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Lesson 2Characteristics of a Successful Web Site
ObjectiveIdentify Nielsen's four criteria for a successful Web site.

What makes a good Web site?

Above all else, a Web site should make easily accessible the information and other resources that users want. Jakob Nielsen, who has been called one of the Web's 10 most influential people, believes that users are extremely goal-driven on the Web and return to Web sites which allow them to do what they want to do as quickly as possible. According to Nielsen, users return to Web sites that have the following four characteristics:
  1. They offer high quality content.
  2. They are updated frequently.
  3. They require minimal download time.
  4. They are easy to use.

The quality of the content and how often this content is updated is usually the responsibility of the business or organization with which the site is associated. The Web team is responsible for ensuring that download time is kept to a minimum and that the site is easy to use. Download time will depend on the number of images and the size of the Web pages, as well as on the technology running the site. Although ease of use is affected in part by the technology, the degree to which the site is easy to use will be based on the navigational and architectural structure of the site and on the appropriateness of the signs and metaphors used. If the visual elements are confusing, users will misuse them and feel frustrated, or even decide to stop coming to the site.
In the next lesson you will learn how to evaluate the signs and metaphors of a Web site.

Communicating the Site's Purpose

The homepage must communicate in one short glance where users are, what your company does, and what users can do at your site. If your site misses the mark here, it's nearly impossible to recover. Why should users do anything at a site if they are unable to determine what they can do there? Users must be able to satisfactorily answer the question
"What is the purpose of this site?"
In order to communicate well, homepages must give appropriate emphasis to both branding and high-priority tasks. The homepage must also have a memorable and distinct look, so that users can recognize it as their starting place when coming from any other part of the site.
  1. Show the company name and/or logo in a reasonable size and noticeable location. This identity area doesn't need to be huge, but it should be larger and more prominent than the items around it so it gets first attention when users enter the site. The upper-left corner is usually the best placement for languages that read from left to right.
  2. Include a tag line that explicitly summarizes what the site or company does. Tag lines should be brief, simple, and to the point. For example, Apples tag line,
    Imagine the Possibilities.
    The tag-line used for the TV commercial which introduced the use of the Intel chip in the new Macintosh computer line is a good, straightforward summary of what the site offers.
    Vague tag lines only confuse users, especially if users perceive them as marketing hype. For example, Ford's tag line, "Striving to Make the World a Better Place," while optimistic, doesn't describe Ford's automotive business in any way.
    If your company has many sites or services, the tag line for the main company homepage should summarize what the company is all about, and the subsites should have their own tag lines explaining the purpose of that particular site or service.
  3. Emphasize what your site does that's valuable from the user's point of view, as well as how you differ from key competitors. The tag line is a great place to do this, if you can do it succinctly.
    For example, Wal-Mart frequently differentiates itself from competitors in advertising media by claiming that it offers the lowest prices, but does not say so anywhere on its homepage except for a brief mention in the title bar. A simple tag line that stated this differentiator would give users unfamiliar with the company an instant sense of what the site can offer them.
  4. Emphasize the highest priority tasks so that users have a clear starting point on the homepage. Give these tasks a prominent location, such as the upper-middle of the page, and don't give them a lot of visual competition. In other words, if you emphasize everything, nothing gets focus. Keep the number of core tasks small (1–4) and the area around them clear. For example, a financial news website, like CNNfn, should devote prime real estate to high-priority tasks like checking a stock quote, getting the current summary of the major U.S. stock markets, and getting a summary of the current financial news headlines. The most challenging, yet most critical, aspect of this guideline is actually determining what the highest priority tasks are from the user's perspective. You must have a deep understanding of your users' needs, which is best acquired by studying your users in the context in which they will use your website before you begin the homepage design.