Now, what would happen if you didn’t have a store guide to tell people where to look, and if your condition of entry to the store were to say to each customer, 'leave your wallet on the counter before you browse our wares'? How many customers would visit your store? Isn’t the very idea nonsensical?
So, why do many companies do the equivalent with their websites?
Branding and visual design are important aspects of website design, but are outside the scope of this article. Similarly, regulatory compliance is not covered; www.out-law.com is an excellent source of information.
The headings in the article are a convenient way of categorising the information. They are not definitive, nor does content apply to just the heading under which it falls. For example, readability affects usability. Furthermore, if a user has a cognitive difficulty, readability becomes an accessibility issue.
The business requirements that underpin a website influence the design of the website. For example, if the target audience is adolescent males, you probably shouldn’t use pictures of bunny rabbits in shades of pink.
A website can serve many audiences, for example, you may want to attract potential clients, job seekers, potential suppliers, and search engines. Viewers may be scattered across the globe, and English may not be their first language. These audiences may have conflicting requirements.
A website must do more than just present information; it must be attractive. It is a marketing tool. However, in the drive to make the website look appealing from a visual design perspective, other factors are often ignored, which leads to a poor user experience.
Usability pertains to the ease or efficiency of performing a task. Typical tasks on a website include purchasing products, finding contact information, and evaluating products and services.
We know that poor design causes online shoppers to abandon purchases. Less dramatically, poor design reflects badly on a company. For a primer on usability, Jakob Nielsen’s website (www.useit.com) is a good start.
Some usability problems are caused because code does not conform to standards. No excuse for non-conformant code is acceptable, because the W3C standards are publicly available (www.w3.org), as are free validation tools.
Sometimes, clear-cut answers may be hard to determine. For example, a web page invariably contains a navigation menu, which is not relevant to a printed page. Many website designs cater for this by having special 'print-friendly' pages. Does that help usability, or does it hinder? Certainly, it involves an extra step (opening the page) for the user.
A print-friendly page is typically provided as a PDF file. That means two copies of a document exist. Every time a web page changes, the corresponding PDF file must be updated.
Rather than using additional print-friendly pages, wouldn't using style sheets be a better option? One style sheet specifies the screen appearance, and another one specifies the appearance of the printed pages. When a web page is printed, the menu (for example) does not appear on paper.
A counter-argument is that site visitors expect to see a 'print-friendly' button. If that's true, educate them. The 'print-friendly' button could open a web page which explains that all pages are print-friendly by default. Users would soon learn. In the long-term, users would have fewer buttons to click, and web designers would have a lower maintenance burden.
Security of a user's system
One online bank migrated customer accounts to a new system in early 2007. Unfortunately, thousands of customers could not use their accounts, because their browser settings were incompatible with the new system. Service desk staff had to deal with thousands of extra service calls.
Certainly, some websites need scripting and ActiveX. Typically, this is with database-driven websites such as travel timetables, online shopping, and banking. However, for many websites, scripting is not necessary.
Security-conscious visitors may not allow scripts to run, and so, a website may not be usable. Unlike the bank's customers, who had a strong reason for using the website, these people are likely to abandon a website that requires them to reduce their security settings. If no business or technical reason exists for using scripting, why put obstacles in the way of potential customers?
To reach the widest audience, a website should be easy to use and accessible to everyone. Accessibility is a legal requirement (see the Disability Rights Commission).
What does accessible mean? Simply, content is accessible when it can be used by someone with a disability. That's a narrow perspective; all users at some time might suffer from access limitations, for example, because they are using a dial-up connection or because they are using a device with a small screen.
Where do you start with accessibility? At the simplest level, follow best-practice guidelines. The RNIB has much useful information.
If you think that accessible design is dull, look at css Zen Garden. The designs are stunning.
No matter how good the visual design of a website, without content, the website is pointless. So, give your readers the information that they want. Some will want much background, and others will want only an overview.
A good design caters for both types of customer by organising the information carefully. (The trendy technical term for the organisation of information is information architecture).
Without a clear navigation system, viewers can easily become disoriented. Good practice is to have simple and consistent navigation throughout the site.
Allow viewers to see where they are in the structure. Show them where they have visited by displaying links to visited pages in a different colour (many web designers think that is old-fashioned - it is, but it works).
Rather than the ubiquitous FAQ page, which often is just a dump of information factoids prefixed by 'How do I', a good design might contain a few well-crafted pages that discuss various topics.
A typical large website contains a site map (also known as a contents page, or a site index), and a search option. Whilst useful, these are often not sufficient. A search engine is excellent for finding pages that contain specific words (and synonymous words, if those words are contained in meta tags), but it doesn’t organise the results into conceptual categories.
An A-to-Z index page (just like a traditional back-of-the-book index) is an excellent complement to a site map and a search page. It shows the website content in a structured manner, and in more detail than a site map. It shows relationships between terms, and it allows a reader to see the scope of the website at a glance.
Additionally, it's a tasty morsel for search engine spiders. Creating such an index is an intellectual task - it is not the same as a computer-generated word list. Therefore, commercial constraints may prevent its implementation.
One downfall of reading from a screen is that it is more tiring on the eyes than reading from paper, so plenty of headings, much white space, and relatively small topics are important. Do not just duplicate a paper document on a website.
The possibility of not obfuscating the inherent meaning of the intended message should be considered by all interested parties prior to the dissemination of the aforementioned message to the putative audience. A good starting point is the free guide to plain English on www.plainenglish.co.uk.
Marketing communications must be persuasive. Often, we find elegant variations on a theme. Synonyms, clichés, and clever plays on words abound.
The observant reader will have noticed that in this article, the words 'visitor', 'reader', and 'user' are used interchangeably. Whilst that makes for interesting reading, synonyms can also confuse people, particularly if the website is technically oriented. In technical domains, best practice is to follow the rule, 'one term=one meaning'.
Using a controlled vocabulary can help to make the content clear, particularly to visitors whose first language is not English.
A more rigorous approach would be to use some form of simplified English, which controls both vocabulary and grammar. However, controlling the terminology means that if readers type synonymous words into a search engine, the search results will not include the website.
Finally, consider something as simple as date - 'valid until 12/1/2019'. Is that 12 January or 1 December? If your website is for an international market, avoid ambiguities caused by differences in the way people use language.
Creating an effective website that fulfils its business purpose may require trade-offs. You may not be able to please all potential visitors, but you will be able to create a website that suits most people most of the time, and which encourages people to purchase your products and services.
Mike Unwalla (TechScribe, www.techscribe.co.uk) helps software companies to improve their user documentation. He designs user guides, manuals, and on-screen support systems.