<TFM> 1.05 Surfing on Vacation

Number 1.5
About TFM | Archives | Number 1.5 (originally published May 2001)

Surfing On Vacation

This column was supposed to be a mini-rant about hyperbole and misinformation in Web marketing copy, which was the direct result of my experience with signing up for Web service on my Qwest cellphone. But two things transpired to change that.

First, before I could show the shameless copy Qwest marketers were using to suggest that their basic service allowed you to visit “all your favorite sites” (which to me means ‘the entire Net’), someone wised up and fixed the copy. No sense beating a dead horse.

Second, I went on vacation. So I’m on dial-up. I had little patience before DSL (two plus years, 384 each way), and even less today at 28.8K. (Even though this Powerbook has a built-in 56K modem, some Mindspring-Earthlink numbers, in rural areas, are pretty darn slow.) So guess what? A quick visit to Navigator preferences turns off auto-load of images.

The Image-Heavy Home Page
Thus, I’ll fuss about the Qwest site from a different perspective: its graphics-heavy home page that is not amenable to navigation with images turned off.

Some of the images have ALT tags, so theoretically, this site should be navigable. But it’s not. When I mouse-over those left-hand images, the pointer does not turn to a hand. A quick code-check reveals that they are mouseover images — it seems images off affects their ability to work as text links with Navigator 4.76, Macintosh.

Least you think that Qwest is alone in its design, let me direct your attention to other telephone company sites:

Qwest - images off
att - images off
verizon - images off
Sprint - images off

AT&T adds insult to injury by not using font faces/sizes that are readable on a Macintosh! Verizon is slightly more usable than Qwest or AT&T, but the designers mix underlined-but-black hyperlinks with non-underlined-but-red ones. And the most visiable links on the page are to news articles, not to Verizon services and phones!

Sprint has text links in its left-hand navigation bar, making it the most easily used with images off, suggesting the company has a deeper customer-focus within its culture than its competitors. Voice Stream caused Navigator to freeze three times — so it’s not included in the analysis.

Commerce Sites Lead the Way
Say what you might about commerce sites (Amazon.Com in particular) having “boring” design. The fact is that sites that sell seem to have learned that making it easy for visitors to find “stuff” is a good thing.

When did you last hear a “designer” complain about Land’s End catalog or some other mail order mailer — holding it up to a design standard more appropriate for billboards or annual reports or an employee newsletter?

It’s long past time to acknowledge that site functionality — as defined by user tasks — must take priority when designing a web site. And maybe – just Maybe – as Coca-Cola and Land O’ Lakes have discovered, a company needs more than one “web site.” [Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting that they have both “done it right” — only that they have recognized that they have distinctly different audience (user) groups and one-size-does-not-fit-all.]

Here are some examples of commerce sites that are navigable with images off. They are not equally navigable — but each one is heads-and-shoulders above the phone company sites referenced above.

amazon - images off
powells - images off
Powell’s Books
outpost - images off
borders - images off

One reason these sites are easily navigated with images on or off is that they make extensive use of text links. This design decision has been validated by usability testing and eye-tracker testing that suggest site visitors can easily “see” underlined-colored-hypertext more quickly than an image-link.

This phenomena should not be earthshattering. Basic user interface principles emphasize the need for visibility and predictability — well-coded hypertext links fit these principals like a glove. Cascading Style Sheet support by browsers could move us to an era where “buttons” are easily replaced by styled text.

Bottom Line
Designers, please, just look at your web site with images off! If that’s not enough to cause you to run back to the drawing board, nothing will.

Recognize that there are millions of Americans who live in rural areas — and rural areas are notorious for lagging in technology infrastructure. These potential customers will not have broadband until wireless broadband is affordable — the population density will not support cable TV, much less cable modems. This can easily be extended to millions of others around the world who have infrastructure that lags metropolitan-U.S.

If the home page is not easily navigable with images off, then add a text-only link. If the site changes often and maintenance is an issue, then make this link tie to your site map — and then create an in-depth, text-oriented site map. Your visitors will thank you. And if they are potential customers, now they will be able to actually buy your products.

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