My bachelor studies started out with a phrase that all Communication students had to know:
“The medium is the message.”
If you look up the Wikipedia entry for that, you’ll get this very philosophical, full of jargon write up that I don’t even want to try to decipher. But I will just explain it (inadequately) with this example:
While getting my degree in Communication, we learned early on that all things can communicate. A bridge can communicate by connecting two people so they can have a conversation. And if that bridge is too short for a bus to pass underneath it, it is saying that if you can’t afford a car, we don’t want you in this part of town (this really happened).
My goal is not to try to explain the philosophy of McLuhan to you. My goal is to explain that with Internet marketing and with developing good Websites, we all need to understand that the medium is the message.
First, how we turned into idiots:
When mankind had print and not the telegraph or radio, we communicated in words alone. If we wanted our message to get further, we put ink on paper. Eventually we learned how to help people read faster in newspapers by using certain typography and laying out our pages in shorter columns.
When we had the telegraph but did not yet have radio, there came a new mode of communicating effectively using that medium. It was in Morse code (well…for one period of it).
But when we had the radio, it would have been silly for us to keep using Morse code. Can you imagine listening to a DJ announcer tell you what song he’s about to play with a bunch of beeps? Sillyness right? We learned to communicate with this new medium in a way that would be easy for people to get our messages.
Then we got television. It would have been such a waste if we all had TVs in our living rooms and all they did was talk to us just like a radio could. No, now we had the ability to transmit pictures.
To this point, we learned that the medium of newspapers or the telegraph couldn’t be transferred to radio, and likewise the medium of the radio could not be transferred to the television. Each medium had its own message, and its own way of communicating to make sure an audience would decipher the message.
But when we got the Internet, that’s when we learned just how little we knew about communicating. We forgot that the medium is the message.
So we had these Websites with Flash intros….oooooh, look at my flashy screen playing music and a bunch of stuff you couldn’t care less about.
And remember how our Internet connections were so slow back then there would be these moments of frozenness where we would just stare at this blank page wondering if something was going to happen?
People saw a screen on computers and must have thought, “oh, it’s like a TV….”
Uh…I don’t think so!
(I don’t even want to talk about Flash intros to Websites because they make me cringe and are the bane of my existence as an Internet marketer. I hate them, they’re useless, and I’m willing to bet there is not a single Web user who actually sits through an entire Flash intro, without needing to check data or metrics.
Same goes for Websites that automatically play music or videos. Blow them to smithereens if you can.)
Now that Flash intros are generally over, the really sad thing is that nowadays, people treat their Websites like pieces of paper. They want to display all their magnificent designs on their Website to the point that their users are so distracted by the graphics and the number of clicks they need to get somewhere, the whole point of having a Website is completely lost.
We must learn that the Internet is a new medium, and that medium requires a new message, a new way of communicating.
Let me tell a story, since stories help us learn, and we all like stories.
As a journalism student I had to learn to disregard everything I thought I knew about writing well. No more adjectives – there’s no space or time for them. “Why ‘purchase’ when you can ‘buy?’” our instructor would say. If we used a sentence and our teacher found a way to say the same thing in a shorter way, we were docked marks. No assignment could be longer than 500 words. It took longer to write shorter than it would have to just say what we wanted to say. This was learning how to communicate for the medium of newspapers.
When taking radio class, I had to write scripts for radio that were nothing like any writing I had done before, even in journalism school. One thought per sentence. Use descriptive words. Don’t walk when you can stroll down the sidewalk. Let sound describe the story.
The method of writing for newspapers and writing for the radio seemed contradictory, but they were both journalism. The difference was the medium.
So, my point: Good Websites are for getting information quickly
Remember when Google became famous, and we all marveled at its success? And some clever people would note that one of the most successful sites on the Internet (if not THE most successful site on the Internet), has virtually no design to it?
That should tell you something.
