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Usability and Findability of Local Websites

article by: Korey Graham

Over three years ago Inter Kingston conducted a little evaluation of a few local websites. You may remember reading the article, 'Homework for the Tourism Industry'. You may also remember that it opened a few eyes, and mouths, to the realities and competitiveness of the Internet. Fortunately, a couple of those evaluated sites took the results and decided to move in a direction that would benefit their website and company. This was, of course, our intent in writing the article.

Taking a look once again at the online presence of some of Kingston's organizations we'll review a few 'dos and don'ts' of website design, functionality, and marketing. This time we decided to focus on non-profit and public service organizations.

Doorway Pages
Taking a look at the Kingston Employment Youth Services (KEYS)) and Fort Henry websites the first thing we noticed was the use of "doorway" or "splash" pages. Although these pages may sometimes look nice and fancy, they can negatively impact where the website ranks in search engines because of the lack of textual content. The search engines need actual text to scan and compare the relevancy of the site to the search term.

Splash pages also act as barriers; they have put one more step between the user and the content they desire. The more 'clicks' it takes a user to get to the content they want, the higher the likelihood that they'll get lost, distracted, or frustrated and go to someone else's website.

Banners & Menus
With the Marine Museum site, we can see that they have used a large image as the banner/background of the site. This can be extremely taxing on download time, especially for slower connection speeds (dial-up). Also, all the title and contact information inserted into the image cannot be scanned by search engines because it is not actual text; again, making it very difficult to get any positive search results.

The website for The Community Foundation of Greater Kingston is a simplistic and classy design; however, finding the page you want can be difficult at first. The menu contains a lot of links and because of its function, it forces the user to make extra clicks to navigate through it. This could be solved by simply making the entire navigation a drop-down list activated when the user mouses over the it. A good example of this is shown on the new Kingston YMCA website.

Design and Layout
A public services website should have a clean, professional, and standardized look and feel. Although the colour scheme may be alright, the design and layout of the Utilities Kingston website could use a review. The horizontal and vertical navigation bars are very chaotic, and the use of flowing curves and sharp corners clash with one another. This design is definitely not in harmony with itself. Again, the title, slogan, and all the menu items are done as images. This valuable content will not be found by search engines. The inside pages of the Fort Henry site shows an additional example of images that can easily be substituted with text - improving search engine ranking.

Many designers unintentionally create too much 'white space' in their designs. Taking a look again at The Community Foundation of Greater Kingston website, we see a huge amount of empty space at the top of the page within the banner. This may have been done as a visual design element, but for users with a small screen resolution (800x600 or even 640x480) that 'white space' now consumes nearly a third of their screen. Containing zero content, it forces the user to scroll immediately just to start reading. A more effective use of this space would be to house the foundations basic contact info or possibly some key information ("organizations that receive funding from...")

To recap on a few elements of successful design and functionality, here is a to-do list to use when creating a new site or evaluating an existing one:

  • avoid the use of doorway pages, especially without any content on them at all
  • use banners and images for logos, photos, and design elements only
  • use actual text for titles, headings, menus and contact information
  • make it easy for the user to navigate your site quickly; use drop down menus for large complex sites
  • keep the design and layout aspect of your site simple and clean, avoid using chaotic or clashing lines and colours
  • create unity throughout your site;
    • stick to one font type, size, and colour scheme
    • use a hierarchy of heading styles (h1, h2, h3) to represent ranking of content
    • separate content with subtle background colours, lines, etc.
  • avoid having too much 'white space' at the top of the site, fill it with some content if possible, but don't over do it either

The list of elements can be endless, but working on these few will definitely assist you in re-evaluating your site to be a more successful one. For more information, suggestions, and ideas on how you can improve your online presence, please contact us.

Korey is a designer, developer and web marketing strategist with Inter Kingston. He has a special interest in the usability and findability of websites.