February 20, 2007

Why websites don't matter any more

In the couse of some site-redesign work today, someone said ‘I want this to be up there with the best sites you can think of’. Which got me thinking; what are the best sites I can think of?

A few years ago, that would have been pretty easy to answer. I used to spend a lot of time browsing the net, going around sites and reading the information they contained.

Now, however, I find that I just don’t do that any more. My usage of the web falls into three categories:

  • Web apps – the google suite (calendar, personalised home page, mail, etc), plus things like del.icio.us and flickr. Not really ‘sites’ in the sense that the questioner was asking.
  • RSS feeds – I have a pretty big blogroll, and I read a lot of web content this way, via Google reader and/or Bloglines. Here, the underlying design of the site, the presentation, and the other content on the site, is more or less irrelevant. What matters is just the content of the specific article I’m reading. I might follow one or two links from within my reader, but rarely further than one level out.
  • Search hits – I tend to avoid at all costs having to navigate a site. Don’t make me learn your ontology! If I want to find something out, I’ll google it. There are a couple of refinements; if I know that a site’s own search will return me better results, I’ll use that. So I use Warwick’s web search (for protected content), Flickr’s image search, Wikipedia search, Oracle’s OTN, and Amazon’s search. Once I’ve got a hit for a search, I might follow a couple of links, but that’s about it; any more than that and I’m back to google with a refined search.

And that’s about it. For me, the experience of actually ‘browsing’ the web, of speculatively navigating around a site looking for some bit of content seems to be more or less over.
Which means that for me, the question of ‘what’s the best site’ isn’t really very meaningful. Your site is the best if it contains the content that I’m looking for, and if google or my feed reader can find it.
What it looks like, or how it’s structured, isn’t really interesting to me any more (though if you’ve got a nice clear font on a pale background, that would help).

I wonder if I’m typical or not. If I am, my questioner was asking the wrong question; instead of worrying about how to make the site look amazing, he should have been worrying about how to fill it with amazing content that his users would want, and be able to google for. But maybe there are still people who just bounce around from link to link, hoping to find something that catches their eye?

- 20 comments by 4 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. I still bounce around from link to link occasionally, I don’t do it intentionally anymore though.

    I think you’re wrong about this though:

    Of course, in the web application space, design and structure is more important than ever; a poorly designed site may be ugly but a poorly designed app is unusable.

    If a site is poorly designed it is often unusable too, usability is such a huge part of design – it doesn’t just apply to applications. Structure is incredibly important to any site, not just applications. Design isn’t about pretty art, it’s about using form to enhance function.

    21 Feb 2007, 00:29

  2. Chris May

    If a site is poorly designed it is often unusable too

    Well, I guess what I was trying to get across is that for me, (given that I don’t navigate sites, and more often than not don’t actually view the markup, just the RSS) structure and presentation are often irrelevant. Of course, if you’re navigating in the ‘traditional’ way then it’s just as important as it ever was.

    21 Feb 2007, 07:44

  3. I find that the way I search google is sometimes just the starting point.

    I’m quite proud of myself for being an efficient searcher I can usually find relevant information more quickly than other people.

    But I often find that the first google search reveals a set of more precise search terms if you navigate around a site or sites to understand better exactly what you’re looking for.

    But, as for the basics, content is still ‘king’ but usability is a very close second – especially on internal sites where people do navigate more than search.

    21 Feb 2007, 09:24

  4. Chris May

    internal sites where people do navigate more than search

    Or do they? The average length of stay for a visitor to insite (the home page and pages under it)is well under 10 seconds. That’s one page view. Now, in part this is because insite itself doesn’t actually contain much content – most of the links go off to other sites like the library, or the a-z, and so on. But also it’s because people aren’t navigating; they’re searching and going straight to a search hit.

    21 Feb 2007, 09:40

  5. Chris May

    Andy: On reflection you’re right; that sentence was a bit confused and didn’t really add anything to the argument. I’ve chopped it :-)

    21 Feb 2007, 09:49

  6. I typed
    “Coventry to Hatfield via public transport” into Google, but didn’t get to the best site very quickly.

    The best site is the SE region travelline Once there you have to spend sometime putting in details of your proposed journey. Thus careful website “ergonomic” design (not only aesthetics) does matter!

    Of course you could dream of the entire world’s public transport information put into XML….

    21 Feb 2007, 11:22

  7. Robert O'Toole

    I wonder if I’m typical…

    I suspect that you are very much so. Although it might be useful to divide contemporary web user behaviour into three categories:

    1. Purely instrumental – the user has a question (more or less well formed) and they use the web to get the answer as quickly as possible. Their only loyalty to any particular site is driven by considerations of efficiency and trust (although often efficiency comes first).
    2. Expanding and nourishing an interest in a specific theme or issue – for example, I’m interested in bird photos, and I know that if I return to Chris May’s blog occasionally I’ll see good photos that contribute to the interest. I might even spend a little time exploring the blog to find more of what interests me. In such cases ontology does matter – although it need not necessarily be explicitly stated. I just need to get the idea that there is a theme that can be accessed on a specific site in a specific way. Of course that also helps to enable the user to aggregate feeds more effectively.
    3. Discovering new themes or issues – my interest in bird photos didn’t just come out of the blue, I spent a bit of time just browsing speculatively. Interestingly, when I do browse in this way, I tend to start off by visiting sites that have proven worthwhile for other reasons, and which might offer unforeseen extras. Increasingly, these are sites that belong to people I trust to be interesting and with similarities to myself.

    Based on this, two important questions for web editors:

    • How do you want your audience to behave? Not every web site needs to help people discover new themes and issues.
    • In which of these three ways do your visitors use your site?

