What your visitors are (and aren’t) looking at

Eye-tracking studies can be extremely revealing about how your users are using your site in the real world. Unfortunately, they can also be extremely expensive and time-consuming to conduct. Not everyone in charge of a website has those kind of resources.

Luckily for us, some organizations have made some of their information public, giving us the chance to do gain some insights about our own pages.

A special camera tracks a user’s eyes as she navigates a travel website.

Also, Prioritizing Web Usability by Hoa Loranger and Jakob Nielsen provides a good amount of data gathered from eye-tracking studies, among a plethora of other valuable insights.

Google Website Optimizer

We discussed user testing in Intro to Instructional Design last week, and how testing your product or instruction with just one user can dramatically improve your product’s usability and effectiveness.

I found it interesting that around the same time, Google announced the Google Website Optimizer. At first, it sounds like this is made to make your site load faster or somesuch, but it’s actually much more than that. GWO is a free tool for conducting experiments and testing conversion rate — which essentially is the percentage of the time your visitors actually do what you want them to when they come.

The cool thing is that it lets you move things around on your page, for example, and it randomly serves up different versions of your site to people who visit. You can then look very closely at the data and see which variations of your page are proving most effective. The other great thing is that it tests both your target audience and people outside it.

I can think of a few ways this could prove very useful on our school’s websites. If you want to know more about it, check out A Beginner’s Guide to Google Website Optimizer on Kissmetrics.

What is Web Design?

Though it can be easy to think otherwise, web design is much more than just putting content on a site and calling it a day. And, because people interact differently with the web than with printed materials, it’s also not just another way to distribute your printed stuff.

Unlike other forms of media (such as print), web design focuses on three things:

The Look

This is the part that most people think of when they think about web design, but it’s not the whole thing. The Look is about more than just making a site pretty—it’s about making it appropriately pretty. In order to be effective, the design should match the message of the site.

Part of making this happen is ensuring that your site as a modern, professional look. Now, this doesn’t mean it needs to be winning any awards for its incredible eye-candy, but it does mean you want to avoid obvious errors such as broken images, typos, and a look that makes people think they’ve somehow traveled back in time to the 90s. (Or that they’re browsing this site.)

The look of your site affects the message you’re trying to convey. If your site is ridden with obvious errors or feels outdated, people are going to think that your message will suffer from the same problems. Think about it, if you were given a choice between shopping at two mattress stores, and one had immaculate landscaping and a clean exterior while the other didn’t, which one would you be more likely to trust? Whether you’re selling something or not, your website is your digital storefront. Make sure that you keep your proverbial windows clean and your sidewalk swept.

The Interface

Because the Web is so vast, it would do us well to remember Jakob’s Law of the Internet: “Users spend most of their time on other sites.” What this means is that users expect your website to work and behave in a similar way to the ones they already know.

Let me illustrate this point with a corporeal example: Imagine you borrow your friend’s car. You climb in, try to put in the key, and find that the ignition is not where you expect it to be. Instead of going in to the right of the steering wheel, you eventually discover that the key goes on the right side. You get the key in, and it doesn’t turn. After a minute of fiddling with it, you find out that it doesn’t turn clockwise, but counterclockwise—and you have to push on it first.

Well this is all pretty irritating, now isn’t it? And we’re only getting started! It turns out that the turn signal isn’t a lever on the left of the wheel, but a button on the wheel itself. The radio volume is controlled with a button on the floor by the pedals, and the windshield wipers are turned on an off from where the radio volume is supposed to be.

This is one aggravating car, isn’t it? Who designed this thing, anyway?

Someone who hasn’t driven many cars, apparently. You see, car designers might think the key would work better in a different place, but they never move it because no one would buy their annoying, hard-to-use cars if they did.

Though not quite to the same extent, websites are similar. Think about the sites you’ve visited recently. I’d be willing to bet that the site’s logo was in the top left corner, and if there was a search box, that it was somewhere near the top, or around the upper-right corner. And I’ll bet colored words were almost exclusively links. I don’t even have to know what sites you go to to guess that, because websites, like cars, have developed certain trends. Like it or hate it, if your search box is on the left side of the page at the bottom of the screen, a lot of people won’t even know you have one, and they’ll wonder why you don’t.

Now imagine that your friend’s weird car is just one of millions you could be driving instead. (You’re famous, because everyone in the state wants to lend you their car.) Do you think you’d spend more than a few seconds in that one, or would you be in another, more familiar one in seconds? Like you and your millions of cars, web users have millions of websites they could be at instead of yours, and they won’t stand much in the way of confusing or frustrating layouts.

Now, that’s not to say that you can’t be creative. You can. You have a lot more flexibility than the car above—the Internet isn’t that fixed in its ways. But you want to make sure that your site isn’t confusing or hard to use. Look at other sites with similar messages to yours, and see what they do. Are there any patterns or trends?

The Information

One of the biggest, but most important challenges of web design is to organize your information in the best possible way—you can’t just put it on the screen and assume your visitors will know what to do with it.

For instance, studies show that the majority of web users don’t stop to read every word on the screen. They read hard and fast, skimming more than anything. Therefore, if you want people to actually digest your information, you need to make it as easy to read and as well organized as possible.

Images should also be chosen carefully. Images do not typically, by themselves, convey meaning—at least, not the meaning you’re trying to get across. I once dealt with a client who insisted that the website I was creating for his event be dominated by two pictures: a handful of bullets on a book, and a globe painted on someone’s hand. I had to explain to him, that although these pictures were nice to look at—they didn’t say a single thing about what the event was, or why people should care about it enough to bother attending. It was the words that communicated our message, and the images were the garnish. You don’t go to a restaurant to enjoy the parsley with a small side of entree.