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Sensible Site Structure, or
Don't let me click and get something I don't want.

Few experiences on the web are more frustrating than this scenario:

  • You go to a site you've never seen before, looking for information, wanting to do some online shopping, or perhaps hoping to be entertained.
  • When the page is done loading, you see some nice graphics, and some text, but you can't immediately see what you're looking for.
  • You scroll down to view parts of the page that were not initially visible, eyes skimming furiously past breathless! hype!!! and chest-beating "aren't I (we) great" prose.
  • If you're a sophisticated web user, you might rove your mouse pointer around the screen to see if this site includes some now very trendy "mouse-over" programming that reveals hidden objects when you point at different things.

Despite your efforts, you still don't see what you came looking for. If you're feeling adventurous, you might try a click on a link or graphic button to see what clues might be found there. And when the new page loads, you repeat the process.

From there, blood pressure mounting, you do one of two things:

  1. You forge on to another linked page, or
  2. Go back to the "home" page and start over.

If you're lucky, you may find what you want. If not, at some point, you will declare yourself "lost," and head off to more familiar territory. Maybe you go to "Yahoo!" or maybe you just look in your bookmark list for something more promising.

  • Pay heed, Mr. or Ms. Webmaster, for this site has failed to satisfy a user. Odds are that user will not come back - ever.

How to satisfy your visitors

Want to know the single biggest secret to helping your users find what they want? In two words: perspective and plan:

  • Look at things from the perspective of your users, and
  • Plan to give them what they're looking for.

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Don't write a single word of text content, or whip up any nifty graphics until you have sound answers to two basic questions.

  1. Who is going to use the site? (Examples: prospective customers, students doing research, existing customers looking for help.)
  2. What will they want to find there? (Information about the products, facts and figures, documents that solve customer problems.)

Journalism students may think they notice a few missing items here, namely "why, when, where and how." This is not about writing your content yet, think only about site user motivation, and keeping them happy.

On the web:

  • "Why" is definitely a factor, because if a user lacks a "why" to visit a web site, they won't. (On the web, "why" more or less equals "to find what")
  • "When" and "Where" are "whenever" and "wherever." The net runs 24 hours a day, and people all over the world use it.  Include answers like "Where are we" and "when are we open" as "what" items only if you think your site users want to know.
  • "How" (to keep users happy) is what we're talking about here! Answers to "How" questions are really another kind of "what" items users might be seeking.  ("How do I use your product to do xxx" or "How can I get warranty repairs done?")

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Plan: Make a "storyboard"

A storyboard is a basic planning tool that will more or less arrange your web site content for you. You may think this sounds "low-tech," but it really can help build a great site.

To make a storyboard, grab:

  1. A pad of yellow sticky notes, or
  2. Some index cards, and
  3. Tape or thumbtacks.

Find a horizontal or vertical surface to hold them. A blank cubicle wall works well for this sort of thing. (To get a blank cubicle wall, temporarily remove the Dilbert and User Friendly cartoon collections. Caution: do this only to your own cubicle.)

Sit down and make a list of short (ideally 1 or 2 - word) "headline" answers to the "who" and "what" questions. Write each answer written on a single "yellow sticky" sheet or index card, and make two piles ("whats" and "whos").

Now, start arranging your notes like this:

  • Take each "who" item, and lay them out in a row, with some space between them.
  • Take your "what" items, and arrange them below your "who" notes according to "who" would likely want to know "what."

You will discover that you probably need to make extra "what" items if more than one type of "who" may want to find similar information.

  • Pay close attention to these duplicates, and consider marking them with a distinct colour or symbol to help you keep track of them visually.
  • Think about other "what" items that are related, and mark those.
  • The most numerous "what" items should be the easiest to for your web site users to find.

Take your time with this process. Brainstorm your "whos" and "whats" with others who might have a different perspective. The better your storyboard, the more your site users will like using the web site you build from it.

Part II: Taking Your Storyboard to the Web

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