Sylvia Spotlights: Writing, Women, and the Big "What-ifs"

The Power of the Written Word at Work

“Billboard” Thinking for Better Web Sites

Billboard Thinking for Better Web Sites
By Sylvia Mendoza

For journalists, words are powerful. They are the foundation and building blocks of a great story. The goal is to produce facts about a news event, features stories and profiles that show depth and heart, or insight that offers an opinion. The way words are strung together can produce sentences and paragraphs that present the material in a clear, concise and comprehensive manner—and still have an impact. The goal: to grab a reader’s attention and tell the best possible story. Effective word choice can make all the difference. Today, in a multi-media world, word choice has to be thoughtful and efficient.

Don't Make Me Think

Author Steve Krug uses common sense tactics to make web site development user-friendly and efficient–which can result in more traffic to a site, more sales & improved online presence.

For many news agencies, online presence is a matter of fact. Designing web sites that are user friendly and get a message across quickly is the goal. Word choice on web sites is especially crucial, as is placement of information on a page. In his book, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, author Steve Krug spotlights an incredibly sensible, simple, common sense approach to user friendly sites with two very basic components to keep in mind: users scan and don’t read, therefore, developers must think “billboard.”  

In Chapter 3, “Billboard Design 101,” he reiterates the importance of word choice and word placement. Buttons, links, hyperlinks, highlighted text, graphics, video and boxes on a page must be used with words to help a user have a basically good, fulfilling and result-oriented experience on a particular site. The bottom line is, once a user is at a site, don’t make her think. The process of scanning a page, especially a home page, should be mindless, effortless and not frustrating or confusing.  No bells and whistles needed, just clarity.

Krug, an expert in the field of web usability, has worked with big-name business sites such as Amazon.com, Apple, Lexus, and barnesandnoble.com, as well as other sites. He assesses what works and what doesn’t on web sites—from a user’s point of view. The consequences of not having a clear and easy format?  People may try to muddle their way through the site, try to figure out what you’re trying to sell or services you offer, but in the long run, chances are likely that they won’t return if it takes too much effort.

Working with a team such as a web designer, sales and marketing rep, and administrative honcho when trying to develop a site, can be difficult. Their needs for particular information can affect the overall essence of the project—and it can fail miserably because too much info is overpowering a page. Yet, Krug appeals to common sense efforts to entice users to a site and have them return over and over.

Added “Sensible” Bonus

One of my favorite parts in the book was on the billboard approach because as a print journalist, I tend to write long and think I need “just one more thing,” which, Krug says, can be enough to tip a user’s experience to the dark side. I also enjoyed the entire chapter on “Designing the Home Page” because that is the first stop—and you don’t want it to be the last for any visitor. He mentions key elements for the home page: site identity and mission, site hierarchy, teasers of what is inside and timely content, among others—all to make it absolutely clear “what the site is.” I did especially love what he says a user will ask: “What can I find here? And “What can I do here?” It is about easy access for information on what you are selling, promoting or promise to deliver.

Also interesting was the “reservoir of goodwill” and how a person/business must be considerate of the user. Building goodwill between a site and a user, includes knowing “the main things that people want to do on your site and make them obvious and easy;” “tell me what I want to know;” and “save me steps whenever you can.” The “Accessibility” chapter was also a great bonus because often times, developers do not tend to think about including elements for people with disabilities such as deafness or blindness.  

Advanced Common Sense, Krug’s web usability consulting site, is a great addition to the book and offers updated timely advances by Krug, as well as a medium where he can promote his usability workshops and consultation services. His corporate motto—“It’s not rocket surgery,” however, was at the bottom of the page, which is not what he recommended in the examples throughout the book. However, Krug’s blog, Some Slightly Irregular, offers a more user-friendly way of getting to particular issues, questions or problems with the book and/or workshop content. Krug ties together all his skills and services through the book, the site and the blog in an efficient way.

Show Me the Money
Krug could have included example sites for entrepreneurs or those in the creative arts, such as authors, photographers, artists. Their needs seem to be different than a huge business that is appealing to mass sales instead of niche markets. The initial common sense approach might be the same, but the emphasis may be on what the artist wants—or needs—and should have more creative expression on their sites. Take, for example, photographer Ann Collins. Her site, imagesbyanncollins.com, has to be visual.  How can she get more traffic to her site and stay true to her art and visual beauty for emphasis?

For the e-book version, which was downloaded from Amazon.com, there were some formatting issues and typos that temporarily distracted, but they did not take away from the brilliance of the content. Krug could also have improved the last two chapters he added to this edition. They did not seem to flow with the rest of the book’s style and focus. The chapter on usability testing was long and drawn out; not as concise as other chapters. The “what bosses think” chapter also seemed laborious to wade through. The info here could have been condensed and even inserted into an already-established chapter.

To develop a site that will be user-friendly and clear, the first stop for the site owner, developer, designer and all involved in the process, should be to read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. Much of it is common sense and the user-friendly approach makes the book a gem of a source for creating outstanding sites.    

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