Website design is not merely an artistic endeavor, but a functional one. Websites serve varying purposes depending on the initiator’s intent. We will call this party the merchant to distinguish them from the designer who may be a third party. The second party involved, the intended audience of the website, we will refer to as the guest. Functionality, the first and most relevant aspect of web design, derives entirely from the merchant’s intent regarding the guest.
There are several models for understanding the breakdown of website purpose. Schneiderman breaks websites into genres: marketing, entertainment, education and training, sales, and publishing. Fleming divides them as shopping, community, entertainment, identity, learning, and information. These genres are identified by common strategies and content. There is a simpler and more direct model to use in assessing your website purpose and that is the balance between telling and selling.
All sites include an aspect of telling, but for some the focus is really on selling, on motivating the guest to spend money or take a particular action. Even within one site, separate pages will have a different balance of these intentions. Sometimes the success of the sale revolves around how well it is disguised as or within telling. This is why it is also important to understand the guest motivations in visiting the site. If the need of your site is to distract guests away from their actual purpose in order to sell them something, your message must be clear and compact, quickly delivered and quickly engaging the guest to your cause. If yours is a site where the guest and merchant’s intent are already likely to match, your site can be more comprehensive and low impact. Flashy entertainments are less important than clear organization.
For example: A website for your local theater incorporates a specific balance. It is likely their guests are already seeking them out with the intent to attend a show. The merchant intent will be to convey clearly and accurately when which shows are playing, but they are also intent on selling more movies. Knowing their customers are seeking them for aspects, like location, that other websites can’t compete with, provides the merchant with the leisure to incorporate within their content advertisements for various shows the guest may not have originally been seeking. Guests will have more patience for these advertisements than if they had no intent of their own to be on the site and may even find them useful in choosing a movie- thus a clip designed to sell the product is disguised successfully as telling.
In contrast mail-order catalogues will be more direct, allowing less distraction. A simple list of catalogue descriptions, maybe pictures, combined with important ordering information such as price and mailing features. These sites also have guest intent working on their side, but they must focus harder on keeping that intent to the end of their sales purpose, because other sites may provide a similar service. The weight of selling individual items falls to the product producers. The merchant intent is to guide the guest to the quick acquisition of whatever they think they want not necessarily to convince the guest they want something else. While their intent is to sell, their overall design is best served by focus on telling. Individual pages on specific items will reverse this, focusing on selling.
Selling, then, is the pretty, the engaging, the distracting aspect of a site. Telling is the pure communication, the factual or educational elements. As fact can be a sales point, it is the question of focus that determines design. Design is the control of focus and intent.
Designers must deal with two different conversations going on with the guest. We will call them the front-brain and back-brain conversations, front brain being the direct interaction of guest with site and back brain being the more subtle communication of the merchant influencing the focus of the guest, (think of them as autonomic responses- thus the term back-brain).
The site is essentially the interpreter or tool by which method the merchant conveys their message. If the guest doesn’t know how to communicate with the site, then the conversation is going to be short and unsuccessful.
Internet surfers have an unprecedented amount of control over what they see. They have more choice in where to go and more ability to instantly decide to be somewhere else than any other type of shopper. Likewise, they are less likely to be wandering through skimming your ads. Most often, they are looking for specific cause. This is a double-edged sword- if you are what the guest is looking for you are that much closer to achieving your aim, if you aren’t or even if you are and the guest perceives you not to be, you are that much more likely to lose a sale.
As a designer, one of your goals is to buy time for the merchant message to make its impact. You need the guests’ indulgence. This means allowing the guest to feel in control, eliminating frustration and potential miscommunication. You need to be sure they know where they are, how to navigate, and where to look for what they want.
Customers return to the same grocery store every time because they know the eggs are next to the milk and the olives are in the second aisle next to the dressings, and even if they’ve never had to buy it before, they have a fair idea that coconut milk might be found in the Asian food aisle. Site guests, like store shoppers, want to understand how the site is arranged. They will construct their own mental map of the features and the easier and more accurate a site makes this process, the more likely the guests are to stay and the better chance of success for the merchant.
