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Common Sense and Plain Language Take Your Visitors Where They Want to Go


Common Sense and Plain Language Take Your Visitors Where They Want to Go

Sep 09, 2011By Michael Stoner

Have you ever shopped the websites of an online clothing store like The Gap, Lands End, Boden, or Bluefly? These sites have certain things in common: they sell clothing for men, women, maybe kids; they may have a specialty or two like shoes or fragrances; and they have sales, new items, and other specials they want to highlight.

Each strives to differentiate itself from competitors. But if you glance at their websites, you’ll notice that terms like “Women,” “Men,” “Shoes,” “New Arrivals,” “Sale” appear on these (in fact, most) retail shopping websites as key labels in the primary navigation.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. These sites are designed to move product and are organized so shoppers can find what they already want and spot other items they may find appealing.

When shoppers arrive at a site like Bluefly, they’re often interested in a certain item—a woman in search of the perfect black dress. Bluefly’s home is intuitive: click “Men” and you find men’s clothing. The choices are intuitive so that visitors can move on to exploring—and maybe purchasing.

It’s also pretty easy to see that websites that sell clothing would be at a huge disadvantage if they organized themselves differently. Why would someone who had just shopped Bluefly or The Gap spend any time on a site where shirts, slacks, and jackets are grouped together, with women’s and men’s clothing thrown into one long list? Shopping a site like this would be incredibly frustrating and visitors would leave, clicking to another site that made shopping for a man’s shirt easy.

In fact, you could argue that because shopping sites all have a similar organization, marketers can focus on differentiating these brands by other attributes. Bluefly—designer clothes at discount. Nordstrom—great service & well-curated selection, plus real stores.

Labels and the .edu website

Given the fact that this makes so much intuitive sense, you’d think that colleges and universities would understand that they don’t need to reinvent the information architecture (IA) and labels on their websites. As Chas Grundy pointed out, people who focus on solving similar problems often develop similar solutions. Embracing standards should allow institutions to focus on other challenges, like communicating the attributes that make them stand out.

And in fact, most colleges and universities do use a fairly standard set of labels for the primary navigation on their websites:

About / Academics / Admission / Athletics / News & Events / Research / Student Life 

Some institutions may add an additional label or two depending on the need to highlight some significant area of specialty. But notice that all these words are fairly understandable, both to insiders (faculty, students, staff) and to even the most naive visitors.

It’s not a huge stretch to realize that “Academics” relates to classroom activity, courses, and majors. And most people understand that information about enrolling and applying can be found under “Admission.”

This isn’t just common sense: usability testing supports the approach Ive described. Even teens understand these terms. Why is this important? Because when Noel-Levitz asked teens Noel-Levitz E‑Expectations 2011, “academic programs” and “enrollment and admissions information” topped the list, by far.

So imagine this: a prospective student visits ten university websites. On nine of them, she can research majors by clicking on the “Academics” label. At the tenth, some “creative” site designer decided to relabel “Academics” as “Learn.” Now, our teen visitor has to figure out whether she can Learn about majors by clicking on that tab, or if shell Learn about student life, residence halls, or how to apply instead.

A bit confusing, right? May I remind you of the wisdom of the Don’t Make Me Think mantra, which underscores the fact that the more people have to consider their choices on a website, the less happy they are with it.

Noel-Levitz found that “One in five students said they removed a school from consideration because of a bad experience on an institutions Web site.” You don’t want your institution to be the one rejected because of decisions to institute a nonstandard IA, do you? Yet just this week, I saw a newly launched, redesigned website that not only used nonstandard labels for its primary IA, but saw the need to double-label everything. That approach is neither smart nor innovative.

Of course it’s important to think about every aspect of your website. It shouldn’t be a static entity: it must evolve to accommodate changing visitor needs and institutional realities.

And you should even evaluate your information architecture. But be wary of changing it just to be different or because a design partner thinks it would be “creative” to do so. Changes should be informed by data and guided by usability testing, including tests against peer institution websites. Before making changes, be sure that your choices are enhancing the experience of visitors to your site, not confusing them or, worse, turning them off and sending them directly to another institution.

  • Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?