|May 2006 issue (Vol 12, No. 1)
About the Author
Scott McDaniel is a member of the Washington D.C. Usability Professionals
D.C. Metro Chapter Usability SIG
Report on the Seminar Understanding Web Readers (and Non-Readers): Creating Usable and Effective Web Content
By Scott McDaniel
On 16 February 2006, the STC Washington D.C. Chapter Usability SIG and the Washington D.C. Chapter of the Usability Professionals Association co-hosted a presentation given by Ginny Redish called “Understanding Web Readers (and Non-Readers): Creating Usable and Effective Web Content”. In this presentation, Ginny discussed how research from linguistics, as well as cognitive psychology, reading studies, writing studies, and other disciplines could contribute to useful and usable Web sites.
Everybody is looking for content that is quick to access, answers a question and solves a problem. Content must be of high quality, frequently updated, and that is quick and easy to use because most people are too busy to read, they want quick answers and are there to complete a task. This attitude is not specific to the web. The web is not as different as we might think.
Web sites play a part in a conversation started by a busy user. Web sites have a role, and the user has a role in the conversation. When breakdowns happen in a conversation between two people, they have to “repair the conversation.” They realize this through cues – often non-verbal. This is much harder to do when one of the conversationalists is a Web site.
Ginny explained that the typical Web site consists of four types of pages:
Users scan the home page to move on quickly. Ginny presented a before and after version of the home page of several Web sites. The first was of the Department of Health and Human Services (www.hhs.gov). When asking people to find information on Diseases and Vaccination, performance improved from 41% success to 92% success by simply restructuring the page to aid scanning.
Ginny stressed the importance of why we need to think about document titles as links (i.e. Pathway Pages). They will be displayed as links on other pages and often will be the only information users will see about a document. Links must be useful by themselves. People don’t want to read or think before they’ve arrived at a Destination Page. People like Tables of Contents that do not have paragraphs.
To stress this point, Ginny used the Firstgov.gov, a web portal, as an example. She displayed the home page and asked the audience to find information about how to obtain a birth certificate. In the old version, people saw the home page and clicked Birth Certificates, which took them to a pathway page that asked them to click on a letter for their state. People missed the text above it, though, and just saw a colorful list of letters. At that part of the conversation, the page should have asked them to click on a state. The goal on a Pathway Page is to move to the next step. People go straight to the content.
When people get to the Destination Page, they still do not read. Here there is a different model than the print world.
Help is an outdated notion on the web. Ginny advocated that frequently asked questions are a better model. Quickbooks help uses an index card model, with pages that show a question and then show the answer to the question. The questions are structure into logical sections and are easy to scan.
As an example, Ginny presented the U.S. Department of Transportation Web site (www.dot.gov). She explained that when visitors arrive at a page, they scan the content. On a Pathway Page, they select the first item that looks relevant to their needs. She explained that if the Web site does not attract interest in the first few words, it would lose them.
Press releases have a day or two lifetimes at most in the physical world. Online, though, their lifetime is potentially forever. They can be summaries of full reports. Ginny presented a before and after version of a press release written by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). The original version was a wall of text, when revised the information was chucked with headers to identify topics. Fifteen of sixteen people preferred the new version. Page titles, headings, and text represent different levels of information on the page. People should be able to read the bold parts to get the meaning of the page.
Ginny asked the audience to line drawings while half the time telling what they looked like first and half the time giving us just the shapes and their relationships first. People did not wait until she had gotten to the end to start drawing, and there was lots of erasing when people realized that the triangle on top of an inverted T was like a wine glass, not a Christmas tree.
Lessons that I learned from this presentation was:
Last but not least, Ginny announced that her next book, Letting Go of the Words — Writing Web Content that Works, will be published in 2006.
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