Wise Words About Branding From The Usability Sage

Jakob Nielsen knows a lot about usability. He's perhaps the world's foremost expert on how people use Web sites. I finally had the chance to meet Jakob face to face last week (we've been trading e-mails for some time) in San Francisco at his Usability Week Summit. I was down there to sit in on his one-day session on eyetracking.

No Graphics for Nielsen

Jakob takes a pretty austere view of the user experience. One can tell this from his own website, useit.com. Perhaps his most famous quote is "Flash: 99% bad." He takes a similarly dim view of animations and large graphics, which lead to "banner blindness," he says. In fact, other than the obligatory head and shoulder shot on his bio page and a small arrow glyph used to indicate hierarchy in his breadcrumb navigation bar, there are no graphics on useit.com. He goes on at some length about this. Why no graphics? He's pretty adamant that they add nothing to the user experience. We're not in complete agreement about this, but I get his point.

Jakob's Nielsen Norman group has recently added eyetracking to its usability arsenal. If ever you're looking for justification for not using large graphics on a site, look (sorry, no pun intended) no further than eyetracking heatmaps. In session after session, users skirt around large graphic blocks, focusing their interaction on text and navigation. It can be a rude slap in the face for most graphic designers (there's a rather amusing anecdote about one such encounter that happened at the session, and an example of the phenomenon I'm talking about, on my blog).

Experience, Not Exposure

In the session, Jakob tossed out a line, the import of which I'm not sure was fully appreciated by the audience. When responding to a question from the audience about the seeming contradiction between the need for building of brand exposure and best practices for usability, Jakob said that online, brand value is built through experience, not exposure.

Whoa! There's a world of wisdom in those eight little words! Beneath them lies a whole different way of looking at online engagement. It sums up something I've been hammering away at for years now. A successful user experience builds brand equity in a way that hammering visitors over the head with Flash or streaming video never could. Every single thing on a Web site should have one purpose, to make that user experience more successful. If it's there solely for the gratification of the designer, or the CEO, or the CMO, it's there for the wrong reason. And before you dismiss this thought, saying it doesn't apply to you, take a look at your home page and ask yourself, why are the elements that are on the page actually there? Think through the decision process that placed each element on the page. How present were users in the process? Who was asking them for their opinion?

User Success In Search

This is a best practice in any Web site's design, but it becomes particularly true when looking at search-generated leads. Search visitors reek with intent. They are incredibly single-minded in their purpose. They're looking for a clear path ahead to their intent, and they've cast the first few steps down that path through their search query. They've come to the site not because they're engaged with your brand, although that may have helped sway them in your direction, but because they're engaged with a task. Get between them and the successful completion of that task at your peril. Every time you throw something at them that's not aligned to that intent, you decrease their chances for success, eroding the value of your brand in their eyes. If you make them wait 20 seconds for a Flash file to load, that's 20 seconds of ticking on a time bomb that could blow your brand to smithereens. If you throw in a large stock photo with the typical generic smiling face that takes up 70 percent of your home page, you're wasting prime real estate. But don't feel bad, it happens to the best of us. At least Jakob practices what he preaches on his site. What would you see if you went to the home page of Enquiro? A generic smiling face. But I'm working on it!

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