Website design and technical communication

The principles of technical communication help to make sure that a website meets the requirements of customers.

First, we discuss the business requirements of a website. Then, we show how usability, security, accessibility, findability, and readability affect a customer's experience of a website. The content under a heading can apply to more than one heading. For example, readability affects usability. Additionally, if a user has a cognitive impairment, readability becomes an accessibility problem.

Legal conformity is not discussed. An excellent source of information is www.out-law.com.

Business requirements

The design of a website is dependent on the business requirements. Who uses the website? What is the purpose of the website?

A website can have many audiences, for example, customers, job seekers, suppliers, and search engines. Possibly, readers are in many different countries. Possibly, English is not a reader's first language. Possibly, the different audiences have conflicting requirements.

Usability

Usability is a measure of how easy or difficult a task is. Typical tasks on a website include buying products, finding contact information, and evaluating products and services.

Bad website design causes online buyers to abandon purchases. Bad website design makes a company look bad. Jakob Nielsen's website has excellent information about usability (www.nngroup.com).

Some usability problems are caused because code does not conform to standards. All good website developers make sure that code conforms to standards. W3C supplies free validation tools (http://validator.w3.org/).

Usually, a web page has a navigation menu, which is not applicable to a printed page. Many websites have special 'print-friendly' pages. The user must do an additional step (open the page). Sometimes, a print-friendly page is supplied as a PDF file. Therefore, two copies of a document exist. Each time that a web page is changed, the website developers must change the related PDF file.

Instead of additional print-friendly pages, use one style sheet to specify the screen appearance, and use a different style sheet to specify the appearance of the printed pages. The TechScribe website uses 2 style sheets. When a user prints a web page, the menu is not printed.

Some website developers say that readers expect to see a 'print-friendly' button. A better option is to teach the readers how to use the website efficiently. A 'print-friendly' button can open a web page that explains that readers can print a page without clicking a button. After readers know how the website operates, the readers will need to make fewer clicks than with a website that has special print-friendly web pages.

Security of a user's system

In early 2007, an online bank moved customer accounts to a new system. But, thousands of customers could not use their accounts, because their web browser settings were incompatible with the new system. Service desk personnel had to answer thousands of additional service calls (www.computerweekly.com/Articles/2007/03/27/222668/Browser-glitches-stretch-First-Direct.htm).

Some websites use scripts to make the website operate correctly. Scripts can have security problems (www.w3.org/Security/Faq/wwwsf2.html). Therefore, some visitors do not let scripts run, and the website is not usable. Unlike the bank's customers, these visitors probably will not use a website that makes them decrease the security settings. If possible, make sure that a website operates correctly if a user does not let scripts run.

Accessibility

To reach the largest audience, a website must be easy to use and accessible to everyone. In many countries, accessibility is a legal requirement (see the Equality and Human Rights Commission website, www.equalityhumanrights.com).

Content is accessible when it can be used by someone with a disability. However, all users can suffer from restricted access, for example, because they use a device with a small screen.

The RNIB has much useful information about website accessibility (www.rnib.org.uk). For examples of excellent accessible website designs, see css Zen Garden (www.csszengarden.com).

Findability

Some readers want much background information. Other readers want only an overview. A good website design helps both types of customer by organizing the information carefully.

Without a clear navigation system, readers can become confused. Good practice is to have simple and consistent navigation for the website. Let readers see the location of the page in the website structure. Show readers the pages that they have visited by showing links to visited pages in a different colour. (Some website developers think that coloured links are old-fashioned. However, the method is effective.)

Instead of a FAQ page, put the answers in suitable topics.

Typically, a website has a site map and a search option. Sometimes, site maps and search options are not sufficient. A search engine is excellent for finding pages that contain particular words. However, a search engine does not organize the results by concepts. An index organizes the website content by concepts, and in more detail than a site map. An index shows the relations between terms. An index lets a reader easily see the scope of the website. For a discussion, see 'Indexing technical documents'.

Readability

Reading from a screen is more tiring on the eyes than reading from paper. Therefore, many headings, much white space, and small topics are important. Do not put the content of a printed document on a website without changes.

"The possibility of not obfuscating the inherent meaning of the intended message should be considered by all interested parties prior to the dissemination of the aforementioned message to the putative audience." In other words, "Do not hide your message behind complex language." As a minimum, use plain English.

Frequently, marketing communications contains synonyms, clich├ęs, and clever plays on words. However, synonyms can make people confused, specially if the website contains technical terms. For technical information, the best option is to use one term with one meaning only. A glossary is useful.

A controlled vocabulary helps to make the content clear, specially to readers whose first language is not English. A good method is to use some type of simplified English, which controls both vocabulary and grammar. However, controlling the vocabulary means that if a reader types a synonym in a search engine, the search engine will not find the website.

If your website is for an international market, make sure that you write for an international audience.

Summary

Creating an effective website that meets its business purposes requires trade-offs. Possibly, you cannot please all visitors, but you can create a website that helps most people, and which encourages visitors to buy your products and services.

This updated article first appeared in the May 2007 issue of ITNOW Extra (www.bcs.org/itnowextra/).

See also

Accuracy in website terms and conditions

Web checklist, IBM (www-03.ibm.com/able/guidelines/web/accessweb.html)

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