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Website design: is there anybody out there?
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 13]

It's strange to find that if we try and find books about web site design we usually find that most of them talk about the technical aspects, such as HTML programming, Javascript,etc. However very few talk about how to design the structure and the content of the site. Most of them talk about the how but not the what and the why.

It's like going to build a house but only worrying about the construction itself and not what we are going to put inside or what we are going to use it for. In this situation as in programming, we tend to act and not think.

However, these are fundamental aspects without which the possibilities of creating a successful web site reduce considerably. 

Amongst others I would include: defining objectives (why), knowing how the users to the site use it (who), defining the scope where to operate (where) and creating a coherent information structure (how).

Let me explain what I mean: 

  • Defining the objectives of the web site (why)

On many occasions, we confuse the needs of our potential users with our idea of how a web site should be. That is why one of our main priorities has to be to define our objectives. 

In particular we need to know

  • what information we want to send out.
  • what information we want to receive.
  • what we want our web site to achieve. 

All our effort has to be aimed at making our web site the vehicle in order to reach our objectives.

  • Who our audience is and how they act on the Internet (for who)

We need to know who our audience is and how they behave in order to know how to tailor the information to their needs and pass it on to them. Some studies () show that 79% of users don't read whole pages, but skim over them, picking out the information that interests them.

Internet users are sceptical, don't take any notice of the advertising language and don't like having to move through the window (scroll) in order to read the whole article.

Therefore we have to be concise, create easily readable (scannable) texts, avoid wordiness and exaggeration, in short, get straight to the point. 

An interesting website in this sense is edit-work and also the books "Writing for the Web"  and "The Internet Writer's Handbook" .

It's also important to know the tastes of our potential audience. It's not the same writing for gourmets that for advertising people. In http://www.gvu.gatech.edu/gvu/user_surveys/others you can find links to market research, demographic figures, etc.

  • Where you are hoping to operate (where)

Are we aiming to serve a regional market or a global one? Is it an Intranet of a small company, a group of friends in a village or do we want to connect to the whole world? Internet is global, if we don't take into account the fact that the potential user could be in Japan just as well as he/she could be in Uruguay or in Tasmania, we could we confusing as well as irritating the potential audience.

A typical example is the one of the format of dates. 2.5.00 is the 2nd of May or the 5th of February? Or the flags, where we mustn't confuse the language with the nationality. Why is it that if I'm from Ecuador I have to click on the Spanish flag to see a web site in my own language? And if I'm North American why do I have to click on the English flag to see the site in English or vice-versa? 

If we write in various languages, it is very important to have a professional corrector. Bad translations, accents in the wrong places or missing and bad spelling can convert an excellent web site into a mediocre one and also difficult for the users of the country whose language we have destroyed.

  • The structure of the information. (how)

Once we have clear objectives, we have to create a coherent structure of our web site that reflects the structure of the information that we want to transmit and not that of our company. In the majority of cases the users aren't able to make a mental picture of the structure of the web site. However, the existence of this structure maintains the coherence of the contents of the site, helps navigation and makes it easier to find what the user is looking for.

The importance of this can be seen in the study by Creative Goods  that reveals that 39% of commercial web users don't find the article that they wanted to buy in spite of its existence in the web in question. On the other hand, after a negative experience, the possibilities of going back to the same web are very low. 

Something worth thinking about if we are thinking of trying to survive on the web.

In the next article we'll talk about the influence of technology, navigation and the response time in the design of web sites.

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