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General Usability -- An Information Seeker's Perspective

First, lets make one thing clear: When we talk about designing websites that are accessible and usable, we are not focusing on any one class or type of individual. We are really talking about designing websites that anyone can use effectively and efficiently. We are talking about Universal Design: designing websites flexible enough to meet the needs of the broadest range of users of computers and telecommunications devices, regardless of age or disability. (Definition drawn from Applying the ADA to the Internet: A Web Accessibility Standard, by Cynthia D. Waddell, June 17, 1998.)

That said, we all know that the first rule of website design is:

Know your audience and design for them!

Which is easier said than done.

User Types and What They Look For

There have been many studies that attempt to classify web users. The two types of users that most affect usability are surfers and information seekers. The way these two groups use the Web is so different that designing for one may actually hurt a design for the other. (Web Site Usability: A Designer's Guide by Jared Spool et al)."

A recent Eyetrack study by the Poynter Institute found that information seekers behave differently when using the Web than when reading print sources. Print users tend to look at photos and graphics before reading text. News-seeking web users look first and most intently at text, glossing over photos and images in search of meaningful textual information. They want serious text, not cute headlines, and they don't mind scrolling.

Lest you think this is a lone study, the folks at User Interface Engineering conducted a study of information seekers and came to the same conclusions.

Their major impications are:

  • Graphic design neither helps nor hurts,
  • Text links are vital,
  • Navigation and content are inseparable,
  • Information retrieval is different than surfing, and
  • Web sites aren't like software (in usability testing results).
(From Web Site Usability: A Designer's Guide, by Jared Spool et al.)

These two studies show that knowing whether your website attracts information seekers more than surfers is very important. There are a lot of information-seeking web users. A recent survey from Zatso Inc. found that reading online news is Internet users» second favorite online activity after email. Other surveys have found that a majority of web users spend most of their non-email time looking for information.

Personal Rant

Speaking as a power information seeker, I agree with the conclusions of both studies. I need to be able to find information fast (give me a site map and text navigation links); read and digest it easily (information spread out over many small pages makes me mad -- I just don't have the time to wait for all those pages to download); and print it out (I usually don't have time to read while I'm online, or I'm gathering information for someone else.)

I do like to look at the photos and graphics, but after I've read the "meat" of the content. I'm not opposed to banner ads, as long as they don't interfere with my search or my reading. I'll even click on a relevant banner ad if it's still there after I'm found what I came to the site for. (But if those graphics or ads move and don't stop, thus interfering with my reading, I WILL NOT click or buy from that advertiser.)

The moral is make my experience on your site a good one and I'll be back. Interfere with my tasks, and I won't.

As for surfers, yes I do look at websites differently when I surf. I'm more tolerant of well-designed animations, flash, scripts, graphics, etc. In fact, they help enhance my experience. However, I don't do a lot of surfing.

General Design Guidelines

  1. Develop your content first, in plain text without graphics. Then you can easily develop separate pages, if you need to, that are media rich, have graphics,frames, java, flash, and other enhancements.
  2. Provide a text equivalent for every non-text element. Use ALT tags with descriptive text for graphics (including buttons and rules), image maps, audio and video files, javascript rollovers, flash, etc. (This has the added advantage of making your website more search engine friendly.)
  3. Make sure that all of your information is conveyed by context or markup and not by color. Your foreground and background colors should provide sufficient contrast that they can be read in black and white and/or printed on a non-color printer.
  4. Use correct and validated HTML. Don't use browser-specific elements.
  5. Provide easy-to-use navigation. Use consistent methods and provide a site map or table of contents. Make sure that each page has navigation tools, including pages within framed sites and dynamically generated pages.
  6. Minimize the use of dynamic contents, and make sure that any you use is important to the site's function. Dynamically generated HTML should automatically generate accessible information.
  7. Use client-side image maps instead of server-side image maps. Provide alternative text for each link.
  8. If you use data tables, identiry row and column headers. Ceck tables used for layout to see if they make sense when linearized.
  9. If you use scripts or java applets, make sure pages work when scripts are disabled or not supported. Provide non-script alternatives. Allow users to freeze moving or blinking text.
  10. If you must use frames, use the noframes option to provide a plain text alternative to your page. Always provide an opportunity for your users to view pages unframed.
  11. If your site uses multimedia, provide a description and download instructions.
  12. If you use data formats other than HTML, such as PDF or Word, link to readers and coverters.
  13. If you use shockwave or flash or interstitials or popups, provide users with a quick way to bypass them.
  14. Don't hold your users hostage by refusing to let them "back" out of your site.
(Thanks to John Lescher's article, "Designing Web Sites for the Blind," for many of these guidelines.)

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Usability Introduction | General Usability | Usability Resources | Accessibility Introduction | Accessibility Resources | InfoQuest!

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Copyright 2000-2002 InfoQuest! Information Services
Last updated: April 9, 2002
Please send any comments to or 503-228-4023.
Terry Brainerd Chadwick
InfoQuest! Information Services
2324 NW Johnson St., Ste.4
Portland, OR 97210-5221

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