User Interaction in the Second Decade of Web Design
We just had to mark the 45th Anniversary of the crew of the Starship Enterprise boldly going where no-one had gone before – if only for the geeks out there.
Today, let’s talk about what’s going on in the second decade of web design and the fact that far from boldly going, some designers still seem intent on repeating the mistakes of the past, but now with an entire set of new tools in their palette.
If we look back to the mass take-up of the internet, which we can say started in 1995 with the launch of the internet-ready Windows 95 system, many websites at that point were simple visual and text-based sites. It seems incredible to think that sites we now take for granted – Google, eBay and Amazon – had yet to appear. Social media was a term yet to be coined and Mark Zuckerberg had yet to decide about whether or not he needed any new friends.
Back then the emphasis was on making a site simple to use – after all, people were new to this. ‘Usability’ was of primary concern when designing a site. Some of the problems designers faced in the early days of the web have now disappeared due to a slew of new applications – Java, Flash etc, and increased computing power and band width. So why is it then that designers and digital agencies still continue to make the same design crimes that enraged early users?
‘The fact that we can now do more – have more interactivity has meant that some of the more annoying features that so enraged early users – such as splash screens and pop-ups appearing on a site and getting in the way of the content you had gone to view, are now back, and back in a more insidious form,’ says Brownstone’s Dave Jabbie. ‘Obviously for a lot of sites – such as newspapers for example, their content is free due to them selling advertising space on that site – the same as they do in their newspapers. But the need to revenue generate needs to be balanced against what you know about your visitors and what they are primarily there to do.’
Advertisers need to work closely with their agencies, and by dint their agencies designers, to ensure that whatever applications they are offering do not get in the way of the main function of the site, or even cause users to leave it. ‘As designers ourselves, we fully understand the need to show what we can do with the range of tools we now have available. But if what an agency is doing with their digital campaign is causing the visitor to spend less time on a site, or even leave a page, then designers and agencies need to ensure that their solution is impactful without being intrusive. It needs to beckon the visitor who is interested in your product of service without annoying the visitor who isn’t to the point they leave.’
Pop-ups have long been known to be the major source of complaint but the next generation (sorry, we could not resist getting another Star Trek pun in there!), of Flash-enabled ads means that merely gliding your mouse or cursor across an ad on the way to click on another link can open the app. ‘This smacks of the old-style of pop-up that you had no choice but to view and manually click ‘close’ when landing on a site,’ Jabbie says. ‘What you now have are static ads which expand the moment you mouse across them – which is often easy to do if you are scrolling towards another piece of text and a link. Very often the user has no interest in the product on offer and merely becomes annoyed because the ad has now come between them and the information they were after. Also, unlike the old-style pop-ups where once you had clicked on ‘close’ they went away, with track-sensitive ads the same thing will keep happening everytime the user tracks across it. Too many campaigns of this nature on the same site can cause users to abandon that site permanently for another with less intrusive advertising and obviously, it is never a good idea for your product to be associated in a consumer’s mind with any annoying experience.’
So what is the solution? ‘I’m not for one minute suggesting we down tools and go back to the digital equivalent of the stone age,’ Jabbie insists. ‘Just that we remember the old lessons we’ve learned about usability and not letting the desire to dazzle visitors with our brilliance get in the way of the experience they’re there to have. We can’t afford to forget that no matter what we’re advertising or how great we think our product is, clicking on that product for more information is discretionary – not mandatory just for visiting a particular page.’