Back in school, I was paid to research online gaming IP policies. I spent hours combing through hundreds of websites, locating legal statements and conduct codes. I quickly learned that on some sites I could navigate content without even reading the page, as if the site intelligently guided me. It’s not that the navigation was intuitive or the design minimalistic. The site gave direction.
Yahoo design = shopping at a flea market
Remember Yahoo, circa 2002? The Yahoo user experience was like shopping at a flea market–each table has a hodgepodge of goods. A flea market seller does not give any direction and everything is on a table for the buyer to survey. Google did things differently. Google is your corner drug store–what you need is in the front, where you can find it. The less important things are buried in the back.
Good design = spoon-fed direction
Google does not just simplify its page layout, but gives direction to the user. Google gives it to you in the form of a big blank text box (i.e., search). This is what 99% of users will do, and it is the main objective of the site. Google has some other features, like news and advertising content. This, however, is subordinated to the bottom of the page. It’s difficult for users to find, but most will not use it–it would only overwhelm them and has no relevance. More frequent users, however, will eventually stumble upon this content and find it useful and awesome.
Example: in a corner store, the front desk contains the staples–candy, cigarettes, newspapers. The back of the store contains more esoteric items–spark plugs, bleach, and cat food. The shoppers looking for these items will naturally seek them out–there’s no reason to put them at the front counter and confuse the 90% of non-interested shoppers with broader selection.
Why am I at a site? This is the focal experience, the thesis of the site. There may be other features that make the site special, but they should be subordinated for interested users to discover. Instead of organizing google.com with links to every Google product, engaged users can stumble upon Gmail and Google reader after registering for an account. Specialized services, such as Google Scholar, are even more difficult to find.
Websites do not have the benefit of a physical store layout–there are no intrinsic cues. Important things cannot be moved to the front and less important to the back. A site’s homepage should communicate the most important goal very clearly. Smashing Magazine has great examples in its design guide. Blogs, for example, should focus on readability and the author’s writing. A creative agency should guide the user towards its portfolio and client list.
In Short: sites often have a myriad of features and tools that users can interact with. Online experiences, however, are no different than offline. Don’t overwhelm users; give more selective guidance. And let individual users shape their experiences.