Recently, I listened to a TED Radio Hour that highlighted some unique design decisions. These decisions had a common theme, despite being vastly different in context; yet one particular example stood out and represented some of the concepts I encourage for clients wanting to redesign their website, especially municipalities.
A QUICK HISTORY ON ELEVATORS
The example I'm referring to centers around a particular New York skyscraper built in the early 1900's. Users of the new elevators installed in the building loved the concept of riding in a well kept cable-car to whichever floor they needed to reach, but quickly the allure faded and many began to complain of the long travel time - especially those on higher floors.
In response to the rising complaints, a team of engineers and architects was assembled to develop a solution for the long travel times. Leading the way were two main ideas: add an additional elevator to reduce wait times for returning elevator cars, or reengineer and construct a new elevator system that would be quicker than the previous model. Both ideas were to cost a significant amount of money and time, and, furthermore, would have forced the building owners to lose all immediate profit. However, an individual who was new to the organization - and a previous student of psychology - chimed in and suggested putting something in the elevator that would distract users from focusing on time alone. The compromise was mirrors.
After installing the mirrors - complaints disappeared, and the fix cost a fraction compared to the other ideas. The solution team and building owners found that riders were preoccupied with looking at themselves and others in the mirrors, to such a degree that all tenants in the skyscraper thought the elevators had been sped up. So what does this have to do with web design?
DESIGNING AN ELEVATOR
Much like the elevator predicament, when we go to do a website redesign often the solution is to start completely over or give every aspect of the current site a steroid shot. We spend an infinite amount of time and effort to plus up or supersize when in fact there is a subtle change or set of changes that will meet the aim of our website (and the elevator) - make time irrelevant and get visitors from points A to B.
For municipalities or state agencies, this can be a wonderful thing - especially if your visitors and constituents can become more informed or aware about special initiatives, events, or news by infusing the design with "mirrors". For this discussion, mirrors are design elements and ways of displaying content that moves visitors or 'regulars' to other parts of your website. Also, these mirrors inhibit eye gazing towards content (important to your organization) while getting to the content they came for.
People do not like to waste time, especially when visiting a government website. However, when they waste time of their own free will and find the information gained to be valuable, then the opposite is true. We, as web designers, have a unique opportunity to reach audiences in a way that is not obnoxious but naturally encourages exploring. This is not to be confused with "smoke and mirrors" or distraction for distractions sake. It does no good to flood your design with features or web parts, while slowing down visitors and making navigation more difficult. Remember: you want to make time irrelevant and attract visitors to other content. Some cool byproducts of this kind of design:
- Visitors come back and become 'regulars'
- Visitors interact with other information streams, such as social media
- Visitors spend more time on your website
So now that I've belabored the point - let's get to the practical ways a county, city, or state agency website can increase visitor satisfaction and increase awareness.
- Get rid of the clutter and simplify your navigation:
- Quick links, hot links, or the like do not belong on your page, even if it's on the bottom or in the footer. Most people should be able to use your intuitive navigation at the top of your page (or wherever you orient it).
- Check for redundancy in placement of content. The latest push in web design is a scrolling page view that makes the browser view nearly identical to the mobile view. As a result, many times we see organizations with a search bar in the 'header' zone, and then further down the page another search area is embedded. If you have an issue with people knowing where your first search bar is at - you have bigger problems.
- Your landing page does not have to host the feed for all of your social media. Sure, you want visitors to know that others are talking about you on twitter, but if they want to read your entire feed - then they can go to Twitter because that's what Twitter is for. As stated before, you want to install mirrors - not flat screen TVs and a manicure station.
- Why do you have a scrolling banner or rotating background if it conveys no meaning? Microsoft has begun using a design feature for the Windows 10 lock screen that I believe highlights ways a mere background can entice exploring and liven up what was just a log in screen (another place where no one wants to spend too much time).
- Rather than letting the real estate go to waste, let the user interact with the media in subtle ways by having clickable areas or hover over content that doesn't necessarily get in the way.
- Try using images that parallel with recently uploaded content on Twitter and send visitors to your social media feeds via click through options.
There you have it. Your website doesn't have to solely be a mode of transportation to get visitors to the information they need. Once your creative team can start designing with this mindset, you and your visitors can enjoy the ride one floor at a time. Will Ferrell dressed as an elf sums it up best.