Monitoring the online customer experience, by Mark Hurst.
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The Page Paradigm

Thursday, February 19, 2004
by Mark Hurst

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In my nine years of working on the Web's user experience, a lot has changed online - but one thing that hasn't changed much is the way that users navigate websites.

Back in 1999, I proposed the "Page Paradigm" to describe this near-constant usage pattern; it still holds today, as we continue to observe in our listening labs all over the US and internationally.

Thus, it bears repeating:

     - - - - - - - - - - The Page Paradigm - - - - - - - - - -
     |                                                       |
     |       On any given Web page, users will either...     |
     |                                                       |
     |   - click something that appears to take them closer  |
     |     to the fulfillment of their goal,                 |
     |                                                       |
     |   - or click the Back button on their Web browser.    |
     |                                                       |
     - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A few notes to keep in mind.

NOTE 1. This is a recursive algorithm. Meaning, the simple rule above fully describes the user's behavior throughout the website. Whenever the user arrives at a new page (either having clicked forward or Back), the rule starts again: "On any given Web page, users will..."

NOTE 2. Users don't much care "where they are" in the website. So-called "breadcrumb links," which show the user the exact hierarchy of the website as they click further down, are a nice but mostly irrelevant technology. It's not that users don't understand the links; it's that they don't care.

Let me say it again, Max Bialystock-style:


I emphasize this because Web developers often waste time worring about "where content should live." Should it be in section B? If so, we need to put big links from Section A to Section B. And then the secondary navigation will list Sections A through C, which are part of category D, because users might need to see the relationship between C, B, and the sub-tertiary wormhole that just opened in the site map!

Meanhwile, the user is on the site thinking, "Do they have it in size three?" and ignoring every element on the page that doesn't appear to take them toward that goal. All the site-organization links, so carefully consistent with their display in other areas of the site... totally ignored by the user. All the dancing promos and ad banners... totally ignored. The user is, as always, on a tear and will not be distracted by the information architects' and marketers' best efforts.

NOTE 3. Max Bialystock is a character in "The Producers." Watch it.

NOTE 4. About the goal (perhaps we should call it the Goal). Users only come to the website when they have a goal - usually finding a specific piece of information, or conducting a specific transaction. The Goal is very specific, and it's the defining motivator of that user's experience on the website. Fulfill the Goal quickly and easily, and it's a good experience; otherwise, users will try to avoid the site in the future.

What about all those other elements on the site - partner promos, silly "branding", overdesigned navigation, graphic advertising, and the rest - that have nothing to do with the Goal? From the user's perspective, they are pointless at *best* - at worst, an active motivator to tell their friends not to go to your website.

NOTE 5. Consistency is NOT necessary. For years, students of UI and UX have been taught that *consistency in the interface* is one of the cardinal rules of interface design. Perhaps that holds in software, but on the Web, it's just not true. What matters on the Web is whether, on each individual page, the user can quickly and easily advance the next step in the process.

At Creative Good, we call it "intelligent inconsistency": making sure that each page in the process gives users exactly what they need at that point in the process. Adding superfluous nav elements, just because they're consistent with the rest of the site, is just silly.

- - -

Practicing the Page Paradigm

Designing a user experience with the Page Paradigm in mind requires three steps:

1. Identify users' goals on each page.

2. De-emphasize or remove any page elements (or areas of a site) that don't help to accomplish the goal.

3. Emphasize (or insert) those links, forms, or other elements that either take users closer to their goal, or finally accomplish it.

...and you're done.

(P.S. To see what the Page Paradigm means to the bottom line of a client who implements it, check out this recent case study.)

See the next article, Debating the Page Paradigm (March 8, 2004).

It includes several e-mails and weblog posts from readers.

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