A common example: I often find an interesting blog post, and when I try to find more about the person that wrote it or the purpose of the blog, there is nothing. Nada. On blogs, I often get my hopes up when I see the "About" page, but too often I find the default message to the owner of the blog that no visitor should ever see (something like: "Write something about yourself/your blog on this page"). I really don't expect everyone to provide their full CV and contact information, but even if you decide to be anonymous, you can at least tell us what field you work in and what is the purpose of the blog.
Then another common example from Second Life. I won't even mention those places that are supposed to have a grand opening and can't be found anywhere on the map or under search. What I find even more disturbing is getting to a new place and receiving no clue of what the place is about and no help for getting easily from one part of the sim to the other (i.e. teleporters). Flying is fun in Second Life, but I don't always have the time or will to fly from one corner of the sim to the other to see there is nothing really interesting on the other side.
The immediate reaction to the lack of (good) directions is for me confusion, self-consciousness (thoughts like: are there really no directions here or is it my fault that I can't find them?), and the final result is usually leaving the confusing place without plans to return in the near future. This confusing place should of course never be your online course site, your virtual world presence, or even your personal or professional website.
So, what can we do to avoid users leaving our places, and how can we prepare good directions for our users (students, clients or friends)? Having really good directions is not an easy job I grant you, but I think there are some things we can do to get closer to that goal:
- The first step is of course recognizing that some directions are needed. In our enthusiasm of building something new we often forget that.
- Think like a newbie and like an average user of your content when preparing directions, and (if possible) test them on a random person that was not involved in the design process and is not a super geek. If your grandparents can understand your directions you're certainly on the right track!
- Make directions easy to read, help yourself with simple visual clues (a map, icons etc.). Keep it simple and try to include the basic information. First time users/visitors don't need to know all the details, but they should be able to get to those later when they need them.
- Make directions visible for first time visitor, but not disturbing to frequent visitors. Avoid using intrusive tools such as pop-up messages. The first time user might appreciate them, but only the first time. On the second visit he/she will start looking for the mute button, on the forth he/she will start looking for excuses for not visiting.
- Not all directions should look like they're there just because they have to be there. Add value: entertain your visitor, provide additional functions (i.e. teleporting in Second Life, a list of the most interesting posts etc.), make them feel welcome and appreciated.
- Be polite to all users, not just those that you want to have today or those that pay you. You never know when you'll need somebody, so try to make a good first impression on everyone.
- Provide personal support options. Even if you don't manage to give good directions, you can be saved by giving your users/visitors/students and easy way to contact you and get personal directions from you or your staff. It's the age of a user-centric web, on which we like the feeling we can all go talk to the boss if we want to.
- Listen to user feedback. And don't listen just to the users that talk to you. Sometimes you have to make the first step and ask the users for feedback.
On my blog, I try to provide good directions by having a "Who am I?" block right on the top of the blog sidebar, which has some basic info about me and a few links to my extended profiles if the visitors want to know more about me. Also, I decided to visualize my blog purpose with a simple moto (Click. Learn. Share.) and icons right below. I might also add some links to my most interesting posts in the future, but overall I hope I did a decent job in providing directions and different ways for navigation. If you think I'm missing something, please let me know :)
I certainly think that once in a while we should all stop to think about how new users feel when they first enter one of our places. And I think we can often find some little and sweet details to add that will make the visiting experience for first-timers and regulars alike that more pleasurable and memorable.
Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.