Making Value ClearUsers don't read webpages the way they would a book. Rather than scanning content from top left to bottom right, their eyes "hop" to visually highlighted elements (see Helping Users Find Key Content). In many cases a user doesn't do more than glance at a page before moving on. The following guidelines will help you adapt your materials to this novel communications medium.
- Organize your site into bite-size pieces that can be traversed in a number of different ways to take advantage of the Web's navigation flexibility. In this context, a "bite-size" unit means that text shouldn't fill much more than what the browser window holds when it is occupying the full width of the screen (less than a printed page).
- Give the user at least some content on every page, not just a list of links or contents of other pages. In this guide, for example, choosing any of the top-level headings on the navigation bar takes the user directly to the text about the first topic in that section, not just to a table-of-contents.
- Key information should be positioned so that it is visible even when the browser window has been shrunk to about half the screen width. This is similar to the guideline in the newspaper business that all enticing headlines need to be above the fold (i.e., showing even when the paper is folded).
- Make sure pointers to related topics are clearly visible somewhere in the upper portion of the page. In this guide, for example, the topics under Site Design are listed in the navigation bar to the left; only the current topic is expanded so that all headings fall above the fold (alternatively, they could be shown in a row across the top of the page).
- Short does not mean "dumbed down." A user's reluctance to read long blocks of text does not reflect lack of intelligence or interest, but rather the desire to quickly identify what material is available - and where - on your website. Webpages should be used as the equivalent of an executive summary on a proposal or report. A succinct summary lets the reader know what to expect and helps him/her capture key information without having to read through an entire document. It's perfectly fine to include longer documents, but they should always be accessed through a shorter summary. This usually means that any full documents should be at least three levels deep in the webpage hierarchy.
- Except for the name of your organization or site at the top of the page, avoid blocks of text displayed in a large font or colored background block, particularly if the font is fancy. Studies have shown that users ignore anything that appears to be "marketeering."
- Don't request that users provide email addresses unless you clearly specify why it's needed and precisely how you will use the information. Users have become suspicious of sites that gather email addresses. If it's necessary to have users login to your site, make sure that plenty of valuable information is available before logging in, or you'll drive potential users away.
- Be careful about what proportion of each page you are devoting to meaningful content, as compared to the amount of space occupied by artwork, organization logos, blank or colored areas, menubars, etc. Users are quick to dismiss content-poor pages as "too marketing-oriented."
- Avoid the statement "This site is under construction" or the equivalent "Please visit us again soon." Any website that is any good is constantly under construction or re-construction - so why state the obvious?