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Web strategies
Design your Web site based on solid research

By Wally Bock

We're finally at that point in the adoption of Net and Web technologies where we've begun to create a solid body of knowledge about how people use the Web. This, in turn, can tell us volumes about how we should be designing Web sites and other online communications.

Information media

First, we know that the Web and the Net are information media. They're not display media (like print) nor are they entertainment media (like television). Instead, people use the Web for information-based tasks. That means you should design so that lots of relevant information is at the center of your visitor's experience.

What exactly is relevant information? It's information that solves a problem or answers a question for your visitor. You already know what that is if you've been in business for any time at all. It's the stuff folks ask about when they call. It's what they want to find out from your salespeople.

Reading news is one of the most popular online activities. And a recent Poynter Institute study tells us that the way people read news on the Web is different from the way they read it in the physical newspaper. In the physical paper, eyes are attracted first to graphics and other visual devices. On the Web, those come second to the information. That means you should give information priority.

We know some other things about how people read on the Web. The Poynter Study looks only at news readers, but other usability studies tell us that folks are far more likely to scan rather than read online - and when they do read, they read about 25 percent slower on the Web compared to print.

So use subheads and text devices like boldface to help people pick out what's important. Use topic sentences at the start of every paragraph. That will help visitors scan your copy more easily.

In fact, lots of folks don't "read" on the web at all. They just scan and print out copy to read later. That means your pages should pass the "print test" - folks should get what they expect when they click the "Print" button.

Navigation tips

Folks don't just want your site to be information-rich. They also want to be able to find stuff easily when they get there. There are a few ways you can help them.

Put a site-specific search engine on your site. When you analyze the logs for sites with this feature, you often see two-thirds or more of the visitors to the site using the search engine as the primary way they get around the site.

But not everyone loves to use the search engine. Some people, and almost everyone at some time, want to "drill down" through a category structure. Help them with a logical information structure and by using their language for the categories.

Links are the power of the Web and people love them. Use links instead of length to add depth and richness to your information. Use lots of links.

Under control

It's also important that you understand what you do and don't control about the experience your visitors will have. To start with, you don't control the quality of connection.

That connection is overwhelmingly likely to be a dial-up connection, such as America Online. The best data we have on this right now is that 90 percent-plus of the connections from U.S. households are dial-ups. Businesses are more likely to have a high-speed connection, but still less than a third of them do. Design your site so pages load quickly for dial-up visitors.

You also do not control the size of the browser window. Many users prefer to bring up many small windows rather than one or two windows the full size of the screen. That makes it important that you design your pages with critical information and benefit-laden messages at the top.

Neither do you control the page on which visitors enter your site. For example, they may enter indirectly on a favorite page. This means you must design your site so that every critical navigation element, access to the search engine and site map, contact information and any key actions appear on every page.

Is anybody doing this right? Check out Yahoo! It's consistently one of the most popular sites on the Web, and it has maintained the same basic design for almost as long as it's been around. The site is lean, loading in less than seven seconds for dial-up users. It's rich in information, and it's easy to use.

That's a good model to follow. Take heed of the best research we have and build a site that's rich in relevant information, fast-loading and easy to navigate. That's the kind of site that will help you achieve your objectives.

Wally Bock travels the world and the Web helping individuals and businesses improve results with his consulting, speaking and newsletters.

 
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