Last Modified: 11/30/00

The Problems With Frames

Web site designs using frames are a problem in the higher education environment.

Technical Problems

The standard technical objections to frames designs include the following:

These are summarized well in the Webreference Frames Tutorial: The Trouble With Frames.


Frames sites tend to work counter to the growing interconnectedness of information at the university. Content within a frames site often is not designed to be directly linked to, making it difficult to connect such content with similar content in other university sites.

For example, a common student complaint is that it is difficult to compare admissions requirements of different programs. A response to that need would be to have a page that links to admissions statements from each program. For programs with frames Web sites, this presents some problems:

I recently attended a webmaster's conference in which this topic came up repeatedly. Large organizations are facing a common problem - even with nice, well organized corporate home pages, Web sites within the organization tend to adopt practices that defeat efforts to build an interconnected, coherent web of information. Problem practices include duplication of information (often incorrectly), inconsistent terminology, organizational focus rather than task orientation, and the use of frames.

Several speakers at the conference evoked Robert Metcalf's Law to try to convey the implications of such "balkanization" of a organization's information. Jakob Nielsen explained that "Metcalfe's Law states that the value of a network grows by the square of the size of the network. So a network that is twice as large will be four times as valuable because there are four times as many things that can be done due to the larger number of interconnections."

Conversely, a network of information that is subdivided into disconnectd units is less useful. Explains Nielsen, "The law is usually quoted in terms of growth of the network, but we can run Metcalfe's Law in Reverse and use it to characterize the effect of cutting a network into pieces: The value of partitioning a network into N isolated components is 1/N'th the value of the original network."

Interconnected information is very useful. Its much easier to link to relevant information rather than having to gather, organize, and present it yourself. In the same way, others will want to be able to link to information within your site. Frames makes such interconnections more difficult.


A frames layout is inherently problematic for someone using a braille or audio browser. The frames design shows multiple page views simultaneously, no problem for a person viewing the page, while audio and braille browsers read a page linearly, one word at a time. Where there are interactions between frames, such as clicking on an item in one to cause change in another, the interaction is simply not do-able with such browsers. Another type of browser used by visually impaired persons enlarges a page enormously, allowing a page to be read at any magnification up to one character at a time. Navigating a frames design at high magnification is difficult.

Much effort is going into making the Web more accessible, including W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative, changes in Federal law and Microsoft's Enable projects so perhaps someday technology will provide a solution.

In general, designing for accessibility results in simple, workable, coherent designs that work well for everybody, in my experience.

Search Engines

Search engines have trouble with frames sites. Most search spiders, faced with the quandary of multiple pages that are supposed to be viewed simultaneously, simply give up, never getting past the layout file. This is true for most of the major search engines, include Excite, Lycos, and Infoseek.

For example, a departmental page might have a page listing types of applied and interdisciplinary research available in the department. If the site used frames and a prospective student ran a search for a topic on that page using Lycos, they would not find your site. He might, however, find papers on the topic at another university. Off the student goes to the other university with his tuition money.

At least, you reduce your chances of being found by using a frames design. There are steps you can take that improve your chances - these are discussed in an article titled How To Use Frames Without Ruining Your Search Engine Standing Or Frustrating Users Trying To Print, And All Without Creating A Duplicate Noframes Version Of Your Website..

Some Browsers Don't Like Frames

Depending on who your audience is, you may have a signficant number of users who have browsers that do not work well with frames. These users fall in several basic categories:

Poor Operational Model

Frames sites can be implemented in many different ways, which gives site designers and maintainers many different ways to create really bad sites.

The "basic operating model" (BOM) of the Web is to display one page at a time - click on a link in that page and a new page appears. People browsing the Web have become very familiar and comfortable with the BOM and designers have developed many useful methods for designing pages and structuring sites within the limits of the BOM.

Frames sites, on the other hand, can be much more complex. In the simplest site, your browser window would be divided into two frames, one displaying a table of contents and the other displaying text - click on an item in the ToC and a new text appears in the display frame. Simple, quick to understand. However, frames sites often have more than two frames. Clicking on a link in one may display text in another, or the text may appear in the same frame you clicked in, or a completely new frame layout might suddently appear, or a new browser window might pop up.

Basically, it is incumbent on the site designer to think up an operational model that is quickly understood, and then stick to that model throughout the site. Very often, the designers fail to do so, particularly as the site content changes over time or in how connections are made to locations outside the site.