Website posture & manner
Summary: The way a website presents itself to users is a key aspect of user experience. Effective websites don't interrupt user flow, which is guaranteed largely by posture (how the website uses available resources, particularly visual), and manner (how the website "talks" to users).
In his book About Face, software designer Alan Cooper discusses orchestration and flow at length. Basically, Cooper advocates a modeless and informative (i.e. non-interrogative) interface that will encourage users to concentrate exclusively on what they're doing. If the user can complete desired tasks without being frustrated, he is more likely to accomplish her personal goals.
Cooper also talks about posture, which he defines as "a program's behavioral stance--the way it presents itself to the user". For instance, certain programs require extensive, frequent interaction with the user, and should remain "on and ready" at all times, while others require occasional interaction and mustn't occupy the user's visual attention. Posture can be applied to websites, too. A website's posture is determined by:
- use of screen area
- location and design of links or other interactive elements
- intrinsic modal or modeless design properties
Most websites are used within the context of popular browsing software on a few major computing platforms, including Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. Therefore, a significant portion of website user experience is determined by the interface of things other than the website design itself. Although web designers can't really change anything outside the intrinsic properties of the website, they must consider those outside factors in order to provide a positive user experience.
Examples of bad posture & manner
Public enemy #1: pop-up windows
The most awful implementation of posture is pop-up windows. Websites that use pop-up windows are sure to interrupt flow:
- some pop-up windows include the full complement of browser software interface elements and usable HTML pages, but will not allow access to the recent history of viewed websites, making the requisite Back Button useless.
- some pop-up windows include no browser software elements, leaving the user stranded and reliant on the website alone. Frequently, that website is an inaccessible, modal Flash movie. Most instances of this nature include a fixed-size window that doesn't take advantage of available screen area.
I have seen countless users struggle to figure out how to use multiple windows. The fact is that most web users are not computer experts, and browser software and operating system interfaces are still too complicated for those users. As time goes by, more and more non-specialist users will be using all kinds of websites. It is important to remember that they aren't just users, they are consumers, ready to become loyal, paying customers if they are treated well.
The pop-up window/modal/unaccessible/fixed-size website is tremendously popular with "cutting-edge" web design firms, and trendy consumer websites. A lot of these sites also suffer from other poor usability characteristics, including tiny text, lots of heavy graphics, and unscrupulous use of complicated and error-prone technologies. Some companies that have offended in many elements of posture have now toned down their heavy-duty sites and become more user-friendly. Compare the relatively flexible, compact Gap website to the bloated, largely fixed-size Eaton's website.
Website form should follow function
Websites that occupy lots of user time, bandwidth, and screen area, but offer relatively little value (i.e. minimal content, or an exceedingly simple service) also have bad posture. If the service is small and simple, make the website small and simple. Cooper calls single-function programs transient, and that term applies to similar single-function websites. Dictionary.com almost gets it right on: the one simple and major service they offer is a word lookup, and the website posture suits that function. The important part of the website is the lookup widget, which is prominent and left uncluttered. Unfortunately, a great number of "simple" services have horridly complex and inappropriately-postured websites; see 411.com as an example of what not to do. Keep in mind what 411 means to north american users; it's a telephone directory service.
Websites that don't mind their manners
With respect to manner, most websites simple ignore it. For instance, when a page is missing, most websites leave users stranded, or even "yell at them". The merges website, Jakob Nielsen's website, as well as some major websites like Apple and Microsoft, deal kindly with missing pages. Certainly some other sites do as well, but when a page can't be found, the vast majority of websites have little more to say than "Error 404/Page Not Found", which translates into "go away, I won't help you!"
Popular, big, or complex websites tend to have a significant number of broken links. All of these popular websites offer next to no help when users encounter a missing page: Hewlett Packard, Yahoo!, IBM, MSN, SGI, and the IRS. There are thousands more, including surprising results from Donald Norman's website, and the website belonging to what is probably the top usability consulting group in the world, Nielsen Norman Group.
I have a challenge for those "mean" websites and similar ones: help users who encounter missing links by creating useful, customized 404 error pages. It's easy. If one person developing any one of those websites accidentally makes a typo when creating a link, he could lead countless users into a frustrating trap. That trap interrupts user flow unlike anything else. Instead of being gently guided so that he can continue his tasks, the user is abandoned by the website, and consequently, the company or organization behind it.
A few practical guidelines
To ensure a positive user experience and encourage users to remain in flow while using a website, consider the following guidelines:
- don't use pop-up windows
- make form follow function
- use as much of the screen area as possible
- guide users with sensitive feedback
- consider the software users will be viewing the website within
- make sure the Back Button works properly
Websites that have good posture, in line with the extent of interaction that typical users will be required to perform, will succeed in maintaining user flow. If those websites also have good manner, users will perceive the site to be helpful and professional. What kind of website would you choose: an unhelpful, complicated, interrogative website or a helpful, simple, and informative one? The answer is probably obvious, and it's just as simple for ordinary users.
Adam Baker is a user experience designer who's worked at Google, Apple, BlackBerry, and Marketcircle, and mentored startups in Vancouver.