Site Savvy

SAN MATEO (03/27/2000) - One way to judge your site is to look closely at other sites. Look not only at your competition, but also at other sites. This is an effective technique for determining what your site is missing -- and what you need to stay away from.

During my visits, I typically conduct a few usability tests and often ask an average Web user to perform a simple yet specific task on that site. More often than not, my tester fails. I've concluded that most Web sites are too difficult to use. And most formal usability studies are well in line with my less-than-projectable tests. If you're looking to improve your site, focus on the user experience by providing a simple layout that's a piece of cake to understand and fast to load.

Web users have zero patience for complicated designs or poor performance. If your site is distracting, users will simply leave. Our new site has been up for almost four months now, and we know what is and is not working. Here are some lessons to remember.

1. Don't break the browser functionality. Users rely on two popular browser controls -- the back button and the URL locator. Under no circumstances should you break these priceless tools. Recently we implemented frames on our site to support our ITWorld partner, and we broke both the URL locator and the back button on specific versions of Internet Explorer. The noise was phenomenal, and we fixed the problem promptly.

Other common operations should also work across the site. For example, users love to cut and paste content from our site. Currently most Netscape browsers don't allow that because we use CSS (cascading style sheets). Sit with users and watch them use your site; then create a list of common operations performed. Make sure these operations work across your pages and across multiple OSes and browsers.

2. User expectations lead to standards. Once the majority of sites start to do something and users find it useful and come to expect it, you had better join the masses or have one solid reason for not going along. For example, users expect to see a graphic in the upper left corner that links to the home page and brands the site. Take away the link and leave the brand, and users will not only forget the brand, but will actually turn away from it. The same is true for color and links. Many sites don't stick to common colors, but rather choose colors that go well with the brand. InfoWorld.com follows the branding strategy. We use red for unread and gray for read links.

3. People still print. If the content is useful, many people will print it.

Make sure your pages print correctly. If you're using complex tables or frames, you may need to create a "print-friendly" function and button to simplify the content for print. Make sure this function is easily accessible throughout the page. Originally, our sole "print-friendly" button was on the upper left side of the page. When you finished an article, the button was no longer visible.

Now we've added the button to the bottom of all story pages.

4. Fixed page size still rules. Relative width pages look the best because the page will always fit your resolution. Unfortunately, there's still a lot of overhead associated with presenting relative pages. Some sites, including ours, launch with relative pages and shift to fixed width. The acceptable size for most fixed-width sites appears to be 800x600 pixels. For those above 800x600, you'll see wasted real estate on the screen, but decent page load times are typically more desirable.

Next time I'll address the navigation dilemma.

Laura Wonnacott is vice president of InfoWorld.com. Write to her at laura_wonnacott@infoworld.com.

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