Thinking about Features, Flow and Feedback

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Main Points:

  • What does the site offer and the power of simplicity?
  • How should the user move through the system?
  • What do the users think?

The homepage of a website is arguably the most important page on the site. It will usually be the first point of contact and the best opportunity to give the user an idea about the purpose of the site. The home page is also considered a high value page and can easily become cluttered as different departments try to get their “special” message on that portion of the site. Organizations often treat their home page as the front window of a shop or fancy advertisement in magazine, which leaves it disconnected visually from the rest of the site. In his article, Beyond Usability and Design: The Narrative Mark Bernstein (2001) notes that the if a site has fancy splash page (AKA entrance tunnel) that leads to a conventional site readers are left with a disjointed narrative that will put them off. Spending a disproportionate amount of effort on a fancy splash page is also a problem because that hyperlinked nature of the web means a user could land on any page of the website. This is becoming even more common with the way websites are shared through social media. Since a user could land on any page of the site it is vital that there is enough information on every page that a user can either a) quickly ascertain the purpose of the site, or b) find their way to a page that will deliver this information.

Less is More

Using a “less is more” approach to the design of the site may help ensure the user has a better experience. In “design is in the details Naz Hamid acknowledges that less is more doesn’t mean attempting to limit the content of a complex website. Rather practicing “less is more” in design means limiting elements that may distract the user or refining a design “chokes itself with too many colors (Hamid, Date).” Jakob Neilson (one of the touchstone experts for this course) suggested in Designing Web Usability, a designer should go through their design and remove every element one by one and if the design still works without a certain element remove it (Neilson, 2001, 22). Much like often quoted writing advice from William Faulkner, in web design too you must be prepared to “kill your darlings.”

Design for Flow

As well as maintaining a certain simplicity, a website should be designed to flow from logical task to the next. This can be quite challenging, especially if the user arrives in the middle of the site or heaven forbid on the 404 error page. Regardless, good user interface will address how the user should flow through the site. Flow will also help designers struggling to ease the users experience of a complex website. Jim Ramsey in “designing for flow” put is nicely when he writes “the way to make the complex feel painless is to design with flow in mind.” One method of building flow into the site is to place “call to action” buttons in key locations to help guide the user to the next step in the process.

Lets us a very information rich example from the web to illustrate the how a call to action button can encourage a users behaviour. In the screen shot below – from the Halifax Public Library – the user has located an item and is clearly encouraged to “place a hold.” This button is larger and higher on the page than the “save or tag” option. It also dwarfs the social media sharing buttons, that are beneath the QR code. An interesting point of note on this particular is that there is no direct link to learn more about the location and hours of Alderney Gate, the branch that holds the item. This possible oversight might disrupt the flow of a user, who may actually want to and retrieve this item. To find the branch hours and location they will need to return to the home page and begin a different search altogether.

Screen Shot from Halifax Public Library
Screen Shot from Halifax Public Library. Notice the large Place a hold call to action button on the left.

Final thoughts on features flow and feedback.

The surface layer (Garrett, 2011) communicates through the content of the site, and the arrangement of that content. The placement, style, size and prominence of buttons and graphics will suggest to the user what type of interaction they can expect. Even relatively new web users will have some preconceived notions of how certain feature should work. This is the driving principle behind Jackob Neilson’s usability heuristic of prioritizing recognition rather than recall. Neilson suggests that a usable system will allow the user to recognize how the features of the system work. This is far more efficient for a user than having to recall how a particular feature works. Note that in order for a user to recall how a feature works, they will need to be taught how a feature works. A user invested in a complex site that they consider their best options for task completion, for example their local public library catalog, may take the time to learn the site’s intricacies. However, with the multitudes of similar sites on the internet many users will opt to try a different site rather than work too long with a site that has an interface that requires them to learn a new way of operating.

Recommended and Cited Readings

Bernstein, M. (2001). Beyond Usability and Design: The Narrative Web. A list apart: For people who make websites, 106. Retrieved from http://www.alistapart.com/articles/narrative/

Garrett, J. J. (2011). The elements of user experience: User-centered design for the Web and beyond. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Hamid, N. (2008). Design is in the Details. A list apart: For people who make websites, 254. Retrieved from http://www.alistapart.com/articles/designisinthedetails/

Nielsen, J. (2000). Designing Web usability. Indianapolis, Ind: New Riders.

Ramsey, J. (2007). Designing For Flow. A list apart: For people who make websites, 254. Retrieved from http://www.alistapart.com/articles/designingforflow/

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