Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Web User Impatience

Web users are a varied bunch.

However, from social workers to soldiers, shoppers to scholars, there's one characteristic they all share: web users are impatient.

They're in a big hurry.

Most users will not slowly peruse your web site in a leisurely, laid back manner. Their time is severely limited. They often are working under tight employer deadlines, or within strict domestic schedules.

Users are also likely to be unable to focus 100% on the task.

Maybe, while they're exploring web sites, the television is on, the kids are yelling, the phone in their cubicle is ringing off the hook, the boss is breathing down their neck, their back aches, or they're just plain exhausted and it's very late at night.

Have you ever hurriedly hunted for specific, but obscure, information on the Web? If so, you know why web sites need to be built for speed.

Recently, I was in the middle of revising an article I had written for a prestigious online information architecture magazine. On the day the revised article was due back to the editor, I spent about three hours or more just trying to track down a statistic.

I remembered reading somewhere that web users, on average, tend to view only one or two pages of a web site prior to bailing out. This rapid evaluation of web sites by users has great significance for web designers. But where did I come across that odd little fact?

The first thing I did was fire off several emails to recognized experts in online writing, web design, and usability, thinking one of these web professionals might be able to direct me to the source of this data.

Then I checked some relevant web sites bookmarked in my “Favorites” file on my browser. Out of about 80 web design, usability, and information architecture sites, nobody seemed to have what I needed. I was racing through the sites, one eye on the clock.

Finally, I ran a search on the term “web usage statistics” on my preferred search engine. One search result, Nielsen//NetRatings, had data on how long, on average, users viewed a web page. Not exactly what I needed, but I used this data in the article. My hunt continued.

Eventually, a friend (Jeffrey Eisenberg of Future Now Inc. and GrokDotCom.com) emailed me a reply: go to Onestat.com. Found it!
[Thank you, Jeffrey! ]

When you're in a time crunch, the Web can seem like some murky, wild, overgrown jungle, full of quicksand and venomous snakes.

Make it clear what your web site contains—and how to access it. Provide a “search site” function. Help users to ignore items on your site that are irrelevant to their needs. Guide them to what they seek.

One way to do this is to provide user orientation devices based on specific user types: “If you're [user type], go to [information type].” Think beyond standard site maps and date-differentiated archives.

Web users don't want to struggle with your web site. They're looking for a fast, painless method of obtaining information, ordering a product, or completing some task, at your site.

You can't expect them to learn new skills just to accommodate some design innovation on your web site. Users expect all web sites to generally conform to web conventions derived from best-selling software products, and found on high-traffic web sites—Yahoo, Google, amazon.com, MSN, ebay, etc.

Force upon users the totally unexpected, like unique methods of navigation, nebulous graphic widgets, unfamiliar section terminology, or complex site functionality...and you've lost many users forever.

 It's like making the steering wheel square, instead of round. You can do it, sure. But many users will hate it.  

Please make it easy and quick for users to understand what your site contains, and how to perform tasks at it.

Break all articles and other web text into short chunks of information, so you have an easy to scan web site.

This is how you win the respect of users. Maybe even their elusive allegiance.