The New Old Rules: Print Usability on the Web
Print has hundreds of years of craft behind it. You never think about it, but it involves a lot of small things that really add up.
-Usable size and orientation. A 2" high, 10' wide book is hard to read...
-"Thumb space" in the margins.
-Comfortable type sizes for reading
-The design of tables of contents and indices
-Line spacing, small caps, indentations, and myriad other techniques that clarify and direct the flow of text. We don't actively "see" them while reading, but we notice their absence.
Readers - the end-users - are exposed to print almost from birth. In practical terms, this means that the user interface, usability standards and best practices of print are well-established. Any well-trained, competent typographer can lay out a book or magazine that any reader can comprehend, and it functions pretty much like every other book and magazine out there.
Of course, if you are an enfant terrible, you can throw readability out the window if you wish. But as Robert Bringhurst says, if you're going to break the rules of type, understand what they are first, so that you can break them really well!
By contrast, the Web is young. It doesn't have hundreds of years of craft behind it, although well-meaning people try to graft the old onto the new, with mixed success -- "It's electric print! It's really slow television! It's CB radio!"
Now, ten years in, we can state that there is a definite craft to the Web. It has nothing to do with clever technologies or pretty pixels, and everything to do with usability and user-centric content.
Usability comes from several disciplines: Information Architecture, visual and verbal cognition, wayfinding, Human-Computer Interaction, and even traditional architectural practice. But as always, it involves testing and retesting with the end-users.
User-centric content covers what you do with the website more than how you do it. The underlying technologies are irrelevant; user-centricity comes from knowing your audience, thinking like them, and mapping out what features, functions and activities provide them with the most value for the time they spend on your site.
Usability is, thankully, completely measurable. We can objectively test page loading speed, text readability, browser compatibility, and how long it takes for users to find information and perform tasks. For commercial websites, usability directly influences a site's ROI.
Making a site usable requires consistent interaction design patterns, in order to make the site conform to the users' expectations of how it ought to work.
If your site is unusable and your content goals aren't user-centric, your site won't provide any value to your customers or users - simple as that. Well, it might be nice to look at, in which case you have opened a look-but-don't-touch, don't-raise-your-voice environment -- a museum.
Aesthetics ≠ Good Design
To the busy user who's looking for information or trying to complete a task (say, shopping online) and to the blind god Google's net-spiders, aesthetics just doesn't enter into it. In fact, I'd say aesthetics are completely secondary to having a successful site, a successful brand, loyal users, or even making money.
All are probably the least "designed-looking" sites you will ever see.
That doesn't mean they're not designed - they are extremely well-designed - in a way that's largely invisible -- but more on that later.
Flash In The Can
As someone famously said, would you make visitors to your office sit through a 3-minute film before being allowed into the building? Of course not. Mainstream web designers now know that gratuitous Flash intro pages suck.
Now, there's nothing wrong with Flash as a technology. I love it, actually. It's just that too often, companies want their sites to be full of excitement and movement and make a statement! about how cool they are...and Flash ends up being a hammer used to pound that message into your skull.
By contrast, Flash excels when it's used for things that HTML can't do. There are practical content applications like news-related infographics . With the advent of Flash MX, we can now build Rich Internet Applications* like this RoadRunner portal site.. These are things that actually bring measurable ROI to a company, because they do something useful for the client, in real time, while allowing a degree of design and branding control that's closer to print and television.
These 99% Good Flash pieces launch only when the end-user wants to see them. If the client asks to see that product video, why sure, here it is, and here's a DVD copy to take home with you. And that RoadRunner portal site above? Completely built in Flash MX, tied in to back-end content management systems and databases. Updates dynamically, all in one screen. A great improvement over old-fashioned Web forms. That's cool - and it's largely invisible, because it "just works."
That invisible good design thing
Let's take another look at Epinions, eBay and Amazon. First off, you'll notice that they present an extremely basic interface to the user. Nothing fancy; they even look a little bit cluttered, sometimes.
But what you see there is the result of constant refinement, user input, testing, surveys, and applied information architecture best practices. I can say with some certainty that these sites work exactly as their users expect. So much so, that someone who's never been to the site before can figure it out in less than a minute.
What brings people back to these sites is subtle and invisible. It's based on both technology and human connectivity.
The technical part is clever back-end coding. Both eBay and Amazon are wrapped around powerful, fast search features, content databases and dynamic content from relational databases. Search is king. Content is king. Keywords are king. When you enter "Ludlum" in the search bar in Amazon, you're 90% likely to get "The Bourne Identity" as a top result. It's because the site's engine analyzes which links people actually click on most often from the search results, and ranks that as a more successful result than, say, a cookbook by Sally Ludlum Smithers or whoever.
Google does the same thing, but also adds the layer of seeing how many sites link to a particular result - the PageRank. The more people that link to it, the more likely that page is the target for a given keyword.
Building an online auction site or bookstore isn't hard - but a bookstore that learns your preferences and suggests things you might like is pretty darn cool. That's partly personalization (which I'm not entirely sold on for sites that don't involve catalog shopping) and mostly relational DB work.
And then there's the human side. eBay and Amazon revolve around their user communities.
With eBay, it's all about the feedback ratings to ensure good behaviour - the community is self-policing and promoting, providing added assurances. It's purely Darwinian capitalism, but with reputation as a form of currency. Good feedback is as good as money.
With Amazon, it's about individuals contributing reviews and ratings. (On sister site imdb.com, it's about comments.) Dozens of small, personalized features like Gold Boxes and wishlists make it more convenient. Wishlists, in particular, get gift-givers to shop on Amazon for themselves as well.
Top 10 lists, "So you wanna be a..." lists...and more make it an interesting community of individuals. More than being a simple you-buy-from-us operation, it empowers users to use its engine to sell their stuff, too! Or make money from affiliate sales! And every small bookstore in the world is now an extension of Amazon's operation. Opening up their APIs was the best thing they ever did.
I'm only scratching the surface here, but you see how user-centric content makes a site a real destination, instead of a look-but-don't touch museum.
*(Hi to John Dowdell, if you're reading. And I know you are.)
I'm a grammar and spelling snob - so sue me. To me, language errors are like permanent marker graffiti to an obsessive-compulsive cleaning lady ("...on speed!" - Jay Stone, CanWest News Service!)
I often hear people say configurate and orientate - as the redoubtable Brian's Errors page at WSU notes in the entry for interpretate, both are incorrect back-formations from the nouns orientation and configuration. The proper verbs being, of course, to orient and to configure.
After all, you don't figurate something out, you figure it out, right? (And just because millions of people say it, that doesn't make it right - it makes them extra weak and lame!) ha- HA!
While I was Googling up that grammar gem, I found a Transports Canada page that used configurate. Heavens!I sent the webmaster a brief note to explain the error, and got this in automatic reply:
Transports Canada accuse riception de votre courriel. La
norme de service est de ripondre le plus ttt possible aux
demandes en frangais ou en anglais seulement.
Thank you for contacting us.
Merci d'avoir communiqui avec nous.
General Inquiries / Enqujtes ginirales
Tel / til: (613) 990-2309 TTY/TDD: 1-888-675-6863
facsimile / tilicopieur: (613) 954-4731 / 998-8620
At first I thought their mail server must be located in St. Leonard, but then I realized it was just transposing accented characters: i instead of é, t instead of ?, etc. Nice to know our taxpayer dollars go to a system that can't even speak ASCII.