Beyond the buzz

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Not just a pretty face

Can a web site look really great but be confusing to its visitors? Can an unattractive web site be a joy to navigate?

The answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes.

Too often, we build a site strictly from a creative perspective; that is to say, that we focus on the graphical design without giving too much thought to how the content of the site should be structured or how site visitors might want to get at this content. This approach fits one- or two-dimensional media such as print or even broadcast; it doesn’t always work for the digital medium.

For sites with small amounts of content, this creative-first approach can work. However, if you have enough content that you’re worrying about categories, that’s a really good clue that you’ll need to re-visit your site development approach.

Advanced web designers talk about information architecture. What is it? The word “architecture” is a good place to start. If you were to commission a house to be built. Do you simply call in the construction crew, or would you first start with architectural blueprints? These blueprints, ideally, are constructed based on a 360-degree understanding of the total environment in which the house will occupy. What’s the size of the land? What kind of landscape and what’s the soil composition? How many people will live in the house? Do you expect guests frequently? Will there be elderly or physically challenged residents? How much parking will you need? And on, and on.

If the house were simply built without thinking ahead to what the residents need or might expect to need, and you had $5 million dollars and time to kill, you might end up with something akin to the famous Winchester Mystery House. Commissioned by Sarah Winchester, widow of the man who owns the Winchester firearms company, the house features doors that lead into vertical drop-offs, switch-back stairs that go in a circle, stairs that lead right into a ceiling, etc.

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The story goes that Mrs Winchester, troubled by the untimely death of her daughter and husband, was advised by a soothsayer that the only way to ward off further troubles was to make a racket. And so, she hired a bunch of carpenters and kept them hammering away 24 hours a day for 38 years.

The Winchester Mystery House might be somewhat of an extreme example, and surely no web site exists that’s a complete digital equivalent of it, but many sites certainly exhibit similar traits. But when we fling ourselves headlong into a web development project without a complete understanding of what we need from the site, what our site visitors might need, who those site visitors might be, how our content might grow and how they might be related, etc., we are setting ourselves up to build a digital Winchester Mystery House. That’s great if you have $5 million and 38 years; but I’m going to guess you don’t.

So, the next time you’re tempted to hire an agency or a web developer to “quickly” build you something that can go online, do yourself and your bottom line a favour: stop and think before you act.

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Filed under: Usability

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