Don’t Bury the Information in the Experience

By Claire Napier

The web allows designers to create interactive experiences that are not possible in print. However, it is tempting to let the “experience” get in the way of providing people with information.

Recently, as part of a site redesign, we conducted usability testing on a number of university websites. Many of the home pages featured a large section devoted to creating an interactive experience, with beautiful slide shows or video and elegant navigation. However, none of our test subjects explored these features, skipping straight to the main navigation.

This reinforced our belief that most web users, even first-time visitors, have a goal in mind when they enter a site. Users are usually looking for the fastest way to obtain specific information.

In my own experience, MySpace is a site where my need for information trumps my design sensibilities. I frequently use the music section of MySpace to get information on my favorite artists. These pages are usually a cluttered mess, with distracting backgrounds and poor visual hierarchy. But despite these disadvantages, I find myself turning almost exclusively to MySpace for information rather than to the artists’ official .com websites.

Why? Even with the less-satisfying visual experience, actual content is fairly straightforward and easy to find on MySpace pages.

When using the web to find information about an artist, I am usually looking for one of two things – music to listen to or tour dates. On an artist’s .com site, I am never sure what to expect. Often these sites require waiting for Flash to load and have cumbersome animated menus. Also, custom music players necessitate a learning curve for each one.

MySpace Music pages, on the other hand, have a predictable and basic layout with a limited number of options. While the components of each page may vary somewhat, everything is on one page. Once you’ve seen a few MySpace pages, the consistency of the available options makes finding information easy.

While including animation and interactive features can supplement the web experience, it’s easy to get carried away. When designing a site, I always try to remember that the users’ primary need is information.

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