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"Web Site Interfaces and Usability"

by Webmaster T
Originally published on 50 webmasters.com

Why Design and Develop Good Web site Interfaces?

An excellent question if I don't say so myself! Development and design of web site interfaces for usability and navigation is a must if the web is to continue the fast growth it is experiencing at present. Far too many sites are trying to be KEWL using interfaces that require plugins, have terrible navigation and in too many cases are nothing more than exercises in creativity by the designer. Don't get me wrong! I'm not saying there should be no creativity, just that it has its place.

I read an article a short time ago that had some figures that as a site developer made me sit up and take notice. In the article they discussed the growth of the web. They mentioned how in a given time the net had grown by 20,000,000 users and in that same period of time 9,000,000 had left the net. As a developer the second number was far more important then the first.

Yes, the web's user base is growing at a phenomenal rate but if it's going to maintain this growth rate it can't loose almost half of those users a short time later. Even more enlightening was the reason. Usability!

The most common reply to the question of why they quit using the web was that "it is the domain of geeks and nerds,". I read this to mean domain of the computer literate.

Personally, I don't believe the problem is computer illiteracy, it's all those poorly designed sites that only the Amazing Kreskin could figure out the navigation or what link to take to find what you are looking for.

Unfortunately, _____'s Cool Home Pages aren't the only sites exasperating the newbies. Some of the sites are icons of quality in the real world.

The research that resulted from reading that article led me to a number of sites that shed some light on the problem and what we in the development community can do to alleviate it. Some of the sites have done extensive research on the user interface.

Jakob Nielsen maintains this site. He has been quoted as saying there should be a standard interface for all sites. Mr. Nielsen's background is primarily in software interfaces where the interface is based on loose standards so his solution is based on what's worked functionally speaking in software programs. This isn't really a solution that should be considered for the web because the goals of a web site are different from those of a software program.

Yes, a web site should be very functional but it must sell goods and services or dispense information for the web to be viable from a business standpoint. This is what we are struggling to find.  That middle ground between functionality and for lack of a better word creativity.

The last site I went to researching this subject was a jaundiced eye.com maintained by Steve Champeon. Steve calls the organization that is featured in the press release and article DULL (Designers for Uninventive Lame Layout). The article is a parody of the design and layout on many sites such as c|net. We all know he's referring to the nav bar down the left side of the screen.

Using this interface isn't exactly inventive design, however, it is a well known and understood interface quite possibly because sites like c|net are using it. I have discussed what others think about this subject so now I'm going to add my .02 worth to the discussion hopefully passing along some tips that will help you find the middle ground. I'll use two sites I'm currently working on to demonstrate my thoughts.

The "WoD" is a web site featuring web site development and promotion information where the users are pretty net savvy. The search engine site will draw a less savvy user so I am designing it so the information and interactive areas are easy to find.

Two of the main differences between the two besides what I've discussed already are the goals and purposes of the two. The "WoD" is strictly an information site to showcase my company and what we know and can do. The other is a site where the purpose and goals are to draw users to the commercial sites it's hosting.

One of the main differences between the two is why the users are there and the time they have to get what they are looking for. Users of the "WoD" have less time to find the information so expecting them to use more then two jumps to get specific info is a stretch.

To accomplish this I use an imagemap at the top of the page to the indexes of information. On each index page, directly under the image map is a targeted list of topics for that index page that lead to resources off the site.

Below this is a two celled table with an introduction to the index and the links to my articles in a colored cell and the anchors to the links off the site in the uncolored right hand cell. The links on this site have short descriptions of the sites they are pointing to.

At the bottom of the page is a jump to the top of the page and the indexes are repeated using text links. This is the only similarity between the two sites.

The "WoD" was designed before I read much of the research material. The search engine site was designed after reading the User Interface Engineering article that makes a point of explaining that some users prefer to take an ordered path to the information not minding as many as six jumps as long as each takes them closer to their goal.

The search engine default page has the five indexes listed with detailed explanations of what's in each index. The index pages use the DULL method outlined earlier using icons in the border and text links in the content.

Using text links in the content and at the bottom of the page gives these less experienced users more then one opportunity to find the area of the site they are trying find. I also use longer descriptions of the links here so the user will always know exactly what is on a page they are clicking to.

To end this discussion I will just pass along something a chef I apprenticed under once told me about planning a function "use the KISS method for this one". I am a strong believer in the KISS method of design. KISS stands for KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID!

Resources for article:
Jakob Nielsen maintains this site with articles discussing his research on user interfaces for software and the net.

maintained by Steve Champeon featuring well written articles on a variety of topics of interest to site designers.

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