Communicating by Web Design
|October 28, 2011||Posted by Anharris under Articles, Communications, Web design|
Designing to Communicate on the Web – It’s not always about
showing off the latest in graphics technology. What are some basic principles
of good information design for the Web, so that customers quickly find
what they’re looking for, don’t get lost in dead-end areas of the site, are
driven to purchase (if an e-commerce site), and are likely to return again for more?
This article was originally published by Microsoft Encarta
by Anita M. Harris
So says Bill Gribbons, a Web usability expert who teaches at Bentley College near Boston. He describes a company that spent millions of dollars to build a site that offered visitors access to 200 magazines. The site wasn’t doing well, so its creators asked Gribbons, who also heads a not-for-profit design usability testing center and Bentley’s Department of Human Factors, to figure out what was wrong. Through interviews and observation, Gribbons determined that the site’s visitors did not want 200 magazines. “They wanted information tailored for their specific interests, culled and delivered, based on a specific profile.” But it was too late. The company was losing money rapidly. It could not change its mission fast enough, and went “belly up.”
The main problem, Gribbons says, was that the company had not taken the first key step in building a successful site: that is, researching the marketplace to find out what potential users want. Gribbons advocates a process he calls “goal-driven design,” which involves carefully assessing your market’s goals and requirement. “This will save you time and avoid costly mistakes in the long run,” Gribbons says.
In conducting research and testing for sites as Monster.com, Gribbons has found that users’ goals can be complex. Each visitor to a site is different, and the same user may respond differently on different sites. Users’ reactions depend on the return are they receiving, he says. Can they find the information they need? Can they easily make a transaction? “If users get value from using a site, they will work hard to overcome incredible design obstacles,” and they will return to the site, Gribbons says. But a user who receives only marginal value from the site will give up and leave the site at the slightest difficulty.
Gribbons recently tested an e-commerce site that allowed visitors to type in only about ten words onto a form, which made it difficult to complete. “There is nothing more frustrating to a visitor who wants to type in something and it doesn’t fit, ” he says. Someone who really needs to buy the product might try to find a way around the problem, but, according to Gribbons, many people quit the site without completing the transaction.
Another common problem is that companies lack understanding of their audiences and, to compensate, put too much material on the first page. “It is tempting to think of everything any visitor might possibly want to do on a site, and crowd it onto the home page,” Gribbons says. Some home pages include 100 links, or more. Alen Yen, president of the Interactive Factory, a Web design and training firm in Boston, advises grouping multiple links into at most seven sections. But too often, home pages with many links appear disorganized. This can be “a major problem” Gribbons says, because people can’t find what they are looking for, and “it suggests that there is something seriously wrong with your design.”
In testing the site of a health maintenance organization that had 70 links on its home page, Gribbons determined that 90% of visitors were clicking on just three of the links. He advised the HMO to include only those three links on the home page. “Everything else should be at successively deeper levels in the site, ” he says.
For clear and easy access to those deeper levels, Gribbons says, information architecture and navigation are critical. “Ideally, your site’s architecture should mirror a model that is known to the user.” Gribbons described a college Web site that presented information based on its institutional framework, setting forth the college’s divisions and departments on its home page. But visitors to the site were mainly parents and 17-year-olds who were thinking of enrolling; they did not understand that structure and were unable to find the information they needed.
Another important issue is consistency. Many designers do not use color, type styles, terminology, labels or forms in a uniform manner, Gribbons says. This is a problem because “as humans, we are pattern seekers.” Our cognitive systems are ‘hard-wired’ to expect patterns. If patterns are there, our interactions take place at the subconscious level, and occur smoothly.” But if a site is not consistent, “you drive users to interact at a conscious level. They become nervous and tentative. Their performance and speed drop off.” In e-commerce transactions, “credibility and a sense of confidence are absolutely essential.” Design inconsistencies “work against that,” and when users become anxious, many transactions go uncompleted. To maintain consistency, Gribbons recommends developing a visual and verbal style guide for every site.
Yen advocates using “navigation bars” that link to the site’s main sections from every page. Cues such as color or icons can let visitors know, at all times, just what area of the site they in. Yen also advises breaking up “printed” material with headers or links, so that readers do not become lost in a “sea” of content.
It is also important to know what technology your audience will use to access your site, according to Matthew T. Grant, Minister of Information for Aquent, a Boston-based international talent agency providing graphic and Web design professionals and production assistance. While some visitors with high speed access to the Web may enjoy seeing complex graphical presentations, people with slower, dial-up modems may lose patience waiting for such material to load. Still others, who want quick access to information via tiny wireless or hand-held devices, maybe completely deterred if you include any graphics at all.