eSites Network Website Design


A Harsh Mistress

What is it that matters to you?

If you can't answer this question, go away. You don't have any business designing or having a website.

Oh, you think you have an answer? Then it's time for my next question:

Why should I care?

Yes, this is me talking, that hypothetical person who might someday stumble across your website. Except for one thing: I'm not hypothetical. Not only am I real, I'm impatient, I'm jaded, and I get bored before most pages load. So what are you going to do about it? Huh?

I'll tell you what you can do. Make me care. Compel me to care. Don't leave me any choice in the matter. You've got ten seconds.

Why should you care whether I care?

Well this gets down to the nub of it, doesn't it? You're designing or getting designed webpages and putting them on the world-wide-web. Why? If I go to your page and leave before I've read ten words, then I'll never know what it is that matters to you. Is that what you want?

So how do you get me to stay?

Ahhh. Now we're getting down to the important things.

Remember that I'm the most important person in my world. I may be curious, or I may not. I may already know about your subject matter, or I may not. You don't know what mental state I might be in. So assume the worst and start from there.

That's why openings are important. Don't waste time, don't waste pages, don't waste bandwidth. Don't let any distractions take my attention away. Your opening page is a contract with me; it's your promise of what you're going to deliver. So get to the point. Give me a hook that I can't resist. And make it quick.

Ten seconds? Are you serious?

You'd better believe I'm serious. After ten seconds, human beings lose focus on whatever they were paying attention to. They may consciously be more forgiving of net-lag, but the basic mechanisms of the mind don't work that way.

What can you do in ten seconds? More than you'd think, actually. You don't have to deliver everything, but your page had better be usable within ten seconds. Ten seconds is still only ten seconds; for an average reader, for instance, that's enough time to read perhaps 40 words.

Forty words is a good opening, and remember what I said about openings: They are your contract with your reader. This is true for your site, it is true for each page, and it is true for the first glimpse of each page. Of course, you also have to deliver on your promise, but you don't have to accomplish that in ten seconds. Look at it this way: every link followed within your site represents a promise and delivery, followed by another promise. That's how you build trust, on the web or anywhere else. Once your reader trusts that you will deliver, you have a lot more freedom... as long as you continue to deliver.

What kind of promises can you make? It will vary. Sometimes you promise an attitude: "This page will entertain you." Sometimes you promise content: "You want to know about this? Well, here it is." Sometimes you promise organization: "This will help you find what you're looking for."

But ten seconds is still ten seconds. During that time, the reader's machine has to contact a web server, and that server has to send a page. If you've got graphics to load, that's another server connection, one per image. If you're using frames, that's at least two more server connections before anything interesting or useful even gets sent to the reader.

This is one reason why text will always be crucial to good web pages. Text gets delivered with the first server connection. Text formats immediately, provided you've done the right thing by providing height and width for images, and kept your initial tables small. Text loading can't get turned off by net-weary users. Forty words. Ten seconds. Make your promise.

That's not to denigrate the value of images or anything else; it's simply recognizing what's going to show up first. Do you need images to make your point? Don't neglect text, whether it's captions, alt text for images, a quick index, or a short, pithy comment. Text - or the lack of it - is the first thing your reader will see.

By the way, this is what usability engineering is about. It's understanding what works for people, and making sure that you meet those needs. It's about using those ten seconds wisely, which requires good planning, good design, and good execution. And you've only got ten seconds because of the net; on your local machine, when you're designing, make it immediate - although you really can't assess net-lag effects without the net.

Am I setting a high standard?

Yes, but why not? I'm a reader too, especially when it comes to your pages. And you want me to like your pages, don't you?

This is why I compare a web site to a harsh mistress. You've got to be aware of the effect of everything you do, not on how you perceive your pages, but on how your readers may perceive them. You have to be constantly aware of the cycle of promise, fulfill, promise. You have to be alert for flaws in your concepts, your design, your implementation, your understanding of your readers. When you find flaws, you fix them, because part of your reputation rides on your responsiveness, and even on your foresight, because the most important reader is always the next one, not the one before.

You've got to be aware of these issues at every level, from the cognitive to the subconscious. You've made a promise, and fulfilled. Where's the next promise? It had better be right there; don't make the reader look for it. Site navigation has to be invisible until it's needed, then suddenly blatantly obvious.

You've got to remember that human beings are pattern-making animals. We'll make a pattern out of cues from the environment, whether there's a pattern behind them or not. So make sure that everything on your site and on your pages matters. Understand the patterns you want to create, and throw out anything that isn't part of that pattern, no matter how much you may care about it for its own sake. What matters is the patterns that your readers perceive, and understand now and forever that those patterns are a product of your presentation and their expectations. People always come with preconceived notions, and that's your starting point - even if you have no idea what those notions might be.

What's in it for me?

Here's one reader expectation that you don't have to guess about. People don't come to your web site, or stay at your web site, because your site is important to you. They come for what they can get out of your site. If they ever pause to ask, even for a split-second, what's in it for me? when it comes time to follow a link, or to wait for a page to load, or to scroll down a page, you've lost them.

There are three fundamentals you can count on.

  • People don't like to read.
  • People don't like to scroll.
  • People don't like to wait for graphics to load.
This is not to say that people won't do these things; it's just that every time you ask them to, you are cashing in on their tolerance. Think of these as inertia. People have to have reasons to do these things, and the reasons have to be their reasons. It's up to you to overcome their inertia.

People will give you a little bit of tolerance when they first come to your site, but from that point on, you're on your own. Think of it like a bank account. Every time you make a promise and fulfill it, you increase the tolerance in that account. Every time you make your reader wait, you lose some tolerance. Every time your reader sees an error on your site, you lose a lot of tolerance. Every time your reader has to search to find what they want, the longer they search, the more trouble you're in. If that tolerance ever goes to zero, that reader is gone... and will never come back.

The only way you can keep things going is to keep satisfying that reader. Not once, but every time the reader expects it. Every time you promise it. The way you fulfill your promises to the reader is the way you sell your reader on staying to see more.

So let's talk

Think of your web site as one side of a conversation.

It's not as one-sided a concept as it sounds. Sometimes when people talk, one person does have something to say, something that needs to continue until it's all said. What does the other person do during this time? Lots of things, from nodding to eye contact to small vocalizations ("um, hm") to the occasional question. As the person talking, you are aware of these things; as long as they continue, you know you still have that person's attention. When they stop, you've lost them.

The web works on much the same model; you have a web site that has something to say. The reader acknowledges continued interest by responding with scrolling, waiting, following links, and most of all, reading and thinking. As long as you can hold their interest, they'll keep coming back for more.

It's just a different way of looking at the same set of issues.

Isn't this a lot of work?

Yes, it is. I've been doing it for a while myself, and it's still a lot of work. But it's been worth it; all things considered, I think I've gotten out of it the things that I wanted to get.

That's really what matters, knowing that you've entertained someone, or informed them, or whatever your purpose might be. Not assuming, but knowing.

That's what makes it worthwhile to keep such a demanding mistress as a website.


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