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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the February 26, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Book Review

Ilese Benun’s just-published book, Designing Websites

for Every Audience (F & W Publications), is a visual treat. Chock

full of colorful, engaging illustrations, this Internet design how-to

could not be more user friendly.

There are detailed case studies, looking at just how specific websites

work, and portraits of Internet users, divided into categories according

to how they use the ‘Net. Woven in are factoids that are so interesting

that they book is worth reading even for those who are not planning

a website.

For example, in a section on The Digital Divide: Who’s Online, we

learn the following about degrees of connectedness:

By geography. In the United States, Internet access is

more affordable than in other parts of the world. Americans generally

pay a flat-rate fee per local telephone call, a much cheaper alternative

to the per-minute fees incurred by telephone users in the United Kingdom

and other countries. About half the country’s population uses the

Internet. This is in stark contrast to most of the rest of the world.

The United States has more Internet users than all of Asia, which

has over one-half the world’s population. There are about as many

Internet users in New York City as in all of Africa.

By race. There is a noticeable divide along racial and

ethnic lines in the United States. According to a 2001 study by the

U.S. Department of Commerce, Asian Americans, who make up about 4

percent of the population, have the highest rate of Internet penetration

— about 60 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, only about

40 percent of blacks and 31 percent of Hispanics have Internet access.

By gender. Two reports in 2000 concluded that the percentage

of men online in the United States differs from that of women by less

than one point, a clear reversal of the male-dominated Internet.

By age. In 2000, Internet market research firms Media

Matrix and Jupiter Communications found that the biggest increase

in Internet users came in girls age 12 to 17, who were attracted by

chat rooms and websites for popular teen magazines, fashion, and rock

bands.

While knowing location, ethnicity, and age is valuable, website

designers need to look past these labels and through to the essence

of their users. Benun divides these individuals into six categories

— learners, shoppers, connection seekers, transactors, business

browsers, and fun seekers.

Each of her chapters provides a detailed description of each

type of Internet user and then dissects three to five websites catering

to each. The emphasis is on redesigning websites so that they will

serve the needs of the surfers drawn to them. Along the way —

in concise sidebars — she provides information on basics, including

the use of photos, passwords, Flash animation, and much more.

Here are excerpts from Benun’s characterizations of each type of surfer:

Learners. Information-seekers are proactive Internet users,

task-driven like many on the Web, but willing to linger longer on

a site or page where they find something of interest. Users in research

mode use the Internet like an encyclopedia, employing search engines

to scour online databases, news and information sites, and anything

else related to their research subject. They are extremely dependent

on good front-end and back-end design; if they encounter long database

query times and poorly designed user interfaces, they leave and look

elsewhere.

Shoppers. In the same way that finding information online

can be broken down into a variety of activities, so too can shopping.

At the very least, shopping involves browsing, selecting, and purchasing.

Each shopper may do any of these activities either online or offline.

Some people want to touch before they buy, but want to get as much

information as possible from the Web to prepare for the magical moment.

Others would rather do it all in their pajamas at midnight when it’s

quiet.

Users in buying mode have a particular product in mind when they log

onto an E-commerce site. They are aware and active. They have spent

time researching the product and collecting opinions from those who

already own it. They will often follow links that facilitate their

purchase or promise big discounts.

Online buyers depend on good user interfaces and are easily frustrated

with poor shopping experiences. The computer interface is often the

only contact the customer has with an E-commerce site, so good Web

design is undoubtedly key to a site’s success. Because shopping online

is almost exclusively a visual experience, an E-commerce site need

to compensate for the missing sensory experience of tangibility through

careful visual design and other multimedia features that create the

illusion of dimensionality.

Connection seekers. It is quite amazing that no matter

who or what or how you are, you can find people with whom to exchange

ideas and from whom you can learn — people you would normally

walk by on the street without a second glance. When it comes to communicating

with others on the Web, connection seekers are not in surf mode. They

are curious and interested in seeing who and what is out there. They

have a goal in mind, but they are open, searching, and willing to

take their time.

Connection seekers are people who to to a designforcommunity.com to

read and respond to ongoing discussion topics; they are potential

volunteers searching VolunteerMatch.org for a place to lend a hand;

they are Red Sox fans looking to connect with others via the weblog,

Bambinoscurse.com They might be parents of children with learning

problems looking for support at Schwablearning.com, or they may be

lonely people making an effort to meet others for fun and frolic on

Nerve.com’s personals site.

Transactors. If ever there were task-driven users, it’s

those who have embraced the Web as a way to take care of business.

These users have taken activities such as paying bills, trading stocks,

buying gifts, and checking cell phone usage online, because it is

more convenient and efficient.

Transactors appreciate a clean, uncluttered design that guides them

exactly where they need to go in order to accomplish their goals.

Keeping clicks to a minimum, eliminating unnecessary options, and

using clear language all help to make the user’s experience pleasant

and frustration-free.

Busines browsers. When it comes to business-to-business

design, some might say, "What design?" Often it’s true that

the focus is more on the functional rather than the aesthetic. Most

business-to-business sites are developed as tools for improving processes,

productivity, and profitability, often at the expense of design. This

is partially due to a fundamental difference between business users

and consumers: to business users, utility is more important than appearance.

Business Web users are savvier than ever and tend to ignore gratuitous

eye candy or superfluous bells and whistles. The sites that work best

for them support handoffs among the multiple people involved in researching,

recommending, deciding, approving, paying, and receiving the product.

Websites that work for business browsers are clean, well-organized,

and focused primarily on delivering information to a customer with

the fewest number of keystrokes or clicks. Whether it’s a personal

need or a business need they’re seeking to satisfy, business users

are usually on a mission to get something done, and business-to-business

websites must enable users to perform their jobs more efficiently.

<B>Fun seekers. Those looking for fun online browse

in the same relatively passive way they watch television: they’re

channel surfing, looking for something new and interesting. Sometimes

they have a subject in mind, a particular singer they want to hear

or a game they want to play, so it’s important to keep links contextual

in order to keep these users around for hours.

Ironically, someone seeking entertainment rather than specific information

is likely to be more critical of content quality. Users may tolerate

sloppy editorial material and low-quality images when their primary

purpose is to transact business; but when a pleasant, fun experience

is what they are after, the site had better deliver. On the other

hand, because fun seekers expect entertainment destinations such as

online games, movie sites, and e-zines to have more graphics and interactive

features, users tend to be more forgiving about lengthy download times

when they’re in fun-seeking mode than when they’re working.

Benun gives in-depth, richly illustrated examples of the results

of website makeovers in categories which appeal to each type of Internet

user. Among the learner websites she dissects is the Wall Street Journal

Online, and another local company, Berlitz, shows up in the Business

Browers section.

Most of the websites given as examples are quite high-profile; they

include Consumer Reports, H & R Block, Volunteermatch, and Smith &

Hawken. Nevertheless, the lessons apply to websites of all sizes.

Any business owner with a website would do well to spend some time

with this book. Fun seekers will like it too. It is easily as enjoyable

as a coffee break spin around the ‘Net. This a book which laces its

no-nonsense advice with lots of eye candy.


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