A Stranger In Town

Last week, in my definitive scribble on writing buttons for your site, I compared these simple links with the signs we put up along our roads.

Put briefly, if you’re writing a Stop sign, use the word Stop. It’s what everyone expects and knows.

Well, my love affair with the road sign analogy is yet to expire. For the last few weeks, and likely for many weeks to come, I’ve been working in Montreal. This is a long way from my usual, wet home on the West Coast. As far as I know, my family and my goldfish are still there.

From a road sign point of view, arriving in the city of Montreal presents the stranger with many interesting challenges. First, of course, there is the language issue. Due to a law designed to defend the French language against the onslaught of “Simpson-speak” — formerly known as English — all signs are in French.

That’s challenge number one for the arriving anglophone. Challenge number two is the charming driving habits of your regular Montreal motorist.

Challenge three is the fact that nobody seems to have thought to repaint the white lines on the streets since some time in the late 1940s.

The result is an environment that is absolutely fine for anyone who has lived here for most of his or her life. But for us visitors, finding where we want to go, and surviving the journey, is not so easy.

So once again, it’s time for a lively debate with my colleague, Montreal resident and outstanding web site designer, Marco. In the image of his fine city, Marco loves a web site that is perfectly navigable to everyone who already knows it well.

For my part, I’m itching to run out and paint the virtual white lines back on the virtual roads, rewrite the virtual signs in plain English and help first-time visitors find their way around. Better to put up too many signs on your web site than too few.

If you have too many signs, frequent visitors will soon learn to ignore them. If you have too few, your first-time visitors will have trouble finding what they’re looking for.

And as we know, when surfing becomes a hardship, the back button becomes our best friend.

For those of us who work with web sites five days a week, familiarity with the territory blinds us to the real experiences of our visitors.

I suggest that if you’re responsible for the writing and/or navigational structure on a site, make a point, once a week, of becoming a ‘stranger in town.’ Once you’ve become a ‘stranger,’ have a wander around your site — and add a few simple words to help your fellow first-time travelers.

You want me to fill out a 4-page profile as a first-time purchaser at your site? Try this: At the top of page one, write this: Page 1 of 4. At the top of page two, write: Page 2 of 4.

When you do that, I’ll always know where I am — and how far I need to travel before reaching the next intersection. When I get to the end of page 4 there’s a button that reads, ‘Submit.’ Just under the button graphic, add these words:

‘When you click on this Submit button, your order will be sent to our shipping department. To follow the progress of your order at any time, click on the Your Account link that can be found at the top of every page on this site. Thank you!’

Once again, you’re telling me where I am and what to do. After the first few purchases at your site, I won’t bother to read this text. But for my first one or two visits, it’s reassuring to have a little extra hand-holding. Use simple language to create simple explanations. Often. Everywhere.

Remember, new visitors to your site will always be important to you. To help them find their way around, paint some white lines on the streets and put up a lot of signs.

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