Some of the hardest decisions I make in Web site design are about the order of the left navigation.
A couple of years ago when we did the Carewords research, I preached the gospel of making better informed decisions about how content is placed on a home page instead of defaulting to an alphabetical listing.
Now it seems there's additional research that A-Z sorting is not user-friendly.
According to Jacob Nielsen, people rarely think A-Z. Either "users don't know the name of the thing that they want, making A-Z listings worthless" or "the items have an inherent logic that dictates a different sort order, which makes A-Z listings harmful because they hide that logic."
Users only think A-Z if they know the entire set. Nielsen further asserts that only lazy design teams use A-Z!
Better sorting? Read the full article.
We talk a lot about the placing your most important Web content "above the fold," but findings from the Eyetrack III study reveal additional information about the importance of placement.
Eyetracking is research that tracks where a person's eyes look while reading, then analyzes the data to reveal patterns. By combining and reviewing data from multiple individuals during testing, they discover representative patterns that apply to most of the population.
While this study focused on the top 25 news sites, there's critical information here for anyone managing content and navigation on any site.
This study revealed that visitors to a site first look at the upper left corner.
This graphic illustrates the "zones of importance" based on eye movement.
Other findings include:
- Partial viewing of headlines is common
Viewing just the left one-third of a headline or blurb is common
The researches estimate that headlines catch less than one second of a viewer's attention
- Top navigation performs best
- Shorter paragraphs perform best
Proving again that your cursor is your best Web editing friend
- Smaller type encourages reading while large type encourages scanning
I don't know what to do with this one. As a general rule I would not recommend the use of smaller type to encourage reading.
Findings of the Eyetrack III study were released by The Poynter Institute, the Estlow Center for Journalism & New Media, and Eyetools.
If you want to learn more about eyetracking technology and Web usability, you can also check out Jakob Nielson's site and the Nielson Norman Group's book Eyetracking Web Usability.
Bob Johnson, our consultant on the Carewords project, sent me some updated information on their findings on what makes a Web site effective:
- Website management is about managing tasks, not content.
Do you know what people want to do when they come to your site? Helping people complete tasks should be the driving force behind initial site design and ongoing site management.
- Navigation is more important than looks
In Carewords surveys in any type of organization (government, private firm, higher education) it is rare for people to complain about the "visual appeal" of the website.
In almost every case, the primary complaint is about "confusing menus and links" that prevent task completion.
- It is impossible to create good navigation without knowing the tasks that bring people to the website.
It is impossible to know those tasks without asking web visitors what they are. Survey first, design second.
- Edit, Edit, Edit
A content management system (like SB3) is a mixed blessing as it often leads to content proliferation without regard to whether or not the content helps people complete tasks.
Too much content is dangerous to effective navigation and search.
Content creators should ask themselves a simple question: what task am I helping people complete by creating this content?
Much content is created but little content is ever reviewed and removed. To start, use Google Analytics or a similar program to identify pages on a website that are seldom if ever visited. Why are they still on the website?
- Brand reputation and Web experience is linked
Brand reputation depends in no small part on the experience people have on your website.
People who can't easily complete the tasks they wish to complete on your site will not hold your brand in high esteem no matter the snappy tagline, beautiful pictures, or success stories told.
I know that some of you think that Communication Services is some sort of technological utopia. We use bleeding edge technology developed by the Web Action Team, we never have questions, we always do it right, we work together cheerfully and in a constant state of gleeful collaboration. "No, I insist, your idea is better!"
Nope. We struggle along just like you.
Case in point - the Communication Services Web site was just migrated from SB 2.0 to SB 3.0. Was the transition seamless? No. Are we learning something? Yes!
We're still working on the new pages, but I have some observations.
#1 - it's actually easier to start from scratch
I've built 2 Web sites from scratch in SB 3.0. And I have to say, in many ways it's easier. You're starting with a blank slate. You're imagining the possibilities. You're thinking globally. You're putting the customer first. Old content and navigation doesn't weigh you down. Collaboration can be easier - no one owns anything yet.
#2 - it ain't over, 'til it's over
Sure, you've migrated your site. You're not finished. You're just getting started.
I remember a few years back when we were in the housing market; we went to an open house for house that had been through a major remodel. In stages. Without professional assistance.
The layout of the house was the craziest thing you've ever seen. The front door entered the living room, but you had to go through a study to get to the kitchen. Bedrooms and bathrooms appeared in unexpected places. The floor plan made no sense at all.
A migrated Web site can quickly take on the appearance of a bad remodel. Take the time to imagine your site from scratch. How would it look if you were starting over? Does your navigation still make sense? Have your priorities changed?
#3 - clean out that closet!
Now is a good time to get rid of outdated content. Take a hard look at your content. Better yet, have somebody else take a hard look at your content. I admit I was a bit embarrassed by the age of some of my content in the CS Web site.
Is it still relevant? If not - re-write or delete. Can't bear to part with it? Deactivate the page. If you have a change of heart a couple of months down the road, you can change your mind.
If you're converting your site to SB3, here's another reason to give some thought to navigation and organization before you simply transfer the whole kit and caboodle.
Gerry McGovern has done some user testing on search vs. navigation and has a great post about the roles of each in your site. With all the talk about the supremacy of search, this post is a good refresher on why good navigation is still important to visitors to your site.