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Commentary: Common sense for Web design

The dizzying new design of Macromedia's Web site has more fundamental problems than its incompatibility with Apple's Safari browser.

Commentary: Macromedia lacks common sense
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET
March 12, 2003, 6:30AM PT

By Harley Manning, Research Director

The new design of Macromedia's Web site has more fundamental problems than its incompatibility with Apple Computer's Safari browser.

Instead of devoting two-thirds of the site to a dizzying, animated ad, Macromedia should follow the examples of The New York Times, Lands' End and United Airlines. Their home pages use no-nonsense, multicolumn layouts that immediately dish up key content and function.

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Forrester believes that effective home pages should abide by three best practices:

• Favor content and function over decorative graphics or white space. Home pages for automotive companies notoriously feature page-guzzling images and white space, but this eye candy has zero return on investment. In a test by 550 visitors of eight sites for original equipment vendors in the automotive industry, Forrester found no statistically significant relationship between people's test-drive intentions and the answer to the question, "How appealing is the site's home page?"

• Optimize for scanning instead of reading. People on a mission to find this weekend's movies or parts for their car quickly decide whether to slog through a poorly formatted page or seek more accessible sources. To satisfy these Web surfers, designers must adopt the "inverted pyramid" writing style that exposes conclusions first and then follows with supporting facts. Bulleted lists, meaningful subheads and short sentences also make pages easier to scan.

• Maintain high data-to-ink ratios. Stylized icons that need a key for deciphering and USA Today-style bar graphs built from stacked coins waste precious real estate--and Web surfers' time. As with text, the Web demands meaningful graphics for people to scan, not digest.

Tight, usable layouts improve a visitor's experience. How? They pack more content, function and navigation onto a page, cutting levels out of the site and saving steps for site visitors. That's important because sites that require more than two clicks to get to content double the risk of losing people. Dense, multicolumn layouts like United Airlines' solve this problem by fitting links to key content and function within a compact space while maintaining legibility.

Utilitarian home pages also improve people's opinion of site performance. Web surfers who accomplish their goals perceive a site to be faster--even if its page load times are actually slower--than competing sites that don't allow a person to accomplish goals as easily.

By showing off the flashier features of Flash instead of using the technology to deliver value, Macromedia plays into the hand of its critics. At the same time, recent developments with the company's MX family of Web design tools are too useful to the design community to get sabotaged in this way. Macromedia should go back to the drawing board, kill the gratuitous animation and get product menus out of pop-ups and onto the home page.

A study by User Interface Engineering showed that sites displaying menu choices instead of burying them in pop-ups did a better job of getting people to the content they wanted. And on Forrester's own site, traffic to category pages doubled when we removed a menu from a drop-down and put it on the home page.

© 2003, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.