The thing that makes this search engine so successful is, yes that it has a but-kicking algorithm to deliver accurate results based on search queries. Ok. But the other thing is that it helps users get to the information they want quickly. Should I repeat the word “quickly?” Ok I will: quickly.
We are not concerned with how the search engine looks, we don’t even care. We just want the information we came to look for. We don’t need a slideshow with music playing in the background to tell us we’ve come to an amazing search engine. We don’t need a bunch of graphics and pop ups to demonstrate that great engineers work at Google and discovered a happy place in Adobe Fireworks.
We just want our information.
So why can’t all Websites be like that? They can be, but our generation is too stubborn to give in to the fact that people don’t care about your fancy graphics, pop ups, and (shudder) music and slideshows.
Your users want to get to your information, and they want it fast.
Let me be more specific about what makes a bad Website:
- If every page of your site has a huge photo at the top of it, forcing users to scroll to get to the content they are trying to find, that’s not good. You may find this article fascinating: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/eyetracking-study-of-web-readers/ – especially pay attention to this part:
“Text Attracts Attention Before Graphics
Of users’ first three eye-fixations on a page, only 22% were on graphics; 78% were on text . In general, users were first drawn to headlines, article summaries, and captions. They often did not look at the images at all until the second or third visit to a page.”
- If your home page takes 30 seconds to load some kind of slideshow or video before I can view it or get to where I want to go, that’s not good.
- If I land on a page and don’t know what to do or why it exists, then that page should not be on your site. I need to be able to take action on something, and to know intuitively what that action will lead me to.
- If I’m in a quiet office and I visit your site and it starts singing or talking to me without my permission, I’ll get a scolding word from my boss and co-workers about it, which means I will never visit your site again, let alone buy your product.
- If anything on your site blinks or flashes while I’m trying to read, you are not worthy of being a Website owner.
- If I am looking for a product on your site, and I have to click through 5 buttons and drop downs and sub menus and links that say, “click here to read more” then you have a site architecture problem, seriously.
- If I want to download something on your site and you have three paragraphs telling me how to do that, you can bet I’m not going to read any of that, so you just wasted time and money paying someone to write it.
- If I click on a link that descriptively says I will be visiting a “guide” and then you give me a page with nothing but print advertising banners on it, you obviously need a dictionary.
- You know that link that says “Sitemap” at the bottom of your site? It’s over, give up on it, no one uses that.
- And please, if something is clickable, give it a hover state.
But I can’t go on forever. I’m not a usability expert (and I’d be more than happy to be taught, or corrected, by one), but I’ve read enough, heard enough, seen enough, and been annoyed enough to know what works, and what doesn’t on a Website.
“But Joyce, does this mean I shouldn’t use pretty graphic design for my Website?”
Absolutely you should use good design for good websites. But you need a designer and an Internet marketer or usability expert to help guide the process of your Web development. You need a good design to fit in with user experience, and in doing that, you may have to give up the bells and whistles of what you think looks nice or pretty. You need someone who knows what works and what doesn’t on the Web, what the latest trends are, and most of all, how to utilize the technologies of the Web to produce a good design. Just because your competitors are doing something old fashioned, doesn’t mean you should follow in their footsteps, even if they have more sales than you. Trust me, they have Website problems you aren’t aware of. I can’t tell you how often I see designs that were either not made by a real designer, or were made for print, not for the Web, only because a designer is not aware of what tools are available in the technology world to design a real Website.
A good design is a design that doesn’t interfere with a user’s experience on the Web. It is almost invisible. Just like good makeup on a woman’s face should only accentuate her features, not make her look like a clown. Most of all, it needs to make things as easy as possible for a user. If you read Steve Krug’s book, “Don’t Make Me Think,” you will learn how intuitive a site’s design should be.
So remember, a Website is not a piece of paper. Print designers especially need to learn this. A Website is not a TV (thankfully I think we’ve learned that as a society…or at least most of us have). A Website is part of the ‘information age,’ and it helps us get to information we want, quickly. Let’s treat it like its own medium.