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by Gerry McGovern
Author, New Thinking

Current web design is framed by the central concern of saving time. The online reader belongs to the time-starved generation and any design which wastes their time risks losing them.

When designing a website we face a key trade-off. Do we puts lots of links on the page so that the reader can get to their chosen area on the website with the minimum number of clicks? Or do we place a small number of links on the page which direct the reader to the key sections within the website? The problem with the lots of links approach is that the reader will get confused by the abundance of choice. The problem with the key links approach is that they will get frustrated by having to click several times to get to the information they require. faces this challenge perhaps more than any other website. As it adds more and more new businesses it risks turning its homepage into a jungle of links where the reader gets lost before they get started. Recently, Troy Wolverton of reported that, "Amazon is quietly testing a new look for its Web site, keeping its familiar store tabs but limiting the number that appear on any one page.

Currently Amazon has 15 store tabs. The new look has three permanent tabs and five rotating tabs. The permanent tabs include a link to the homepage and a link to a list of all Amazon stores. The rotating tabs, which would change on a periodic basis, would link to five "featured" stores. "As we expand our offerings, we want to make it even simpler for you to get what you want from our growing list of stores, while maintaining the elegance and usefulness of the tabs themselves," Amazon said in a note to customers.

If you look at other high-traffic websites such as Yahoo, CNN and America Online, it's clear that the designers have decided that clutter is better than clicking. Yahoo, in particular, is a mass of choice. The CNN homepage is one of the longest I've ever come across.

The traditional theory of web and hypertext design would say that these websites have got it all wrong. This theory says that you should give a reader no more than five to seven links to choose from, and that they should not have to scroll down. But the reality is that the most successful websites almost universally break these rules.

It may be that the online reader is developing new skills. In an ideal world we might prefer a set of elegant but limited choices. However, in our online reality we are learning to scan through many choices to find the one we want. This 'scanning' skill was found to be very much in evidence in a recent major study by the Poynter Institute, which after tracking a group of online readers over a four-year period found that they had developed distinct habits of scan-reading.

Web design is still virgin territory. The web is changing the very way we read and navigate for information. However, one principle is clear: great web design tests, tests and tests again. Amazon frequently tries out new designs on a limited number of people, waiting for feedback to see what is working and what isn't. "We'd love to hear your comments and suggestions about our plans for the redesign of our navigation," the Amazon note to its customers stated.

Web rules will come and go, but one rule will remain:

Waste a customer's time and you'll lose them.

Gerry McGovern, New Thinking. All rights reserved.

Gerry McGovern is the author of New Thinking, a weekly column which has received numerous accolades and a book, THE CARING ECONOMY

The Caring Economy
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The Caring Economy, by Gerry McGovern, is published by Blackhall Publishing of 26 Eustace Street, Dublin 2, Ireland. ISBN 1-901657-61-2 Price _27.50 or US$35.95
Email: [email protected]

It is also available in the United States from Irish Books & Media, 1433 East Franklin Avenue, MN, USA 55404-2135. Call toll-free: 1-800-229-3505.

Email Gerry McGovern at [email protected]
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