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Designing a website

Step 2 - Designing your site

Naming site sections

The question of names may strike you as trivial at first: A simple, superfluous detail to be tacked on at the end. Would that it were so! In fact, names are crucial to user understanding of what the site does and how it works.

 

Well-chosen names are invisible; they quietly point users in the right direction without calling attention to themselves. Whereas poorly chosen names slow users down, confusing them and undermining their confidence.

 

"Labeling is an important part of information architecture," says Steve Mulder, manager of User Experience for Terra-Lycos. "We've seen this in the usability lab. We've seen very simple naming issues completely prevent users from completing a task."

 

Section names should be

  • Short. You don't have a lot of room to get your point across. So names should be short and to the point.

  • Consistent. Section names should all use similar phrasing to show their relationship to each other.

  • Clear. The more descriptive and literal your section names are, the more likely users are to click on them.

  • Jargon-free. Customers don't understand the specialized lingo of your industry. So you'll have to translate labels into a language they understand.

 

Space is always at a premium online. You have a lot to convey, and not a lot of room in which to convey it. The width of the screen will always limit the width of your words. So pick the shortest, most accurate words(s) you can.

"You must call each thing by its proper name, or that which must get done will not."

—A. Harvey Block, President, Bokenon Systems

 

When you're labeling several sections that will appear together on a nav bar, the names should be as consistent as possible. Ideally, the names or phrases should agree on the number of words, part of speech, verb tense, capitalization, language, and so on.

 

The issue here isn't grammar, but comprehension. Users will understand categories (and your site as a whole) more quickly if the names agree with each other. Humans are natural-born categorizers; if they perceive a parallel between sections, they'll immediately bundle them together, allowing their understanding of each new category to build on the knowledge of the previous category. But seemingly small inconsistencies will trip them up, making them re-sort the words in their mind.

 

The issue isn't grammar, but comprehension. Users understand categories more quickly when the names are consistent.


Often, subtle changes in language can make significant improvements in user comprehension. (And this is an area where even split-second differences can impact a user's impression.) For instance, if you have areas on your site for both buying homes and buying cars, you should avoid mismatched names, like "Buy a Home" and "Cars." Instead, choose a single scheme: either "Buy a Home" and "Buy a Car" or "Homes" and "Cars."

 

choose clear names The most important thing about the labels on your site is that they accurately represent the section's function or contents. In other words, you should call things what they are. Sounds pretty basic, but this very simple rule is violated on four out of five sites. Why? Because people like to name things, and people like to be clever. So instead of calling our news section, "News," we name it "Currents" or "Talk of the Town."

 

Rather than tickle your user's tongue with alliterations and puns, focus on choosing labels that are short, simple, and specific.

 

choosing jargon-free names Every industry and every company has its own lingo—a specialized way of talking about its products and the world that make perfect sense to them and none to anyone else. There's nothing inherently wrong with jargon. But you have to keep it off your website—that is, if you want anyone to understand it.

 

"Jargon is rampant inside companies," says Jesse James Garrett, an information architect who's consulted for companies large and small. "All kinds of companies have their own special language for products and features. There's the language they use internally, and there's the language they impose on external communications for marketing reasons."

 

Jargon often creeps on to websites, because people are used to describing products in their own industry terms. Often, they don't even realize they're using jargon.

 

"One of the hardest transitions for people to make in any given business is from the mind of the seller to the mind of the buyer, and from the language of the seller to the language of the buyer," says online marketing expert Hunter Madsen.

The link, "My Chapter," lets users find a Sierra Club group near them. But the word "chapter" is confusing, because it has a more commonplace meaning.

His advice: "Go through your entire website, identify every term that looks like an inside or category term, circle it, and ask if there isn't an easier word that you hear your buyers use—the improper term they use—for the phrase you would prefer. Then switch your website's verbiage to fit the buyer's venacular."

what does "jargon" mean?

  • Acronyms that aren't self-explanatory.

  • Code words used in the company. "In large organizations, it's often easier to sell your work internally when you use the company's buzzwords, division names, and so on," said designer Jeffrey Zeldman. "But you pay a price for doing so."

  • Double entendres, or words that have two meanings. "The classic example in computer science is the word 'default,'" says Professor Michael Twidale. "We all know what default means. But if you're building software for an accountant, they also know what "default" means. And it means something completely different."

  • Formal or technical words that real people don't use. For example, the Black and Decker site has a section, "Garment Care." But real people call "garments" clothes.

  • Industry terms that customers may not know and would never use.

  • Marketing slogans that you'd like your customers to learn. For example, the juice company Odwalla has a section called "Freshology."

  • Slang that your visitors don't actually use.

 

What's at stake here isn't just comprehension, but also competition. If users have a choice between two sites—one that confuses them and one of that speaks plainly—they'll choose the one they understand.

As Jesse James Garrett says: "Users can adapt to jargon, but if they have a choice, they won't."

 

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