You want to make a big splash with your users the first time they visit your online business. So you have your Web development team pull out all the stops when they’re putting together your company’s Web site.

You reason that visitors, wowed by your graphics, will want to stay. But when users come to your site, they’re distracted by the flashing ads, technicolor animation, and pop-up menus, and they end up missing whatever it is that you’re selling. Why? Because Web design often makes the mistake of having too much of a good thing.

Steve Telleen, an analyst for the Giga Information Group, offers this rule of thumb to Web site owners seeking to make that all-important good first impression: More technology generally decreases usability.

In this article, we’ll see what other e-commerce advice Telleen and several business owners offer and how you should apply their suggestions to your business.

Too much technology
Although it may seem counterintuitive, Telleen’s golden rule of the Web should become apparent if you surf through a few multimedia-laden sites.

What you’ll find is that too many Web designers, eager to impress, allow technology to overwhelm everything else.

Telleen’s rule goes beyond the ability of a visitor’s computer to download and display whatever might be on a Web page. Even if you assume all your visitors are using up-to-date software and broadband connections, as business-to-business site owners often do, Telleen says you still shouldn’t assume you can lay on the razzle-dazzle.

He points to studies in which researchers brought in people off the street, sat them down in front of computers and told them to perform certain tasks at Web sites. Many subjects placed their hands over animated portions of the screen to avoid distraction.

In one test, the link that subjects were supposed to find had been installed as a flashing graphic. More than half the subjects couldn’t find it because they had learned to ignore such things.

A different way of thinking about the Web
Unfortunately, many companies make the mistake of treating their Web sites as an extended advertisement, Telleen said.

“An advertisement is designed to hijack your attention while you’re on the train or reading an article in a magazine,” he said. “When people come to a Web site, they don’t generally come out of context. They came to your Web site because they intentionally navigated there. You don’t have to hijack their attention. The way you’re going to upset them is to stand in the way of whatever they came there to do.”

Consequently, it’s best to keep graphics and multimedia features to a minimum. Telleen suggests developing a plain-text version of your site. Focus on ease of navigation, with clearly marked links to the important areas of your site. Then go back and add graphics only where necessary.

However, he admits there are exceptions.

For example, gaming sites can justify the use of high-bandwidth features because visitors expect it. They know what it takes to play a game online, and they’re prepared for it. The same is true of entertainment sites that show movie clips and real estate sites that offer virtual reality modeling language tours of houses.

Even in these cases, Telleen cautions that you should still make the main page simple and user-friendly. If you have to use flashy stuff, bury it deeper in the site and never force it on your visitors.

Focus on the visitor
Keeping the visitor’s sensibilities in mind is a practice that pays off. Ken Churilla is both site designer and president of the Electronic Software Publishing Corporation (Elsop), which publishes LinkScan, a link checking and site management software package.

Churilla stresses download speed as a high priority at his site. “As a company, we believe in content over form,” he said. “We keep graphics to the minimum. Most of our pages are less than a 20-KB download. We are conscious that many visitors don’t like or want JavaScript so we don’t use it, and the same goes for Shockwave and similar stuff. Just plain HTML for us.”

This “keep it simple” philosophy extends beyond the things one normally thinks of as high-bandwidth features.

“We have a menu sidebar that looks like frames, but it is not frames,” Churilla said. “Frames make it difficult to navigate, impossible to bookmark and make it impossible for search engines to index the site.”

Most of his customers and prospects are very large businesses, universities, and government agencies, and most access the site through T1 connections. “But we sell worldwide,” Churilla said. “A major portion of our customers are foreign, so we are concerned about network delays. Low bandwidth pages eliminate any potential problems. But we want a visitor-friendly site for all, including the blind.”

The result? In addition to the main site, Elsop maintains a dozen other sites to advertise the company and its software. Altogether, the sites average about 75,000 visitors and 1 million hits per month.

“They are all designed with the same philosophy, and we get many compliments from visitors over their design,” Churilla said. When you can maintain that much traffic and receive such favorable response marketing a high-end specialty software package, you’re not just doing something right. You’re doing almost everything right.

On the Web, perceptions count every bit as much as, if not more than, the objective measurements of file sizes and download times. As Telleen puts it, “It’s not just the bandwidth of the bits coming down the line. It’s the bandwidth of the brain and the eye that are on the other end of it, as well.”
Did you design your Web site with your users in mind? What did you include? What did you leave off? Post a comment below or let us know by sending us an e-mail.