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A new Web vision

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‚Best practice‚ in web design has resulted in ‚standard practice‚ and fading attention spans. Now make way for ‚best experience‚ , writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Ever wonder why every second web site you visit looks the same? You’d think that, after almost two decades of the building of the Web, designers of sites would have become so skilled, savvy and creative, no two sites would look the same.

Ironically, you can lay the blame on the quest for the ideal website. In the business world, that is referred to as best practice.

The past five years have seen a major shift in the design and quality of websites. Especially in the media environment, the understanding of best practice has evolved in clicks and bounds. The result is that most media sites are slick and user-friendly. But also that most media sites tend to have the same general structure.

The unforeseen consequence of a general embrace of best practice in online design is that it has also evolved into ‚standard practice‚ . This results in a rash of ‚me-too‚ sites, followed inevitably by shorter attention spans among site visitors. It comes as no surprise then ‚ except to the site owners ‚ when a site redesign is followed by a drop in time spent on the site.

A lack of a coordinated strategy in most companies means that it is difficult to refine these sites unless a complete redesign is commissioned.

In the process of benchmarking and auditing South African web sites for more than a decade, my company has often found the design process to be a wrestling match between marketing teams and IT administrators. Each believes they should have the final word. And, because best practice is now so well-established and accessible, each believes they can do it by themselves.

The truth is, they need each other. But even more important, they need the user as part of the process. Some have misunderstood this requirement to mean focus groups and ‚crowd-sourced‚ recommendations. This seldom works, as focus groups cannot tell you what they don’t know. They cannot tell you why they experience a site in a certain way, and certainly cannot advise you on potential strategies of which they are not even aware.

This needs a combination of best practice – i.e. expert knowledge and skills ‚ and of what one can call ‚best experience‚ . By putting yourself in a users head, and seeing a site as a user sees it, you get to understand precisely what is being experienced. It is taking a subjective experience and giving it an objective interpretation. This is the exact opposite of the focus group approach, which allows the user to give a subjective interpretation of a subjective experience.

How do you put yourself in a user’s head?

Enter the eye-tracker.

A new generation of tools measures precisely how users experience websites or mobile apps by tracking the movement of their eyes. With appropriate software tools providing a dashboard of this experience, along with expert analysis, it is possible to show why and where a site isn’t working, and how and where it should be fine-tuned.

The Webagility Vision system designed by World Wide Worx is just one example of this kind of approach. It is a suite of analysis tools that reveals all areas where users’ eyes focus and fixate. These tools provide a visual representation of what is seen and what is ‚invisible‚ , ranks the strength of focus on distinct site elements, and establishes the overall sequence in which visitors explore a page. It includes video animation of this sequence and of eye-movement on screen.

Based on the resultant analysis, sites or apps can be optimised on the basis of both best practice and best experience. Not only is it in-depth, but also effective for both websites and apps.

It can, for example, measure the effectiveness of a Facebook or Twitter presence at the moment of exposure to a visitor, compare it to that of competitors, and then provide a roadmap for enhancing it.

It’s not the only tool of its kind, but it underlines the power of the options that have become available even as differentiation of websites becomes a greater challenge.

* Arthur Goldstuck is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter at @art2gee

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