April 2, 2004, 12:00 AM

When in Rome ...

The Internet has a language all its own—and you’d better speak it if you want customers to buy, argues usability consultant Brendan Elliott

Recent research shows that the Internet has become the number one source for product information in many categories surpassing other sources including the retail point of sale, and even TV and print advertising in certain categories. These studies also show that prospects and customers are switching brands, products and providers as a result of Internet information.

As a result, consumer-facing web sites must become more than convenient information or transaction providers. They must become a living persona of the business that users relate to on users’-not retailers’-terms. In usability research sessions, site users interpret the web site responses as a live dialog. The most successful web sites know how to make their sites speak to customers about their researching, shopping or purchasing missions.

One way to start developing a relationship is to think about your web site from the standpoint of language proficiency rather than as a shopping transaction, a web IT initiative or a media display. Doing so may open your e-marketing teams’ eyes to the reality that faces many customers who visit your e-retail sites. In doing so, your marketing team may discover ways to improve how the web site speaks to prospects, customers or clients in ways that are possible only on the Internet.

More complex language

The Internet language is a more complex language than visual formats of books, newspapers, magazines, catalogs and TV. Some key reasons are:

l The interactive combination of visual, textual, and aural elements leads to highly variable content in comparison to traditional fixed media.

l It is a more unstructured language in both presentation and use than the other formats. This means users operate in a more fluid environment where the site visitor’s choices and the web site’s elements result in non-linear movements with significantly less organized patterns of usage.

l The screen-based content stimulates users more than other content sources like print and TV with both intended meaning and unintended interpretive meaning.

What web site visitors could see that is available on the site and what they actually do see depends completely on how well you speak the language to them. Following are some factors you should consider to become more fluent with this language when communicating with your user.

A basic prerequisite for communicating with your customers in the Internet language is that they actually see your content. This may seem obvious but one does not need to search far to find instances where key content or navigational elements are difficult or nearly impossible to read. While a large portion of hard copy content-books, magazines, newspapers-have basic high-contrast black text on a white background, the flexibility available to web designers in font sizes, styles and color, background colors and graphics is wide and developers take advantage of it, often at users’ expense.

The basic issues

There are three basic issues we have encountered during our web user research that you should pay attention to when evaluating your web site for how well it is seen.

l Small font size: In general if you have characters below10 point size, users will strain to read them. Older users require even larger font sizes with some experts saying 13 point. Italics increase the problem of small font. For instance, Bulgari.com uses a small font size on a key page for locating retail stores. Some web sites address the issue by offering an option to increase the font size.

l Color and contrast: Text in half-tone colors or in colors with low contrast against background colors is generally not seen by users in their scan-to-read mode. If users do see the element, they are likely to interpret it as a selection that is not available or that they have previously selected and rejected. For instance, MarineDepot.com’s navigation bar is in low contrast, making the selections hard to read. In addition, e-mail, info and about us on top of the page do not look selectable.

l Color blindness: As much as 8% of males and 1% of females are color blind to some degree. Also as people age their color vision is affected. Red-green color combinations are problematic and are seen as shades of gray with low contrast that is hard to pick up.

Reading the web page

In printed media users are likely to read more of the content than when they are online. Users, especially on upper pages of a site when they are looking for pathways to relevant information, scan the page and read relatively little content. They are looking for only key snippets of content such as recognizable navigational selects, terms or graphics that will point them in the right direction.

Some common problems that trip up the scanners:

l A list of all blue links with underlines and limited white space around them is hard to see and makes it hard to discern key terms. This commonly occurs in navigation sections, such as a list of product categories. Users’ eyes strain to read the list especially beyond five to seven items. If the list lacks an alphabetic scheme, the user will scan it but with a high likelihood of missing selects as their eyes are drawn to view the list out of order with shorter character items seen first. Few users will take on the time-consuming tedium of reading the entire list from top to bottom. For instance, Lands’ End’s unalphabetized navigation list on the left-side of the category pages make it difficult to find products.

l Duplicate prefix words in a list of underlined links turns the list into a block array where users predominantly see the design of repetitive color line patterns or words and not the individual underlined links in the list. The lack of an alphabetic scheme for the base words adds more difficulty. For instance, a list of a blank CDs at TheTapeGuys.com has the brand name listed not once but twice, first in a column that indicates the brand and then in the actual product description. The repetition creates an undifferentiated block of copy that makes it hard to zero in on a particular product.

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