Taking the magic out of your web site

For many people who are trying to find out the services offered by various community groups, the internet can be a daunting and unknown place. Many are not computer-savvy, many more would not even describe themselves as computer-literate.

To those of us who use computers and the internet on a daily basis, the virtual world has become a handy extension to our physical world of information and communication networks. To those for whom computer usage is limited or even a fearful experience, the internet can resemble the worst kind of nightmare: it is convoluted, discouraging and ultimately humiliating.

Noted scientist and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once observed that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That claim is probably not too far from the truth of the experience of the internet for many people. This reality needs to be taken into account therefore whenever one sets about designing a web site for an organisation that is primarily oriented towards community service and accessible by member of the general community.

While it is impossible to change the nature of the PC to make it less daunting to end users, it is possible to create attractive but unambiguous web sites that take much of the guesswork out of navigation. For some time now web design has spiralled towards the fancy, flashy and cutting-edge. To the uninitiated this is simply piling magic upon magic.

Magic can be fun if you have paid to be entertained, but it loses its appeal rather quickly if you feel that you’re the only one that is not in on the joke.

To counter this problem, the most effective method of making the inexperienced user feel like they are not battling to escape the magical labyrinth is to create clear navigation tools for your site.

Clear navigation simply means logically ordering your data and then labelling it appropriately. The framework is as simple as that.

The appropriate labelling of data is dependent on the type data that you want to include in your site. The most important thing to note here is that it has to have a name that makes sense to both you and your visitor. If your organisation runs lunchtime meetings for parents and children and your data is on local playgrounds and their facilities it might seem appropriate to label the data “Site Assessments”. Rest assured however, to your net visitor the obvious button to click would be something called “Playgrounds”.

Similarly, anything that can have the jargon terms removed and replaced with plain English will be a welcome design element to any effective community website.

Add to this some obvious and cleanly presented buttons and/or text links and your navigation issues are almost solved. Briefly: The navigation bar or area should not change from page to page. Too much change to the structure can be difficult to comprehend – even for the experienced user. To this end, on larger sites it may even be appropriate to provide a step tool which explains through arrows “>” and hyperlinks which level the user is at within your website. It makes returning to a previous category or collection easy and it gives the user a quick escape button as well as a constant quick map of where they are within your site.

These apparently simple design elements will make your site seem more welcoming and helpful to the uninitiated, and may even prove to be a welcome change for the more experienced web surfers.

November 2004
Laurence Brown

Next column: Location, location, location!

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