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Robert D Feinman

Web Site Design - Salad Bar or Full Menu?


The rise in importance of web search engines has changed the way most users find a web site. In many cases a search will lead a viewer to a page deep within the site. The context of the page and the plan for how to navigate the site is bypassed.

So the idea of how to design a web site has to be reconsidered. For someone coming in through the “front door”, a traditional design is expected. There is an introduction, and then various links to more detailed sections. This is the online analog of a magazine with an opening page and a table of contents.

But, a visitor via a web search can start anywhere. What should be done in this case to guide them to a more complete experience? Is it sufficient that they extract a single item and then leave? Are we providing a salad bar meal or a sit down feast from a menu?

In my case I designed a site that was predicated on viewers finding an area of interest and browsing through a section. The design is hierarchical with very few steps from the top level down to the most detailed, thus minimizing the number of pages that need to be traversed.

Viewing the statistics on the site, however, I find that only about 10% of viewers take this approach. The vast majority of the rest do a search for a place name or other real-world qualifier in a picture index and are immediately taken to a single image. There is very little follow up navigation, even though there are navigational links on every page. So the primary intent seems to be to obtain visual information about a specific place or object. Thus, searches on “New York City” or “leaves” are common, for example. So rather than the visit being an aesthetic experience it is more like a news gathering one.

Images that don't lend themselves to tangible descriptions are hardly ever found. If an image of a sunset is described as “The day is done” rather than “Sunset over the Hudson River” it won't be visited much. Similarly automatically running slide shows are more likely to be accessed by a specific image frame within the set, thus bypassing the parent frames which give the context to the slide show and allow for further navigation. Abstract images and concepts are thus suppressed compared to the factual and quantifiable.

Is it possible to create a complete visiting experience for a web site and still be more than a snapshot repository for most viewers? It would seem that this is becoming the norm for many such activities. The purchase of a music record with a succession of songs laid out by the creator has been replaced by a vast catalog of everything, with the listener creating his own context. What happens to the creation where the artist was trying to make a larger statement by having one piece lead into another? It would seem that the only place narrative control still exists is in theatrical movie releases and some video games.

If you have any thoughts on this topic, please email me at the address below. I will extract the most interesting and add them to this discussion.




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© 2004 Robert D Feinman