Design User-Centric Sites, Says Web Specialist

SINGAPORE (03/01/2000) - Successful Web sites are those designed with the users at the center of the planning process, and not what some company CEOs think would best reflect the company's image. And at all costs, keep the marketing people away from the site design process, said Ric Shreves, director of Hong Kong-based Web consultancy Dots and Loops Ltd.

"Corporate clients can be a nightmare to design for because their level of sophistication is so low in this market," Shreves said here today at Asia Internet World 2000. "They're not stupid -- but they don't know what they're supposed to be doing."

While CEOs are prone to conservative errors like scanning the corporate brochure and using the image as their home page, the marketing types tend to overload the site with fancy bells and whistles that reduce rather than enhance usability, Shreves said.

"There are a lot of bad Web sites out there because the marketing people are running them," he said. "You have to take the initiative and rein these people in."

Web site architects must first ask themselves who will be accessing a site, and what they will use it for, according to Shreves. Business-to-business sites will have different design imperatives from general information portals, and both new and experienced Web users must be catered for, he said.

"You should organize the interface purposefully, group similar items together and separate unlike items, keep all necessary tools and materials visible and don't clutter the interface with extraneous information," he said. "You should also strive for consistency, and let users know when something on the site has altered."

Many Web sites fall into the trap of trying to put too much on their home page, Shreves said.

"I look at some sites and just get hit with this information overload," he said. "It may be a good marketing philosophy, but it's a bad scalability philosophy."

Up-front planning is also the best way to keep errant surfers from getting completely lost in a site, according to Shreves.

"You can't build a foolproof Web site because fools are notoriously ingenious," he said. "But you can plan to reduce the cost of errors."

Designers should look at their Web sites more like a social science experiment than a product, according to Shreves.

"In one experiment, researchers sent a gorilla into a maze in search of a banana, in order to test its problem-solving skills," he said. "The Web site is your maze, the user is the gorilla, and if they don't find the banana they're looking for quickly, they're going to get frustrated and go somewhere else."

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