Site maps have evolved into different structures depending on what best serves the function of the web page. Linear diagrams force a predetermined order. Information is articulated in key sequence and a guest is less likely to skip or miss important elements. This would be especially useful in instructional pages where out of sequence information would be meaningless or damaging or pages where certain things have to happen before a process can continue- such as payment or contractual agreement pages.
One of the most common forms, and therefore one of the most easily understood, is the hierarchal structure, an arrangement rather like an outline with a menu offering chapter headings. The guest here can click selections to reach more detailed options within each heading. Important in this design is the guests’ understanding of the headings.
A more intricate and harder to map structure is the branch design. For a prime example of effective use of this option, check Wikipedia. Within the text of any informational page on this site, links to further information on given subject material can be found. For instance, while reading the entry regarding web design, you can follow a link to learn more about electronic media content. Though good for certain elements of research or simple entertainment pursuits, these mazelike connections are not conducive to building a mental map of a web site’s structure. It should be noted that Wikipedia makes use of hierarchal structures as well and this example proves your web design need not be limited to a single map design. Providing your visitors with too many options can lead to misunderstandings. Without a visual aid, such as full menu visibility or a diagrammatic representation, visitors may think they have seen all there is to see when they’ve really missed the page they were looking for- or more likely, they may simply give up before they find it because they’re tired of looking.
Nobody likes crowded aisles in the grocery store. Long downloads, splash pages, and fancy but not useful Flash graphics are like the fat woman and her kid blocking the whole lane when you just want to get some coffee. It’s a user turn-off and many guests will decide to buy their coffee at the next stop- after-all hey, maybe they’ll have the special Columbian Mountain grain at the other place. Get to the point in your web-design and save the fru-fru graphics to highlight the fact that you have the special Columbian grain coffee, if that’s what is important.
The attempt to make a site eye catching, exciting, and vividly entertaining is part of the back-brain conversation, an attempt to make the guest associate the merchant with excitement and fun. The use of Flash is increasingly prevalent as merchants attempt to identify themselves as cutting edge. It is easy to forget that the front brain conversation must come first. If the guest decides not to be there, the back-brain conversation will not happen. Not every guest is going to have cutting edge technology, and currently even those who do may find the edge of technology isn’t well supported. New and exciting can mean bug-ridden and untested as well as taking up long download periods. The best software and technology for a merchant isn’t the newest, latest, or flashiest, it’s the software that is best supported for the chosen audience- the one with the kinks worked out that is available and understood by the most people. This is not a constriction on your creativity, merely a reminder that the flash of your Flash shouldn’t blind your guest to the beauty of your product.
There is a certain language already in active use on the web. It isn’t innovative or unique to ignore precedents. More, it is like ignoring the language and laws of a foreign country you are visiting, rude and likely to land you in trouble. Browser features, for instance, are a known and appreciated tool of your guests. They will be using their own browser, be it Firefox or Explorer or another option, and whether or not their browser offers the most efficient options, these are what they know. They will be frustrated and unappreciative if forced into a different set of function keys. If you are going to use a platform that doesn’t allow for the use of regular browser functions such as the back button, have good reason and be very clear to your guest that it will be necessary to avoid their standard browser functions. If they hit back and end up backing out the site instead of returning to the previous page, they may not come back.
Smaller easy to overlook elements of the current language in use are feedback mechanisms. The links are highlighted when they are selected. A click may sound when an option is chosen. The color of links change when they after use. These are devices common in websites. They provide familiarity and a sense of control to guests.
After the design is complete, it is of vital importance to review the entire project and insure that no elements of the design interfere with the communication of the content. These seems like an obvious principle, and yet I have visited before a web designer’s site arranged in such a manner that a boundary of color fell directly across a line of the text body making it completely illegible. A detailed edit of the complete web site is important to correct both these major errors and the minor punctuation and spelling errors that guests will perceive as sloppy.
http://www.usask.ca/education/coursework/skaalid/theory/interface.htm (Human-Computer Interface design)
http://www.digital-web.com/articles/principles_of_design (Principles of Design)
http://news.cnet.com/2100-1023-210235.html (Web design not what you pay for)