A Four-Part Checklist for Creating Successful Web Designs
By Matthew Stanton, Metromemetics LLC
(first posted 10/12/2002; revised 09/28/2003)
Designers tend to label their target audiences by each mediums’ method of delivery. Newspapers and magazines have readers, radio has listeners, television has viewers – all passive activities.
The World Wide Web differs in that its audience members are called users, people actively involved in making the medium effective and apt to think of the Web as much as a tool as a source of content.
Like all segmented audiences, Web users vary in what they want – one day sports records from 1933, the next auction bids on duck blinds – and the choice of where to start looking is staggering. As a result, search engines remain the most heavily trafficked sites on the Web not only for finding specific content but also revealing sites likely to feature closely related information.
This find-it-yourself habit doesn’t end once the user picks a site – the user remains aware every competing site is just one click of the mouse button away.
The following lists pose critical questions designers should be asking about what they are offering to their audiences. The answers in four categories – aesthetics, content, ease of use and speed – will determine how to set the content’s design priorities.
Questions about Aesthetics
- Does the dominant image of the first screen deliver strong emotional impact?
- Does the look and feel of the site reflect the nature of its content? (Example themes might include drama, urgency, threat, humor, depth, maturity, or youth.)
- Do music or sounds on the page help or distract from the visual themes?
- Do dominant visual elements on the first screen steer users’ eyes correctly?
- Do visual elements contrast enough to separate distinct content or navigation?
- Are elements repeated and positioned in a consistent manner? (“Consistent” here does not necessarily mean in the “same” manner.)
- Is it easy to read the site’s content and avoid distracting colors or animation near the core content?
- Are cliche visual techniques and ubiquitous gimmicks avoided?
Questions about Content
- Is what is on the site relavent to the intended target audience’s needs?
- Is the site updated frequently, if not constantly?
- Is what is on the site exclusive, found no where else online (or even offline)?
- If content is not unique, does the site leverage other factors (speed, ease of use, aesthetics) better than competing sites?
- Does the site engage the user with interaction aimed at immediate benefits (“Click here now to win!”) or open contribution (polls, message boards)?
- Does the design guide the user to more related information, depth or context?
- Does the design mix media best suited to each piece of content (text for complicated and abstract issues, audio for speeches, video for dramatic action)?
- Are infographics or animations used to display quantitative information so users can grasp an idea at a glance? (Especially useful to relay information through proximity, such as maps and timelines, or relationships, such as charts and bar graphs.)
- Is the content presented in an intimate fashion direct to a single user?
Questions about Ease of Use
- Are layout elements, navigation links and search functions clearly found and specifically labelled?
- Is news presented succinctly for fast, clear understanding? (Inverted pyramid style, lead includes the who, what, where, when, why and how of an issue.)
- Does the site perform fully and automatically regardless of users’ software?
- Does the site follow conventions users have learned to expect from visiting other Web sites? (Avoid novelty for common tasks.)
- Is the type large enough on the screen to be read comfortably?
Questions about Speed
- Does the initial entry to the site download quickly (under 8 seconds)?
- Are users warned when links lead to larger files bound to cause slower downloads?
- Is the newest content immediately available from the first screen?
- Can users immediately tell where they are in the site from every page?
- Can users get to any other spot on the site in three mouseclicks or less?
- Are related items grouped together?
- Do pages lead off with a summary of longer content which follows?
- Is most text written in a way which is easy to read quickly? (Not necessarily possible for complex issues, but a good rule of thumb.)
Using Design Priorities
Here are three very simplified examples which illustrate putting these questions into use.
Aesthetics priority: A movie promotional Web site
Target audience: Users shopping for movies to see.
Competitors: Specifically none directly (maybe fan sites), but generally many (other up-coming movies)
Design Priorities: 1. Aesthetics, 2. Content, 3. Ease of Use, 4. Speed.
Example: Miramax Films’ Kill Bill Web site
Comments: Movie Web sites tend to be an exception to the “not worth the wait” rule. The rich mix of video, audio, animation, free downloads and online games provide catchy experiences for such fleeting interests. The studio’s goal is to make you excited about an up-coming film, and most of the aesthetics issues deal with such emotion.
Content priority: A news Web site
Target audience: All users sharing a specific niche (same city, industry, hobby).
Competitors: Many specific (other newspapers, TV stations) and general (local news aggregates like Yahoo! and MSNBC)
Design Priorities: 1. Content, 2. Speed, 3. Ease of Use, 4. Aesthetics.
Example: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s JS Online
Comments: News Web sites have to break stories as fast as broadcasters but still provide the depth and quality found in most newspapers. Many news sites thrive in targeting niche markets much like print magazines do. Consistently being first with the story, being right , and providing links to additional content for context are the benchmarks of quality which drive site traffic.
Ease of Use/Speed priority: A Web search portal
Target audience: Users filtering choices of sites to visit.
Competitors: Several specific (Yahoo!, Google, Lycos, etc.)
Design Priorities: 1. Ease of use and Speed (typically tied in importance), 3. Content (volume of sites to be searched), 4. Aesthetics
Comments: Loyalty to which Web search engine you rely on is a bit like religion – you tend to stick with the one you grew up with, but one bad crisis of faith and you’re looking for answers elsewhere. Users want three-click results as fast as possible – click , enter search, click , scan results, click , go to appropriate site. Anything which hinders this task undermines the tool’s value.