Welcome to iorg.com - business aligned web sites
HomePapersCase StudiesAbout iorg.com

The iorg.com Newsletter - March 2004

Defining a Basic Unit of Web Site Behavior

Several researchers have made the case for a proactive approach to web site design as opposed to relying strictly on reactive testing approaches. Rolf Molich, Founder of DialogDesign and author of the CUE studies; Alan Cooper and Robert Reimann - authors of About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design; and Doug Van Duyne, James Landry and Jason Hong - authors of Design of Sites -- have identified three elements among them as important:
  • A basic unit which Cooper calls 'principles' and Molich 'standards'

  • A collection of design solutions which Cooper and van Duyne call 'patterns' and Molich calls 'interface building blocks,'

  • Finally what Molich calls 'contextual inquiry.'
The least well described of these is the first, the basic unit. This newsletter offers a formal definition of that basic unit. A formal definition is required to provide a descriptive basis for research into the two higher-level elements of proactive design. It also has value on its own for creating and managing web sites. The basic unit here is called a Web Site Practice.

A Web Site Practice refers to a specifically defined, observable trait of a web site. A practice describes an element or convention employed on the web site that affects the visitors' perception of the web site in terms of:
  • Success
  • Trust
  • Likeability
To be useful the definition of practices requires a formal construction. Practice definitions have five requirements: credibility, structure, openness, specificity, and perspective.

Credibility is a requirement that normally would not apply to a purely descriptive element. Any element with common agreement could be included. However, web site practices have a context that is more specific than general description.  Web site practices affect visitor experience, and, as we shall discuss more fully in the requirement for perspective, practices carry an explicit recommendation in the way they are worded. Therefore, a practice needs supporting evidence that it does affect the visitor experience and whether that effect is positive or negative.

Initially this support comes from credible sources such as: professional and academic research, professional standards bodies, and case studies. Over time, they are molded by testing experience with the web site's audiences.  Practices need to be based on objective support rather than opinion.

Structure makes practices easier to scan, understand and use. The structure of a practice consists of two parts: a name and a set of specific attributes. The name should be descriptive and short, two to four words. For example, PAGE TITLES. The attributes under the name provide the detailed description of the practice and are listed individually. For example, the attributes for page titles include:
  • Does every page have a clearly identified title?

  • Is page title placement consistent throughout the site?

  • Is page title format consistent throughout the site?

  • Are page titles six words or less in length?

  • Do all page titles match their content?
Openness allows attributes to be added, deleted, or modified based on future experience. This means the structure does not pre-specify a set number of attributes for a practice, or for that matter a set number of practices for a practice category. If summary values are needed for comparative reasons, giving each attribute a value of one, and normalizing the result to ten at the practice level, will allow this comparison. Normalizing the data at the higher levels allows comparison of practice categories without using a subjective scoring system or creating an artificial requirement for an equal number of attributes for each practice.

Specificity in defining attributes is critical, since the attributes provide the definition of the practice. Two tests can help create attributes that are specific. The first is the: “What does it LOOK like?” test. Each attribute must be defined in a way that it can be seen in concrete form on the web site. The second is the: “Yes or No” test. Individuals looking at the attribute should be able to look at a web site and agree whether that attribute exists or not with a simple yes or no. It should not require an opinion, interpretation or graded response.

Perspective refers to the wording of the attribute. The perspective needs to be consistent for all the attributes in all the categories. The two important parameters of a practice perspective are whether the attributes will be in the form of a statement or of a question. The second is whether the answer will be positive or negative. To some extent the use of the practices determines the perspective. For example, if the practices are going to be used to evaluate a site against standard practices or as a checklist, a question format with the desired state being a positive response is the more natural model. If the practices are to be used to communicate standards to be followed by the organization, then an imperative statement format may be more appropriate, and inconsistency of the positive versus negative is less disruptive.

Practices complement the other proactive approaches in four ways:
  • They provide the detail to more accurately and compactly describe attributes of Web Site Patterns

  • They help identify productive targets for contextual inquiry

  • They provide the detail required to control for variables when testing specific visitor experience hypotheses

  • They provide a framework for capturing test results so they are not lost in future designs.

Practices can be used for a number of pragmatic purposes including:
  • Checklists
     For use in proactive design or in audits of existing sites
  • Design requirements
     To communicate with designers and developers
  • Standards
     To maintain consistent behavior across independently managed sub-sites
  • Testing
     To control variables between test sites or states
  • Knowledge capture
     To maintain descriptions of previous site practices and results

Please feel free to forward this newsletter to a friend or colleague who might be interested.

Home - Papers - Case Studies - About iorg.com - Privacy - Legal

For more information contact: info@iorg.com
© Copyright 1997-2004 iorg.com