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Design for Usability


Communications, whether written, visual or oral, involves a sender, a message and a receiver. Surrounding the message is extraneous information that researchers call "noise;" this is everything that keeps the receiver from fully comprehending the sender's intent. Noise can be literal (a radio playing in the background that interferes with hearing an entire auditory message) or metaphoric (the use of unfamiliar words, gestures, symbols).

Everything we do with a page, be it on the Web or on paper, either contributes to that communication or obscures it. The medium of the Internet itself is new, but its overriding task or goal to enhance communication is as old as civilization. And although the principles of information design are universal having been tested for centuries in print and for much of this century in electronic forms many web sites ignore this body of information. This is unfortunate, as the body of research on effective communication principles can help the web designer better communicate with site visitors by minimizing the noise encountered at the site. The result is also increased site usability.

This is not the first time that computer-assisted communication has (temporarily) led to a disregard for sound communication principles. The advent of the Macintosh computer and Aldus' Pagemaker led to pages unintentionally designed to shock the eye; the by-product was to introduce noise in the communication.

Today the web is in a similar position. Tools for publishing are easily accessible; software companies compete to make the most simple, point-click-don't-need-to-think software. The result are web sites that, like the current IBM television commercial (USA) parodies, lead the user to say "wow" or "how" but don't result in sales, persuasion or repeat visits.

Most of the commercial literature written to guide web site creation focuses on technical information: how to code a page, how to add Javascript, how to animate a graphic, how to add video or audio files, how to minimize the file size of a graphic. Only a few authors, such as Laura LeMay in Graphics and Web Page Design and Jakob Neilsen in his Alert Boxes, have begun the less sexy process of applying traditional design principles and communications planning to this evolving medium.

This paper examines several forms of noise present in contemporary web sites and presents alternatives designed to help site designers maximize site usability. This information is important for both internet and intranet designers, but given the intranet goal of communicating data (rather than entertaining or selling) much of this information may be more critical in those applications.

Noise Impairs Usability

The Web provides web site authors/publishers with a unique opportunity to incorporate text, images and sound in ways not imagined even five years ago. The explosion in web sites designed to inform, to sell, to educate, to entertain has led to almost frantic efforts to differentiate one site from another. Much like the traveling "medicine man" of the United States in the 1800s and early 1900s, hyperbole and "loudness" have become techniques of first resort.

The technology involved in developing web sites is evolving more quickly than communications practitioners can follow. From the ill-fated blinkie to painless animations, many web sites can and do feature sensory hyperbole.

But what about the user? Does the arbitrary jarring the senses (auditory and visual) truly lead to more effective communication? The premise of this paper, based upon communications research, is that the answer to that question is "no."

The areas of noise covered here follow: color, backgrounds, images, frames and general readability issues.

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