|When businesses first
expanded into cyberspace, many of their efforts revolved around applying traditional
marketing and user interaction principles and strategies to the new frontier. Like brave
explorers, they grabbed some innovative online tools and built Web sites that they
believed reflected their corporate objectives and best practices. They designed layouts
that borrowed from their brick-and-mortar strategies and physical realities.
As cyber-awareness evolved, however, corporate leaders
and their Web management teams slowly realized that online business is a whole new
ballgame. The innovative capabilities and technological characteristics of the electronic
virtual world prompted online users and customers to behave differently, to develop unique
expectations. Many tried-and-true business strategies were to fall by the wayside.
among the strategies that have been and still are constantly revamped are ways to grab and
sustain the online user's attention. A business's online success hinges solely on the
design of its Web site, so all the elements working together on that welcome page have to
be totally appealing, compelling, and most especially, effective. The question every
online business owner and Web designer must therefore answer is "What do the users
Words Before Pictures
10 years ago, the Poynter Institute conducted an eyetrack study of newspaper readers.
Results revealed that print readers tend to first look at photos that call out, and then
focus on the text to read the related information. The same eyetracking study was conducted recently by
a team from Stanford University and the Poynter Institute, but this time the subjects were
readers of news online. The results showed the exact opposite: news readers on the Web
zeroed in on the text and paid little attention to the pictures. They go online to read,
not to look at graphics.
1997, researchers John Morkes and Jacob Nielsen released their findings that "content
is king in the user's mind." Nielsen emphasized that textual content is crucial to
capturing an online user's extra-short attention span and in creating the "optimal
user experience." Internet users want information as quickly as possible, in order to
make valued decisions on the spot. So, they skim and they scan and, unless graphics are
what they are really after, they click away when the text they are looking for is not
Pictures Before Words
other hand, what is actually happening in the virtual arena is that most of the sites have
resorted to adding bells and whistles, hoping to project an aura of innovation and
pizzazz. Graphics, photos, and animated images jumping all over the screen compete with
each other for the attention of the casual surfer.
Again, this concept of drawing attention through
color and eye candy, the rule rather than the exception on the Web at present, is a
take-off from traditional marketing strategies. Shopping sites create cyber-equivalents of
their print catalogs; magazines build online replicas of their glossies; name brands
wallpaper their homepages with almost subliminal images of their ubiquitous logos and
trademarks. The rationale: if it works on paper, it should work on the screen. And to a
certain extent, it does.
who have migrated to the online experience are still going by the fundamental principle of
trust. Marketing-ese, promotional fluff, and hard-sell slogans generate poor credibility
compared to actual, visual presentations of a desired product. Furthermore, lengthy,
winding text becomes more of a hindrance to an online user's need to immediately arrive at
intelligent buying decisions. In this case, a picture will be worth a thousand words --
and a higher level of trust.
But it's not as simple as it seems.
Words ... for Now
Although the Stanford-Poynter Eyetrack Study
focused on news readers who in fact log onto a news site for the precise purpose of
reading lengthy texts, the words-before-pictures tendency that the study revealed may
actually also hold true for non-news sites -- at least for now. The reason has to do with
the Internet's bandwidth limitations.
As Steve Outing, CEO/Founder of Content Exchange LLC, notes, "Images on PC
screens are not high resolution, they're a bit fuzzy, and just not real pleasing to look
at. Screen technology has a long way to go to be as comfortable to read as paper. And
we've all been trained to know that images on a Web page load slowly. So it's
understandable that a common reaction is to gloss over the images and gravitate to the
adds, "In time, as technology advances, I think this behavior will change and we
might see reader behavior become closer to print-reader behavior. I mean when images load
instantly because we all have high-bandwidth connections; when screen technology improves
such that images look as good as on paper (digital ink technology). We've got a long way
to go to get to that point, so for the near term Web sites of all kinds probably should
heed what the Poynter-Stanford study tells us."
A Balancing Act
What impact does all of this have on you as
online business owners and Web developers? What strategies can you employ to optimize your
customers' online experience?
- Understand your users. Know what they want; then
give it to them. Provide the vital information that will make them feel the need to stay,
come back, or act. If in-depth content is what they come for, graphics will just be a
waste of bandwidth and a load-time irritant. Just as visual presentations will help them
to quickly find solutions and make informed decisions, marketing hype will just foster
distrust. Knowing what your users need will help you create a presence that they will feel
comfortable with, trust, and eventually rely on.
- Never compromise your site's ease of use. Avoid
slow-loading images that could detract from informative text or interfere with the user's
desire to transact business. Combine quality words with only the most essential
illustrations. Where appropriate, provide text links with photos for added usability.
Improve navigation by allowing for both clicking and scrolling where expedient.
- Use text effectively. Nathan Wallace, founder and
CEO of Synop Software [http://www.synop.com] (specialists in the production of web-based
services) reminds us that a Web site must have different levels of content to address the
various levels of reader interest. Effective titles, one-sentence summaries, bullets,
captions, then full-length articles must be available to cater to the various degrees of
- Use graphics effectively. Brad Butkovitch, Direct
Sales Manager White-Wolf.com, a computer games
venue, says, "Having a clear, concise, and easily navigable site is the key. Pictures
of your products will reduce questions and let customers know what they are buying. If
possible, having your catalog pages on one server, and your secure transaction pages on a
separate server will speed up transactions quite noticeably since it allows the catalog
pages to load quickly."
The Web will continue to be a unique
environment, incomparable to traditional media in many respects. Online users, too, are
evolving into a singular force that drives businesses to reconfigure, redefine, and adapt
to the cyber-scenario.
The design of a global Web site is the first
crucial step in this adaptation. The interface between the business provider and its users
is the door that either lets customers in or keeps them out, depending on how its elements
are presented to the discriminating surfer. The effective use of words and pictures will
mean the difference between success and failure in the online world.