“Make your own Web site in just one day” – A popular slogan and quite a promise. Not surprisingly, one that attracts much interest. After all, homepages are the current equivalent of the business card. For many, a Web site is almost as essential as a roof over their heads. Unfortunately, some designers forget that certain design basics also apply to IT, too.
Nevertheless, WWW design cannot simply be equated with the design of traditional printed matter. A user at the customary 15" to 21" screen always only sees one part of the homepage. More information can only be accessed by scrolling and clicking. In other words, a Web site resembles a key-hole: Much remains concealed, above all if the hypertext links are not clearly identified.
So new conventions are needed. Especially as there is still a lack of practice and familiarity in using the Internet – among users and designers alike. The result: We are often frustrated when out surfing.
How to improve interaction? And enhance navigating to a site? These were the questions behind a study conducted by Ohio State’s Department of Industrial, Interior and Usual Communication Design. The title of the study: “Designer intentions versus the interpretations of the Web Site users – a semantic investigation”. The goal: to identify those mistakes which got in the way of efficient Internet communication.
With the assistance of ten users, in a co-operative process three commercial Web sites of renowned US design companies were evaluated in terms of stylistic features: the Web sites of Fitch, Point-Click and Little Design were discussed and studied by means of an ingenious method.
Test persons assessed a wide number of investigative research techniques in the course of different sittings. A “Tool Kit” was used to evaluate the Web sites. It consisted of 50 images, 60 words, colored markers, various pieces of paper, scissors, glue and illustration boards sized 50 x 60 cm. These materials were meant to cover a wide spectrum of different associations, ranging from the favorable, via the neutral, to the unfavorable. The intention here was to exclude any undesired influences on the results.
Why not as easy as pie?
All the participants were allowed to browse as long as they felt necessary. At the end, they expressed their opinions by creating collages using the Tool Kit. Each collage was composed in line with a verbal protocol. Moreover, a pre-structured interview and countless discussions were held, and each test person completed a questionnaire – so much for the approach.
The methodology outlined above is based on the image collaging method, which is meanwhile used as a matter of routine in product research and interface design. However, this was the first time it had been used to analyze Internet Web sites.
One fundamental advantage of the method: Inspired by the Tool Kit, all test persons can express their thoughts playfully, without hesitation or constraints. The collage technique is meant to foster precisely statements which cannot be forecast in advance and which researchers generally do not even consider.
The findings? The study revealed that there is a large discrepancy between the users’ experiences and the designers’ intentions.
All ten test candidates agreed that what counts in the Internet is an appealing presentation. They all indicated that it was helpful to make information available in as playful, friendly and inviting a manner as possible. Neither attention-grabbing visual experiments involving all sorts of tricks, nor the latest technological novelties were acceptable – and the same was true of a boring, linear organization.
Users wanted, quite literally, interactive, fresh, and yet simple and uncomplicated Web sites in which they could immerse themselves and forget as far as possible that they were sitting in front of a PC.
The study underscored the significance of interface design. It is here that acceptability of a homepage is decided.
This was made clear by the evaluation of the Web site of Fitch Inc., head-quartered in Worthington, Ohio. The Fitch designers, so the unanimous opinion, had shown that they had taken cognitive aspects into account in the design.
This Web site is, however, still the exception. Evidently, most designers do not have a clear idea of the premises for interactive lay-outs. This at any rate, emerges clearly from the Ohio study. The test persons explained that they would have clicked out of some of the sites after only casting a brief glance at the homepage in question if they had been sitting in front of their PC at home and not taking part in the test.
In the real world this could mean the loss of potential clients. And this certainly shows the significance of the sensibly designed Web sites.