cloud” as it does tend to slow things down a bit. That aside, I do recommend WordPress to anyone considering developing a content management system. Your first port of call would be http://wordpress.org/.

Combining a blog with a website can cause confusion. Judging from the feedback I’ve had this week, I’m guilty of this, so, until I can find a better way of doing things, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that my own blog is the content that appears on the top righthand side of all the pages on my site. the blog can be accessed from the box that looks like this:
Blog widget

The four clickable headings at the top of the box are very typical of what you will see on many blogs so I will explain each one:

Recent Posts – is a list of the most recent posts that I have written. When the “Recent Posts” option is highlighted (or when that button is clicked), the titles of the most recent posts appear in chronological order (eg “Cloud Computing”, “Telephone Scam”). If you click on any of these titles you are taken directly to the post with that title.

Recent Comments
– is a list of the most recent comments with links (where available) to the author and links to the comments themselves.

Blog Post Archive
lists the months in which blogs were posted. Clicking on any of these causes a long scrollable screen of the contents of all the blog posts for the chosen month.

Tag Cloud is a bit jargony. It shows the most-used keywords that are included in the blog posts. The bigger it appears in this “cloud” the more often the keyword appears. Clicking on any word in the clouds brings up a scrollable list of all the blogs containing that word.

The pages of my website, on the other hand, are accessed via the menu that appears across the top of the screen. This is also repeated on the righthand side in the box entitled “Web Pages”.

Pages menu

Web pages widget
So, if you are thinking of having your own website and/or blog soon, it is well worth considering carefully what you are trying to achieve before deciding whether the format that would suit you best is a more traditional “website” approach or the newer “content management system” (“blog”) approach. Whichever approach you take is likely to involve a fair amount of time and/or money and I can tell you from experience that you probably won’t want to change your chosen web technology for quite a while after committing to something. For what it’s worth, my guess is that Content Management Systems (such as WordPress) are the way to go in the foreseeable future.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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