Ted stared at the looming input field in front of him, its importance clearly enhanced by the stark emptiness around it. No sense hesitating any longer. A few taps on the keyboard produced the phrase that came to his mind first: "chicago olympics." He then shot the mouse to the biggest button on the page and clicked "search." The screen refreshed and he furiously scanned a list of hyperlinks brimming with bright blue underlines. A second later he had made his choice...
As she hunkered in her cubicle, it was clear Sandra was becoming increasingly bored of her inbox. Time for some inspiration, she decided, and pointed her Web browser to her social news site of choice. "What's everyone looking at now?" she wondered, anxious for a diversion from her email triage. As the site loaded, something caught her eye: "City Celebrates Olympics Bid Win." Her mouse moved toward the link with curiosity...
Though he had just left three open conversations in his instant-messenger client to attend to an SMS message on his phone, the "ding" of a new conversation invite pulled Arthur back to his chat application. It was Linda, and she had a recommendation: "Thought you'd like to see this article." Linda didn't point him toward content often, so the link she included in her message grabbed Arthur's attention for the moment...
Three different people from three different contexts but all heading to the same Web pagewhat will they find?
Hopefully they'll get a well-written article that answers their question, entertains them for a bit, or provides them with new information. But what else will greet them on their arrival? An onerous website navigation menu or two; promotions for irrelevant services or content; an overabundance of choices?
In the case of Ted, Sandra, and Arthur, what greeted them was a news story from a newspaper site and it had onerous navigation, promotions for irrelevant content, and choices aplenty (Figure 1).
In fact, on an average 1024x768 display, 75 percent of this Web page's screen real estate was devoted to elements other than the primary content of the page. This wasn't just an annoyance for these peopleit was a missed opportunity for the website as well.
In today's search-driven, social, and distributed Web, people are finding their way to content through an increasing number of distinct experiences. Content-aggregator sites like Digg and del.icio.us, display surfaces like Facebook and MySpace, content creation sites like blogs and wikis, search engines like Google and Yahoo!, and communication tools like email and instant messaging are all responsible for an increasing amount of traffic to Web content pages.
But when people arrive, the Web page they get isn't optimized for these circumstances. Instead, the vast majority of content pages online remain more concerned about their place within a website rather than their place on the Web. These pages are designed as if they were primarily accessed from a website's home page or a carefully thought-out selection from the site's information architecture and, as a result, remain focused on addressing:
- How many features of the site can be merchandised to people on this page?
- Will people know what site (or page) they are on so they know how to get back?
- How can people get to every place on the website from this page?
While these are all worthwhile considerations, they go only so far. In fact, studies conducted on content pages have shown that too much of an insular approach can actually prevent sites from achieving their goal of increased engagement and returning customers. So instead of presenting content only as part of a specific website, consider presenting it as part of the entire Web as well.
To accentuate this shift in perspective, it may be useful to think in terms of "content experiences" instead of "content pages."
Content experiences know their place within people's goals. They are part of someone's broader Web searching, surfing, sharing, or browsing behavior, and chances are, they're not the only part. As a result, content experiences make it their primary objective to meet the expectations of people as they go about using the Web.
Content experiences devote the bulk of their screen real estate to fulfilling the promise that search engines, links, and communications between people have made. While it's tempting to write off these promises since an individual website has little control over them, the reality is, they are happening regardless and need to be addressed. In other words, embrace don't fight.
Consider the example in Figure 2. Here the majority of the Web page is devoted to the content that attracted people there in the first place. Contrast this with the example in Figure 1. Which does a better job of delivering on the promise of pertinent content?
When people's expectations are met, they are much more likely to engage and explore what else a content experience has to offer. Though it may be tempting to try and merchandise (and therefore prioritize) features of a site to people when they first arrive, making people work to get the content they want is a losing proposition. Time and again, people can and do tune out irrelevant information when concentrating on their primary task. In fact, too much clutter or information competing for attention may lead people to tune out or abandon the entire page. And there's clearly no opportunity for engagement when people hit the back button.
When a promise is fulfilled and people can quickly and easily accomplish their goal, relevant calls to action are much more welcome. In Figure 3, the Web page delivers the best content experience it can and then points people to other popular pages on the site. While this type of "call to action" may be useful in many circumstances, there may be an even better opportunity to directly engage people.
In a typical website, a few popular pages receive the bulk of people's attention. A much larger set of pages gets substantially less, if any, attention. Yet each page in the site often tries to expose the full breadth of options to users (most commonly through extensive site navigation), which brings us to the second component of content experiences: related calls to action.
An effective call to action makes an explicit connection between related content across a site. If your content experience fulfills initial expectations, related calls to action have a good chance of engaging users further. Instead of providing access to everything within a site, related calls to action provide access only to the most relevant information.
This approach not only reduces the quantity of competing calls to action but also helps to balance out the usage of a site's content. Less popular but highly related content is likely to be accessed more frequently because, when faced with fewer choices, people are more likely to decide to act. In his popular book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz cites several studies in which too many options lead to indecision and no action taken. Whereas a reduced set of options allows people to make a selectionin this case a selection that keeps them engaged with a website.
But how do we let people know where they are and what they can find on a specific site? If we devote the bulk of screen real estate to content and focus on promoting only highly relevant calls to action, what happens to the rest of the site?
The third portion of the content-experience framework addresses these points but does so in an unobtrusive manner. The minimum amount of context needed to orient people and explain where they are relative to the entire Web rounds out the picture of content experiences. This doesn't mean reintroducing all the navigation and merchandising typically found on content pagesinstead it means including only what people actually need to feel grounded.
In Figure 4, the bulk of the Web page is devoted to the primary content and reason for the page to exist. A few related calls to action are included along with the minimum amount of context needed to orient people.
It's worth noting that the right prioritization of this framework requires a visual hierarchy that takes into account how people naturally scan Web pagesmoving between areas of visual interest as they attempt to accomplish their goals. Creating a design that leverages this behavior can help make it clear what your content experience offers people.
Though these considerations can do a great deal to optimize content for its place in the Web, there are opportunities to go further. Specifically, content experiences could morph or vary based on the path people take to access it. Search queries could be highlighted in pages and related content retrieved from a site's index based on search terms. Actions to share content could be emphasized when people arrive from aggregators or social networks. Opportunities to engage in discussion could be highlighted for people arriving from a recommendation.
We've only begun to explore the possibilities of how content can leverage its place in the Web. But thinking in terms of content experiences that deliver on expectations, surface related calls to action, and include an appropriate amount of context to orient people is a great start.
Luke Wroblewski has designed or contributed to software used by more than half a billion people. He is currently senior principal of product ideation and design at Yahoo! Inc. and the author of Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks, Site-Seeing: A Visual Approach to Web Usability, as well as the popular interaction design blog, Functioning Form.
Figure 1. 25 percent content, 75 percent overhead. This content page is primarily concerned with marketing the site and its advertisers instead of making good on the expectations of people arriving from across the Web.
Figure 2. This site not only devotes the bulk of the page to the content that brought people there in the first place, but also features the most popular pages on the site and a bit of context (site header).
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