Fear Web site searches, designers told

Web site designers should understand their users’ way of thinking, introduce them to content they didn’t know they were looking for and most of all, keep them from using the search function, according to a report released Monday by Web research firm User Interface Engineering Inc.

In its report: Getting Them To What They Want UIE said it drew on six years of research and hundreds of hours of user observations to discern the eight best practices for getting users to the content they seek.

One of the key tactics UIE listed is keeping users away from the pesky search engine where they could wind up with heaps of results that don’t apply to what they are looking for. In fact, according to UIE, 77 per cent of the users that they studied were more likely to find the content they were looking for when using options like category links.

The problem with search functions, the company said, is that there are too many potential pitfalls: the keywords could be misspelled or inaccurate and the search engine could dig up results from areas as obscure as HTML title tags, producing off-base results that don’t lead users in the right direction.

Furthermore, users rarely click through multi-page results, and so occasionally miss their desired content even if it appears in the search results.

A better practice is to offer explicit and easily navigated categories that deliver users to the content they want – typically, in an average of 4.4 clicks, compared to an average 5.1 clicks via search engines, UIE said, citing its own studies. These links brought users to the content they wanted and often introduced consumers to related content they weren’t looking for but may be interested in.

When choosing category links, however, Web designers should be careful to select keywords that easily direct users to the content they seek. In order to do this, designers have to understand how users think about the site’s content, UIE said, and take pains to label the categories in useful ways. One way to make sure that the category titles are helpful, the company said, is to survey users on what they are looking for, and also look for patterns in the keywords and content that users enter into the search function.

Categories should also be clearly differentiated, with multiple levels of category information. By offering levels of categories as well as subcategories, designers can show off what the site has to offer, UIE said.

A Web site should also reflect the company’s priorities, ensuring both that users who know what they want from the site can find it and that users who may be unaware of the site’s offerings know what information is available to them, the researcher said.

These priorities should be equal, with the site’s “real estate,” or limited front-page space, split between the two.

While category links and search functions can help users find the content they already know they want, featured products and information can give users who don’t have a specific item in mind an idea as to what the site has to offer.

Finally, site designers should measure their categories’ success, and study real users to research whether they are finding what they want on the site, UIE said. And because each user thinks differently, the site may have to be designed so that the same information can be accessed in different ways. For instance, someone looking for a vacuum cleaner on a superstore Web site should be able to find it under both the “appliances” and “home furnishings” category links.

When it comes to site design, what matters most is that users get what they want, the report concludes. When that happens, everyone wins.

User Interface Engineering, in Bradford, Mass., is at http://www.uie.com/.