Business-like, isn't he?



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ISSUE 509: The high-tech office- July 27 1999


The best business Web sites
know that less is more

In lots of ways, the computer industry has done a good job of giving customers more -- faster processors, bigger hard drives and the like, all while dropping prices. Meanwhile, Internet sites offer us more and more -- extra graphics, background music, animations, 3D walk-abouts -- the list goes on and on.

But if your business is up on the Web, promoting itself, offering information or product support or selling, maybe you need to be thinking about having less instead.

Despite the general trend towards getting more and despite mass-market high-speed Internet access from the cable and phone companies, most users still connect to the Net with slow, old technology -- modems and phone lines. That means if your company's Web site is high on the gee-whiz factor, it's going to take longer to appear on screen.

And that can cost your business money. A report released in June by U.S.-based Zona Research reported that slow download times at online shopping sites could be resulting in as much as $6 billion in lost sales. They suggested that potential customers were prepared to wait for up to eight seconds or so for a Web page to appear. But about one-third of the shoppers polled said they'd give up, frustrated by slow-to-appear pages.

And since many visitors probably got to your company's site from a page of search engine results, a simple click on their browser's Back button will return them to the search results -- and one more click will send them straight to your competitors.

So keeping it simple isn't just an aesthetic judgment; it's worth money. Do some simple experiments.

Try to access your company's Web site, not over the network at work, but over a 28.8 or 33.6 kbs modem. How long does it take for the main page to appear? How simple is it for someone who isn't a company employee to find something from that main page?

Set your computer to a lowest common denominator 640x480 screen resolution, with 256 colours. How does your site look now? Do you have to scroll side to side in order to read a whole page?

BIV columnist Tod Maffin has been visiting the Web sites of local businesses, and writing about how they stack up. How well would your company's site do?

Last fall, another Zona Research survey revealed that businesses aren't making it easy to buy online. That survey, taken among a group of longtime Internet users, reported that nearly one-third of the respondents found it "somewhat or extremely difficult" to locate specific products on the Net, while 62 per cent had given up looking for a specific product at least once in the past two months, turning instead to traditional catalogues or "real" stores.

And these were sophisticated Web-surfers! The report suggested that the frustrations of average Net-users was "much higher."

For several years, Sun Micro-
's Jakob Nielsen has called for increased Web usability. In 1996, he published a popular list of what he considered the top 10 mistakes in Web design.

He said that most of the mistakes are still made today and not just in a 14-year-old kid's home-brewed site -- but in many Web sites posted at great expense by big corporations. Among Nielsen's recommendations:

* Avoid the bleeding edge. Fancy effects that require downloading a special plug-in turn off users. A single JavaScript error can send a user straight to that Back button. And with millions of potential customers still running older versions of the Netscape or Microsoft Web browser, business sites should be wary of embracing the latest technologies.

* Scrolling text and looping animations equal advertisements. And most users have learned to mentally tune out Web ads. Nielsen especially urges that these be avoided for vital content and navigation elements.

* Non-standard link colours just confuse users.

* Outdated information is "a sure way to lose credi-
bility." Posting a Web site
is the beginning of a long-term relationship. It's vital to keep
it up to date.

* Slow download times will remain a problem for the near to medium-term. Nielsen suggests it will take at least until 2003 for high-end users to achieve acceptable Web response times, and until 2008 for such speeds to become more general.

Until then, if your business wants its Web site to work, it needs to remember that this is an instance where less really is more. *

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan