Thinking Like Your Visitors

Often web site owners design their site based on what they think or want their visitors to do. Navigation and organization conform to the existing web experience they have had on the Internet, no matter how frustrating or annoying they find the standard web experience. Instead of copying a broken model, try to break out of the pack and improve the experience on your website by thinking like your visitors.

In an article entitled “The Page Paradigm“, author Mark Hurst explains his Page Paradigm theorem. Short and concise, it states a visitor’s behaviour on every page on your site.

On any given Web page, users will either click something that appears to take them closer to the fulfilment of their goal, or click the Back button on their Web browser.

When considered, it makes perfect sense. Examining your own behaviour will reveal this paradigm in action. Not only does this help when planning your site, but it enforces the idea to think like your site’s target visitor.

If a visitor will either click on something that takes them closer to their goal or click the Back button (or close your site altogether) then you must understand what goals your visitor will come to your site with. Goals may be to seek information (read a blog post, or find information related to a search query, such as who was in The Graduate), to see details of a product or service, to find pricing on a product or service, to purchase a product or service or a multitude of others depending on the site.

Your job in designing the site is to make the information they are seeking easy to find. Ideally, arrivals from search engines should arrive on a page that has the information sought. Arrivals to your home page should be able to find the section or page of the site that has the information easily by the link descriptions and with the fewest clicks possible.

Part of making information easy to find is the site navigation and organization of information. I like to avoid using drop down or fly-out menus for navigation, but many clients believe it is the most effective way to link to all of their content and have a nice, professional design. Looking at it from a visitor’s perspective, it becomes an obstacle to their navigation, as they must learn the site’s User Interface upon their first visit when there is no indicator that there are hidden links available. Once discovered, they must then hover over each menu item to be able to view the sub-menu items to search for what they are looking for. Even though they may be familiar with the navigation design, this requires additional steps for them to find the information they are looking for.

One issue with some drop-down menu systems is that they employ JavaScript to insert the menus on the fly. While this works fine for visitors who have JavaScript enabled browsers, which is a vast majority, a major problem is this content is hidden from search engines. Search engines crawlers do not understand JavaScript, so any menu links are lost from the search engine index and rankings. For this reason, I strongly discourage these types of drop-down menu systems. Although there are standards based methods to accomplish hover menus that have fewer accessibility problems than other solutions, they still hinder the availability of information to most of the site visitors.

While not everyone will avoid hidden menus in their design, you can think about other ways to organize your information. One method can be to list links to primary content on the site’s navigation system and dedicate specific pages with information and links to secondary topics. This can provide an additional landing page for search engines for queries dealing with the primary topic. They key will be well-written and relevant content for those pages. Another key can be to avoid creating deep hierarchies of information and menus so information can be reached with the fewest of clicks.

Breaking away from web paradigms that restrict and frustrate users is a good thing. Keep your visitors in mind while designing your site and you will make the experience better for them, which will keep them coming back.