Many sites on the Web today look absolutely horrible on WebTV browsers, not because of the browsers, but because most web developers don't know how to properly test their sites for WebTV. This article will take that excuse away from the conscientious web developer.

Should you design for WebTV?

Many of the web developers I've worked with don't design for WebTV simply because they don't think they need to. "My site stats show I only get half a dozen hits from WebTV per month, so I don't need to worry about them" they'll say. But there's more going on with WebTV than the numbers would lead you to believe.

The aspects of the WebTV service that have been the most popular among WebTV users are those that pertain to communication and community building: email, chat, newsgroups, etc. As a result of this (and the fact that computer users often look down their noses at WebTV users) the WebTV users bound themselves together into an incredibly tight-knit community.

If one WebTV user goes to a popular web site and sees that it does not work on WebTV, they will often post their experience to the various newsgroups that are frequented by other users, leading to other users not even bothering to try to access the site. And when they find sites they really want to use and can't, they've been known to stir up community-wide campaigns against the site's CS department, begging for a fix.

On the flip side, WebTV users are so used to major sites not catering to their needs that when they find a site that does work well on WebTV, they will often spread the word through the WebTV community, and bring considerably more traffic to the site. So if you're not already catering to WebTV users, the fact that you get few hits from them means very little. If you cater to them, they will come.

Of course, not every site needs to account for WebTV users. If you're working on a corporate intranet, a site that specializes in streaming video, or an applet-intensive site, then catering to WebTV users would be a waste of your time, since WebTV users wouldn't be able to use those sites anyhow. But if you're building any other web application that is available to the general public, it is well worth the effort to make your site function and display properly on as many platforms as you can, WebTV among them.

How do you design for WebTV

Describing all of the aspects of web design that need to be taken into account to completely optimize your site for WebTV would be an article in itself. But just making your site look decent and function properly on WebTV is much easier. By following a few simple design concepts, most sites can be made to look at least pretty good on WebTV with very little effort. And if your site looks good on WebTV, it will probably look good on just about any browser.

Still, this particular article is concentrating specifically on how to test your sites on WebTV; not on how to design them in the first place. So, for the moment, I'll just refer you to WebTV's developer.webtv.net site, which contains a great deal of useful information on how to design for WebTV, how the browser deals with various technologies (frames, JavaScript, Flash, etc), what HTML extensions are available, and more.

If there is enough reader demand, I may write a second article covering this area in more depth, but for the sake of this article and testing existing sites, the resources available there should suffice. You can also check out Frank Gaine's Usability for the Web on Television article, right here on evolt.

How do you test for WebTV

Once you've decided to make your site display well on WebTV browsers, you'll want to be able to test your design and see how it works. Depending on how thoroughly you want to test your site, there are three main levels of testing that you can choose from (or combine with one another, for best results).

WebTV Viewer

The easiest method for testing your sites on WebTV browsers is to download the WebTV Viewer from WebTV's Developers' site. The WebTV Viewer is an emulator that you can install on your PC (or Mac), to get a general idea of how your sites will display on WebTV. Since you can have this emulator running right beside your development environment, it is the easiest method for testing look-and-feel issues as you design. But it is also the least trustworthy of the options when it comes to final output.

Many of the readability issues (such as text size and color contrast) are caused specifically by the content being displayed on an NTSC television screen, so these sorts of problems can't be detected using the emulator on your PC monitor. For example, straight black text (#000000) on a straight-white background (#FFFFFF) will read just fine on the emulator, but will be difficult to read on a TV screen, since the high-contrast colors appear to bleed together at the edges.

Additionally, the emulator only simulates the display functionality of the WebTV browser, and does not accurately represent the back-end workings of the browser and OS, as they apply to the functionality of a site. This usually comes into effect when dealing with SSL, cookies, or higher-level JavaScript use, but can sometimes apply when you least expect it.

As a convenient example, when you Go to http://www.evolt.org in the WebTV Viewer, instead of the usual Evolt site, you get some bizarre half-broken site for some place called oracular.com. Going to the same URL on a real WebTV box brings you to the Evolt site you'd normally expect to see, except that clicking on any of the article titles will give you a "publisher cannot find requested page" error - WebTV's equivalent of an Error 404. [But I'm sure the Evolt folks are working on this, right? :-) ]

Hook up a real WebTV box

If you want to test the full functionality of your site on WebTV, and not just the visual look-and-feel aspects, you're going to need to test on a real WebTV box. But which WebTV box are you going to test on, using what size TV screen, and what's it all going to cost? These are all good questions, so I'll answer them one by one.

WebTV user community

Hooking up a real WebTV box in your testing lab will give you an accurate view into how WebTV handles your site. But since most developers will only use the box for testing, and not day-to-day surfing, you still won't get a realistic representation of how the WebTV user will use your site, since surfing habits and expectations are so different between WebTV users and computer users.

The best way to get thorough and accurate test results on how your site behaves on WebTV is to ask the WebTV community to give it a once-over for you. Since WebTV users have been repeatedly brushed off by web developers in the past, they will usually jump at the chance to help someone who genuinely wants their site to work properly on WebTV. If your site offers content or features that they're even remotely interested in using, you can get some quality feedback from the community for free (and if your testers are impressed with your efforts, they're likely to spread the word throughout the community).

So how do you tap into the WebTV community to find your testers? These days, the WebTV-only newsgroups are the most frequented watering holes for those in the WebTV community who are interested in building web sites; and those are the folks who will make the best testers. A few places to get started would be:

Every developer who is building web sites for mass consumption should download the WebTV Viewer and use it alongside IE and Netscape in their ongoing browser testing. Anyone who is providing more than just static content and wants to insure that it also works on WebTV should also test it on a real WebTV box. And if you want to make certain that it works on all WebTV platforms, in their native environments, tapping the WebTV community is your ultimate QA source.

The reassurance that your site is at least palatable when viewed on WebTV is well worth the small amount of effort that it takes. It really doesn't take that much more effort, and any site that looks good on a WebTV is bound to look good on just about any browser. Besides, making sites that port well to multiple browsers is simply a good habit to form.

Go forth. And use your powers only for good!