Sunday, April 29, 2012

How users and recruiting editors approach your web site

How we approach and seek to understand websites has much in common with deciphering many artifacts or art forms. We approach with a level of expectation, and thus we have readily preconceived ideas.
For instance, if you expect to see a website, such as these student websites from our Masters program and you see an advertisement, you immediately switch off and leave the page. Your expectations have not been fulfilled.

So for most users it's the form and what scholars like David Bordwell refer to as "style" - an intrinsic quality - which interchanges with form that attracts you.

Form is dependent on style as much a style defines form. Nike's tick is its form, and also its acquired style. The iPad is a great example of form and style merging.

A Western film's style defines its form; it's genre. The BBC's relatively new website is a new style that defines the form of websites cohering to the iPad screen.

And style can also be shaped by the content. Take a fashion website, it's defined by its photos; the photos (the content) make up the style.

Similarly, with reference to form, if your website doesn't cover the whole screen then invariably people make a judgement.

In the 1990s, websites were 800 pixels wide, because 15-inch screens were the norm, so small design websites are often associated with the 1990s, unless an inherent design concept is provided. Here style is defining the form.

This is all fine, but what does it mean?

Why Form Matters and - which do you prefer and why?
It means when the user comes to your website, in the short amount of time, they've made up their mind. Our user was an editor, someone you could send your link to open your site and conclude on the strength of what they see how competent, brilliant or mediocre you are. 

The form matters deeply; the shape, the size, the way you have arranged the elements, your content and how it's styled. The more harmonious the site, the more aesthetic an impact is has on the user. The form should also exude functionality. 

Good design is about solutions to a problem, such as how do I sell myself. Harmony also comes from your colour scheme, your use of negative or white space, how uncluttered the site is. 

The colour "white" is often associated with minimalism, elegance, and informational sites. The colour "black" is a reference to chic, boldness, and focusing the viewer's attention, which is why fashion magazines often used black backgrounds.

So in that first impression, that important behaviour for the next step is being considered – albeit subconsciously – that is whether the user will engage by clicking further on the site. 

They have NO notion who you are, your strengths, and in spite of your e-mail to them, or the "Hey, check out my website" at a party (a phrase to be avoided at all costs, unless you're applying to work for the Disney Chanel), they approach your website cold. 

Your site must inform the user who you are, what they see, its relevance perhaps, the experience they are likely to get on the site. Remember you're not quite the brand yet! 

To that end, if you haven't stated on your front page who you are or what your website is about, then you are denying the editor crucial information. 

So far I have talked about cognitive behaviour; any user does not need to be skilled in semiotics to read your site, but we can evoke semiotics to ascertain some of the thoughts the user is entertaining. 

What is apparent is one thing, what isn't is that a user constructs, which on occasion I have referred to in lectures as "connotation", using your data to build up secondary and tertiary meanings. 

They do this where you are ambiguous and from the manner in which you have used elements. That's why it's important, as we have discussed in lectures to search out exemplars, how gifted individuals have designed. 

Why Annotation Matters
Everything, all assets, need annotation. If you have pictures on your site and there is no indication what the picture is, what its context is, what it means, then you might as well be showing the editor your family album. 

In fact, I know many senior editors who will reject the picture or video if there is no information attached. Firstly, it's not journalism, which is about information; secondly the presumption is someone else could have taken this. 

And the minute they are met with these inadequacies, their expectations dip. Mostly anyone today can take a picture, but not many people know how to annotate and edit, which you should as a journalist, and we've mentioned this. 

If they have clicked a link, and it is text-based, then all our research tells us people engage more with the site when it's made out according to the rules of Jacob Nielsen. 

Aesthetically, the text easier to read, easy to digestive, and is the contents is strong will make that impression. 

You cannot afford to follow Jacob Nielsen. rules, in articles, and ditch them elsewhere. If the user gets through the experience of your first link, and that first link is often the link on your navigation bar, then they may click elsewhere. 

It's important then that you have a consistent navigation bar and that you're aware of your information architecture hierarchy. 

It's the link next to "Home" that may often get the first click, unless you've designed the site otherwise. After one or two clicks of your content, the editor may well then navigate to your "about me". 

Your "about me", is a professional bio, which can show some personality, but must be restrained from being flippant. The "about me" is the clincher if they like what they see. 

An action picture, or profile picture showing detail of you work in all its reflective mode has a far greater impact than the one of you at that party. 

Again, here style, form, content work in the same way as first impressions. Have you made it obvious how to contact you? Is it a link, or a complex e-mail they need to copy and paste? 

The easier it is, the more likely someone will follow through. 

Two additional pieces of info here from two incredible experts. Brian Storm of Mediastorm says the "About me" is the place he goes very quickly on his click through journey of  website, while Ilicco Elias says the most important link is your journalism piece that's been google and indexed.

To that I add, either route, context matters. If you're linking from a report, the piece as much as what it represents and how you went about it provides much needed information. Your piece may never be read, but if you can tell the editor how long it took you, why it matters, the style you conceived - as added info, you'll win brownie points.

Show off your skills
Editors today may see many websites. On average building a complex personal site may not take you more than a week, also it's common knowledge that many website owners choose a template. 

So, is there any indication that you created and built this site, or what your competency skills are in CSS/HTML, design or that you designed the site and others following industry-standard. If your work doesn't say these things, an editor won't assume that you undertook all this work. 

Design is about cognitive functionality. Your website must refrain from any assumption that you will have, and which assumes others looking at your content will necessarily understand. 

Non-online journalists can afford to think this way because they're not burgeoning designers. Online journalists can't. Information architecture is about leading people on an experience, sure that you'll get your message across as unequivocally as possible. 

What you don't say will often not be understood. If you manage to send off your user to your blog, note that if the last time you updated your blog was a month ago and then it doesn't bode well for you. 

Also, if they're going to read one post from you, would you not prefer it was one of your strongest pieces. Therefore, provide this as the link from your website and not the generic link to your blog. 

Now, back to style again. Style works on a number of levels, and one of those is about how contemporary your site is. 

No website can afford not to engage in a social network proscenium giving the user the ability to add content via comments, or played with the site. 

This can be done in a number of ways, what it refers to do something called the wow factor. It's that sensibility when you see something you simply say "wow". 

It's what all creatives/scientists aspire to. If you can give the user a bit more, they'll remember you.

These are some of the behavioural patterns that users/editors use to navigate and make meaning out of your website and consequently you. And, that's the approach we adopted to deconstructing your site.

David Dunkley Gyimah is a Senior Lecturer in online and film, videojournalism, and a PhD Researcher using cognitive and literary critique, semiotics, Heidegger's phenomenology and Mass Communication to explicate meaning within websites and film. You can see his work here or contact him here on