Monday, 12 December 2011

All in the family: American sitcoms and good web design

When I was young we used to watch American imports. The language and some of the comic references were different from our own experiences but most of the time this did not get in the way of appreciating at least some of the humor. But one thing always stuck in my mind, and that was the layout of the domestic architecture. Their homes did not seem to be anything like ours. The Cosbys lived in much larger home. Granted they were rich, but even the Bunker family of All in the Family fame, had an expansive living room with a very un British layout.

In all cases the front door opened right into the living area. In most cases there was often no wall between the living room and dinning area. Open plan was the order of the day. My experiences were of halls and porches and vestibules and closed in spaces, with door deliberately shut to retain warmth and to compartmentalize our living. This was reflected in the home grown sitcoms and was a reflection of British domesticity.

Whether the American home presented in the sitcoms was realistic or not it was clearly a space designed for comedic effect. Characters walk into straight into the action, there is no muffled fumbling in out of sight halls. The action can start immediately a character arrives. They often opened the door to be greeted with applause by the audience, and delivered their catch phrase or character’s typical opening line. Likewise the household would react immediately to their arrival and engage them in the story.

A lot of this is standard theatrical effect and is about working the stage and manipulating the viewers experience of the story. The set and program designers knew that they had to keep the viewing public entertained and the flow of gags free of obstructions. Now this may be a long winded meander down memory lane, but it does have a digital relevance.

Like some lyric from a song, I remember when the web was young we used Flash and had such fun, with splash pages and spinning cursors…. We now see the notion of a splash page as youthful naivety, imagining putting your user through the need to endure a space which served no functional purpose. And yet we still design our sites with home pages which are often merely porches or glorified halls which the user has to navigate before actually doing what they want.

Often they have to navigate this space alone and with minimal greeting from the site owners. If we do know them we show typical British reserve and limit our greeting to a very subtle sign. If your site is about news or has a steady flow of new content then the home page serves as a promotional headline space or latest arrivals showroom. This can serve a purpose and start to be immediately useful, but in many cases the user has to navigate through the home page to go somewhere to perform a task or goal. The home page is not a functional space. They cannot walk straight into the action.

Not all sites fail the user in this way. The prime examples are those sites who offer a form of online service such as booking a hotel, a flight, car hire, property search or online service – examples.. In these cases the primary user goal is addressed, the booking form is on the home page, often given top billing in prime position. In these cases the user can start fulfilling their goal immediately and they flow form the home page into subsequent stages of the booking or research process without making conscious decisions.

While not all sites are so single focused, one can still assess the tasks users are attempting to achieve and those which have the largest effect on improving your conversion or maximizing your profits. The home page should offer the user the chance to engage in these activities without having to leave and locate them in another section.

Clearly the architecture of your site is no laughing matter but step back and think of the clarity of purpose of the set designers. Their ability to focus on a core function and to open up of a enclosed space into a single flowing unified area. Greet your visitors and let them get straight to the action.

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