Strategic Web Usability

Optimizing Midstream Usability

Last week, I talked about the importance of understanding the Google Threshold, the imaginary line between search and your website. As more and more visitors land on sites directly from search, many of those visitors are landing on "deep" pages. As I argued previously, this is a good thing, but it raises some interesting challenges for usability. How do you best serve users who hit your site "midstream"? Optimizing for midstream usability means telling people where they are, how they got there, and where else they can go.

1. Tell People Where They Are

When a visitor lands on a deep page in your site from a search engine, you've got a few seconds at most to communicate why they should stay. You have to hit them quickly with some signposts. The first stop is an obvious and specific page title or header. If you have an e-commerce site, this is probably the specific name of either a category, sub-category or product. For example, "Digital Cameras Under $500" or "Voltron 5000 Digital Camera".

If the page represents something concrete, such as a product, hotel room, or real estates, a picture is, as always, worth a thousand words. Nothing tells a visitor more quickly that they're in the right place than a picture of what they're looking for. Of course, both the header and photo should be near the top of the page, or at least well above the fold.

2. Tell People How They Got There

We talk a lot in usability about navigational or "bread-crumb" links. Bread-crumb links are a way of telling visitors how they got where they are and allowing them to easily retrace their steps. In a generic sense, they might look something like this:

Home > Search Results > Product Info

Normally, we think of this as a structured way to let users backtrack their actions. Why should this only apply to visitors who actually visited the home-page, though? Consider a slightly different structure:

Home > Cameras > Digital Cameras > Voltron 5000

In this hierarchical structure, there's no reason that a visitor who never followed the path can't still see the path. This gives that visitor options and lets them easily consider alternatives, without jumping back to Google. It also rewards them for the time and effort they put in before the Google threshold, treating them the same as a home-page visitor who traveled a similar path.

3. Tell People Where They Can Go

Ok, that didn't come out quite the way I meant it. You need to, in a nice way, tell people what their options are. Of course, this means having good site-wide navigation. It's important, though, that you think about your navigation as a stand-alone tool, something that can function from anywhere on your site. Too often, we view navigation in the context of the home page, which often contains explanatory text or complementary content (such as internal search). Try to look at your navigation from a deep-page viewpoint, as someone who has never seen your home page. Does it still make sense?

Consider other relevant navigators as well. In addition to the bread-crumb links mentioned above, there are many common and useful practices for e-commerce sites, such as links to related products or links to other products in the same category as what's being viewed.

Achieving Midstream Usability

Fortunately, many of these steps can be achieved incrementally. It's not too hard to beef up page headers (making them more specific and noticeable), fine-tune your navigation, or test some basic bread-crumb links. The key is to recognize that a visitor who lands on a deep page has already done some of your work for you. Reward them for their efforts, telling them where they are and what they can do there, and you'll achieve midstream usability and convert more motivated visitors into buyers.

Joshua Ledwell

 · Wednesday, October 17
Nice post Dr. Pete. One of the problems I have had working on websites is that designers and stakeholders don't value large, clear page titles. After all *internal folks* know what page they're on in the site!

I've been relatively successful using the deep link concept to help convey the importance of prominent titles.

Mike Maddaloni

 · Thursday, October 18
Hi Pete - Excellent point! Many times interior pages do not reinforce the branding of the site or allow a user to get any idea about the owner of the Web site. Sidebar content can reinforce it, and the challenge is to write it so that it does not annoy users who actually navigated to that Web page from the home page.

mp/m

Dr. Pete

 · Thursday, October 18
Thanks, Joshua. You raise a good point; it's too easy for insiders to take the "obvious" for granted. I have a client whose site I've worked on for 8 years now, and, honestly, I even need to get an outside perspective once in a while.

Mike, you raise a good add-on about branding. In addition to "where", there's definitely a "who" aspect of midstream usability. People need to be able to easily ascertain a site's identity from anywhere.

Peter

 · Friday, October 19
Good point. Using breadcrumbs is a powerful and easy way to tell your users where they are within your site (especially when you enter from a search engine) but sadly it does not always get used.

ChrisJB

 · Thursday, November 1
A lot of blogs use the 'About the author' paragraph; usually at the top of the sidebar. I'm in two minds about the real estate usage of this element. I personally use it on most blogs for the exact reasons you have highlighted above --where am I? What is this place? etc. The only page I think it perhaps shouldn't be used on/is not needed on is the homepage -- that is, if you have an intoduction to your blog on the home page, rather than just going straight in with the latest posts. In fact on reflection I think the 'About the Author' element is almost always beneficial in terms of usability -- although I think it should not stand out particularly (at least not to a destracting level), despite being placed fairly predominantly on the page. Have you considered this usage on usereffect? I must admit I looked for it the first time I came here, to no avail.

Dr. Pete

 · Thursday, November 1
Chris, I actually had the bio blurb on the site prior to the redesign and then decided to simplify the structure and move that off to the "About" page. To be totally honest, I'm wondering if I went a bit too far in that regard. I'm reconsidering the use of a picture/bio, which will probably mean a bit of redesign.

I just hate cramming everything on the "home" page, but since people who come to a blog often only see 1-2 pages, the design/usability constraints are a bit different.

ChrisJB

 · Wednesday, November 7
I also hate the cram factor on the home page. I'm trying to find a WordPress plugin that allows you to write unique descriptions for individual categories/pages of my WordPress blogs. That would pretty much solve this problem for us as we could choose no bio on the home page/about page for example and add short unique intros/descriptions to each of the category pages, which would help first time deep landers.

You can actually do this manually by creating several sidebar.php files but i'd rather use a widget -- don't spose you know of any? It's often so hard to find good WP plugins, despite there being loads out there. I think I'm gonna make a directory. A better one than the WP.org one, with my own decriptions.

ChrisJB

 · Wednesday, November 7
P.S, sorry for my week long response time, co.omments.com has been down. Don't know if you noticed?

Dr. Pete

 · Wednesday, November 7
Chris, my blog engine is completely home-brewed at this point (which is both good and bad), so I'm afraid I'm not very up on WordPress. I have been impressed with what I've seen others do with it.

Generally, I think you can add a photo/bio without cluttering things up too much. I find where things get out of hands on the average blog are: (1) excessively long blogrolls or category links, and (2) widgets.

ChrisJB

 · Thursday, November 8
When non-designers use widgets they tend to use them in such an ugly way that their websites generally offend my vision to such an extent that I usually must leave as soon as possible.

But I'm not talking about things like BlogRush widegts (or whatever that thing is called), more the unnoticeable ones that improve the functionality/useability of the blog.

However if you are able to customize them nicely they can be arranged seemlessly to compliment your websites layout.

Those people with huge category lists need to make use of two things:

nested lists with display: none's on sub categories (with drop-out child li's that display on hover or active)
and/or
tags.

Some people do go crazy with the categories -- what they're probably doing without realizing is tagging (or trying to). The latest WordPress comes with tags functionality as standard.

Could do with a blog post on this one really. We've started a new sub topic on your original post. I'll whap it in my To Do list, but you can post it if you're interested -- I won't get around to it for a while. Let me know if you do.

Dr. Pete

 · Thursday, November 8
Strangely enough, I have an entry in the potential blog-post pipe called "Mind Your Widgets". I think a post on category organization and taxonomy would be fascinating, though, and I'm too lazy to do both :)

One of the problems with folksonomies is that, as theoretically user-friendly as tagging can be, it has a way of spinning out of control.

ChrisJB

 · Friday, November 9
True, well if I get round to it I'll send you a link. I'm in the middle of the millionth redesign at the moment though so it'll be a while.
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