April 2, 2004, 12:00 AM

When in Rome ...

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l Blocks of text, such as on the home page of KitchenFaucets.com, make it difficult for users to identify key anchor terms that help them identify the content. They will often skip over such large blocks and possibly miss valuable information that can influence a decision to purchase. Highlighting key terms, bulleting text and using key terms to begin phrases are more effective options. One option is to use less text with a link or a pop-up with additional information that displays when a user scrolls over the item.

l Graphics and color can lead users astray. Our research regularly points out the unintended effect of color, especially red, and certain symbols in moving users’ eyes away from their goal on the page. In addition, a single moving element in a group of elements, such as the bouncing Teletubby at HotTopic.com, draws eyes away from main selections.

Understanding the vocabulary

Just like reading content in a book or magazine, if users do not understand your vocabulary you will not be able to communicate with them. Unlike reading books or magazines where the reader can rely on context to explain unknown words, Internet users scan-to-read the page and consequently skip over most of the surrounding text that would provide meaning. This is especially problematic because Internet users scan for key terms to identify relevant content. In usability research sessions we have witnessed users whose eyes pick up the term but they don’t understand it and they don’t read the surrounding text and as a result miss valuable content.

There are three types of vocabulary issues that can create problems for your site user:

l Branded or registered trademark terms may provide differentiation in marketing and product planning and make good copy in advertising but the reality is that others don’t know what these terms mean without explanation or context. Unlike retail POS, the web site does not have salespersons who can explain what these terms mean. When such terms are used on the web site without some definition or explanation, users cannot translate their relevance. Users’ information processing can come to a halt or move them in an unintended direction. For example to most shoppers looking for a home theater, a Synchroscan HDTV feature means nothing. However to know this feature automatically adjusts for scan rates so they can easily connect all types of DVD players including their own increases the feature’s value.

l Industry or technical terms are prevalent in many retail categories including apparel, consumer electronics, computers and autos where both the term and its acronyms are used as standard language. Web users are less interested in these terms than they are in what the terms mean for them. They usually prefer to have it expressed in the context of how they would use a product or how it would benefit them. For example shirt shoppers who want a luxurious feel to the cloth would be interested in knowing that a pinpoint fabric offers softer texture because it has more threads per inch.

l Mixed content, that is, use of offline media like print, TV ads and catalog pages, on a web page can create problems. Including ads or catalogs with the interactive content of a web page can have the effect of introducing two meanings about interactivity and links on the site. In recent testing where an advertising graphic for financing was a selectable link to more information, users interpreted the content to mean that it was an offline ad and not interactive. When shown after the exercise what they had missed, they agreed it was valuable information to their shopping process and would have influenced their purchase selection.

How they process content

Unlike the printed page where the reader’s eyes-at least those reading Western texts-by necessity must track text from left to right and top to bottom, a web page is an unstructured collection of content that users process differently. Though web users in general are inclined to move eyes on a path from upper left to lower right, in actuality users’ eyes are easily moved to focus elsewhere on the page depending on what draws their attention or leads them toward a particular part of the page. This is a tremendous challenge. Some issues to keep in mind when evaluating how users process your web content:

l Physical design can have unintended effects. How does your design lead users around the page and direct them through processes? Are images or boldly colored text or graphics drawing the user toward or away from key selections or content? Is that cool animation or background design taking eyes toward or away from a logical start point or relevant content? From vision research we know our brain first sees depth, then motion and finally form. This is why you notice the patterned backgrounds that create the illusion of depth and the shaking animation on the screen before you see or read any of the page’s content.

l Users’ eyes and brains are sensitive to indicators of hierarchy. Depending on the size, style, and format of the text or images, users may interpret content or a process on the page not in the order that was intended. Users may also interpret relative size and position of text or images to indicate relative importance and relatedness.

l Dominant visuals can often be interpreted as the main content indicator. In research sessions placing a truck image on the main page mistakenly led users to think that they had reached a truck site and need to go elsewhere to find out about cars.

l Pop-up ads and similar devices can violate the users’ communication protocol in two ways. First they add little to no relevant content to the user-defined process and second they interrupt users who are trying to orient themselves to a page. Most users think of scrolling down as a break in the structure. Your grammar teacher would characterize it as a run-on sentence. The assumption even with those who accept run-ons as common usage is that the most important content is above the fold of the page.

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