The central concern of current web design is saving time. Online readers belong to the time-starved generation, and any design that wastes their time risks losing them.
When designing a web site, we face a key trade-off. Do we puts lots of links on the page so that the reader can get to his or her chosen area on the web site with the minimum number of clicks? Or do we place a small number of links on the page which direct the reader to the key sections within the web site? The problem with the lots-of-links approach is that the reader will get confused by the abundance of choice. The problem with the key-links approach is that the reader will get frustrated by having to click several times to get to the information required.
Amazon.com faces this challenge perhaps more than any other web site. As it adds more and more new businesses it risks turning its home page into a jungle of links where the reader gets lost before getting started. Recently, Troy Wolverton of News.com reported that, “Amazon is quietly testing a new look for its web site, keeping its familiar store tabs but limiting the number that appear on any one page.”
Currently, Amazon has 15 store tabs. The new look has three permanent tabs and five rotating tabs. The permanent tabs include a link to the home page and a link to a list of all Amazon stores. The rotating tabs, which would change on a periodic basis, would link to five “featured” stores. “As we expand our offerings, we want to make it even simpler for you to get what you want from our growing list of stores, while maintaining the elegance and usefulness of the tabs themselves,” Amazon said in a note to customers.
If you look at other high-traffic web sites such as Yahoo, CNN, and America Online, it’s clear that the designers have decided that clutter is better than clicking. Yahoo, in particular, is a mass of choices. The CNN home page is one of the longest home pages I’ve ever come across.
When assessed against the traditional theory of web and hypertext design, these web sites have got it all wrong. This theory says that you should give a reader no more than five to seven links to choose from and that readers should not have to scroll down. But the reality is that the most successful web sites almost universally break these rules.
It may be that the online reader is developing new skills. In an ideal world we might prefer a set of elegant but limited choices. However, in our online world we are learning to scan through many choices to find the one we want.
This “scanning” skill was very evident recently in a major study by the Poynter Institute, which, after tracking a group of online readers over a four-year period, found that these readers had developed distinct habits of “scan reading.”
Web design is still virgin territory. The web is changing the very way we read and navigate for information. However, one principle is clear: Great web design tests, tests, and tests again. Amazon frequently tries out new designs on a limited number of people, waiting for feedback to see what is working and what isn’t. “We’d love to hear your comments and suggestions about our plans for the redesign of our navigation,” the Amazon note to its customers stated.
Web rules will come and go, but one rule will remain: Waste a customer’s time, and you’ll lose the customer.