    This is all of course really significant for [e]learning design. Getting a module web site to work at all three levels is a significant result. Get essential information to the students, whilst helping them to understand the key themes, and encouraging them to discover new themes and issues in which they can take an interest. Isn’t that the whole point of research based learning in higher education?

    The important thing is to find ways of getting web users (and students) to get beyond their instrumental beahviour.

    21 Feb 2007, 11:33

  8. Chris May

    Yeah; that’s an interesting example. Sites that provide access to structured data, be they library books, train times, or whatever, are more like my ‘web application’ examples (flickr, del.icio.us, google calendar are all very similar). People’s choice of which one is ‘best’ is probably quite subjective, and there’s no good equivalent to google for such sites.

    Plenty of people do dream of putting all such structured data into a single form – although generally it’s RDF tuples rather than XML – and in some categories this is already happening (for instance, the OAI-PMH initiative allows one to do structured searches for theses and journals over a wide range of providers) but wherever there’s a commercial interest in being the provider with the best information, these initiatives seem prone to stalling.

    As a test, I pretended that I hadn’t read your comment, and I wanted to know how to get from Coventry to Hatfield. I googled for ‘uk public transport information’, and the number 1 hit redirected me to the travelline web-app, which gave me the answer I wanted. I suppose in this case my query worked better than yours, because I guessed that google wouldn’t know the times itself, but it would probably know of a web application that could give me that answer I wanted

    21 Feb 2007, 11:38

  9. Chris May

    my comment #8 was a reply to George’s comment #6. Curse not having threaded comments! :-)

    21 Feb 2007, 11:39

  10. Robert O'Toole

    Another consideration: Google driven users don’t need site structure. So why build sites that are structured? Answer: the structure exists to make authors more comfortable and confident. For example, when creating a web page for a module, one could just create it in a generic blog and keyword tag it as belonging to the module. For the Google users that would be fine. But it’s not the same as publishing the page at a certain position within the Sitebuilder pages for that module, with the position in the site giving a strong sense of purpose to the content.

    Perhaps that’s why so many sites are designed without the audience in mind?

    21 Feb 2007, 11:50

  11. I thought this was going to be a joke post about the discovery of papyrus or something.

    21 Feb 2007, 12:15

  12. But then when we look at the user testing that we did of the old insite we found that most people tried to navigate first – perhaps a function of the efficiency of the old search engine.

    21 Feb 2007, 17:28

  13. Max Hammond

    For me, the experience of actually ‘browsing’ the web, of speculatively navigating around a site looking for some bit of content seems to be more or less over.

    I think it depends to a large degree on what you’re looking for. If you’re after (for example) the parameters that some particular java method accepts, then that’s easy to google for. If you’re interested in whether the UK is getting, on the whole, value for money from government procurement, that’s a much harder thing to find. Once you realise that the NAO is the organisation that looks at such things, it becomes much more useful to browse through their publications. (Not that the NAO website is particularly helpful, but it makes a decent go of it).

    The broader the area that I want to learn about, the less useful a search engine tends to be, since it’s often the topics surrounding my original idea which turn out to be important, and I may not know what they are before I start looking. A well-designed website makes that kind of browsing possible.

    21 Feb 2007, 18:20

  14. Chris May

    If you’re interested in whether the UK is getting, on the whole, value for money from government procurement, that’s a much harder thing to find

    Interesting. That’s such a broad question, I’m not sure I’d have even considered using the internet to get an answer! I’d be more likely to find an economist I trusted and ask them.

    google actually doesn’t do a bad job of providing enough context to know that nao.org.uk is the place to ask, and what kind of questions to ask to get the more detailed information. And since the whole site is indexed, it’s fairly easy to drill down into more detailed information . I’m still not sure I know the answer, but having tried both google and navigating their site, I’m not sure that either route did a much better job than the other.

    21 Feb 2007, 20:34

  15. Since we’re discussing goodness of websites, your sidebar covers a big chunk of the main frame, which is very annoying. Why is this?

    22 Feb 2007, 13:18

  16. Chris May

    It works for me (ffx 2.0). What browser are you using? Maybe it’s an IE thing

    22 Feb 2007, 14:54

  17. Hmm works fine at home on ie7, but not at uni on ie6… never liked that “maybe it’s an IE thing” excuse though. If you’re going to design a website, it should work on the world’s most popular browser.

    23 Feb 2007, 19:41

  18. Chris May

    Sure, though if the worlds most popular browser didn’t suck utterly it would be
    easier. That notwithstanding, (a) I didn’t write it, I just use it, and (b) I don’t care if it looks funny for IE6 users; I’m not writing for them.

    23 Feb 2007, 20:01

  19. Nick Howes

    The layout’s fine I think.. it’s just the Flickr photos are slightly wider and IE6 doesn’t hide the overflow. On my site I added

    #sidebaritem_094d73991030b68f01105501c01b1a9f_content img {
    width: 125px;
    height: auto;

    where the long ID is for my particular sidebar item, so you’d need to tweak it. Or make the sidebar bigger :)

    27 Feb 2007, 07:26

  20. Mads Madsen

    For me content is of course key – and I’m sure it is for anyone. Even graphic designers are only interested in site-content, though content understood by a graphic designer very often is the sites graphic design.

    However. I get so tired and irritated when I look at a page of information which is poorly designed, and it blocks my ability to properly appreciate the content.

    A chair is just a chair if you can sit in it. A well-designed chair is also just a chair, but you enjoy sitting in it.

    07 Mar 2007, 20:09

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