Summary: Fancy media on websites typically fails user testing. Simple text and clear photos not only communicate better with users, they also enhance users' feeling of control and thus support the Web's mission as an instant gratification environment.
Almost every Web usability study we've ever conducted found that low-end media forms are superior to high-end media forms. Even the few exceptions to these findings confirm the phenomenon underlying low-end media's superiority: users want to be in control.
Low-end media works better in most situations. For example:
- Investor relations. In testing IR information on corporate websites, we found that investors seldom access webcasts and multimedia archives of presentations and annual meetings. Instead, they prefer written overviews of financial results and management's vision. Novice investors in particular need simple, one-page financial overviews so that they don't get overwhelmed with details.
- E-commerce. In watching people shop online , we found that users often want product close-ups, but that the zooming, spinning multimedia displays aimed at providing them rarely work. When users want more details, simple, clean photos work much better, as do simple hypertext links from small pictures to big ones.
- Advertising. Users click through small text boxes far more often than those all-singing, all-dancing graphical banners.
As for high-end webcasts, users in our investor relations study had this to say:
"I never listen to conference calls because they're too long. I never spend the time to do that. I'd rather look at the press releases and skim through to see what I like and dislike."
"I wouldn't listen to any webcast, listen to anything audio online. It's frustrating. People are moving jerky, the sound is not that good. I would rather get the information in an article [webcasts are] disappointing and take forever to download."
"Listening to webcasts, I don't think I would. I have done that, but it's not something I would do on a regular basis only if it's interesting. If it had to do with technological breakthrough -- not third quarter earnings. If it had something to do with something innovative."
Why Simple Wins
A few technical impediments conspire to make complex media types less attractive to users:
- Bandwidth and download time continue to be crucial issues in Web usability because most users still suffer from dial-up connections. Simple media types usually download faster, especially when sites use images appropriately (that is, show small pictures on the initial pages, and big pictures only on demand).
- Interaction standards are lacking for fancy media types. Exactly how do you make a 3-D model spin? Differently on each site. Different = Difficult. In contrast, people already know how to read text and look at photos.
- Search only works for text-based content. Although you can index the words within some rich media types, you can't index information presented as pictures, audio, or video, and thus it might as well be invisible when users go searching. Search is one of the main ways users access the Web , and search engine visibility is crucial for a successful website (or intranet, for that matter; search is just as important for internal content ). Think of Googlebot as your most important user -- and one that is blind to high-end media.
- Accessibility for users with disabilities is possible, but for high-end media types it requires extra work .
These technical issues will pass away with time. Within ten years, most users will hopefully have broadband, and user interface standards for websites will likely stabilize, making advanced features easier to operate.
Still, low-end media will remain a favorite because of one fundamental factor: it lets users control their experience . The Web exists to provide instant gratification. Users place their hand on the mouse and decide where to go. The easier it is for users to get exactly what they need, when they need it, the more satisfied they will be.
Low-end media gives users control over three key processes : how they read, how easily they find relevant information, and how easily they can produce information.
- Reading . With simple text and images, the user can scan the page and control what they read. Because their page access is non-linear, users can spend as little or as much time as they want on each element. They can focus on the information they want and ignore irrelevant parts. In contrast, fat media tends to be linear and often forces users to sit through boring fluff sequences before getting them to the information they want.
- Finding relevant content . On average, low-end media has a higher percentage of information-rich content, while high-end media has a higher percentage of show-off content. Low-end media is certainly not fluff-free; witness the pictures of "smiling ladies" where product photos should be. High-end media, however, positively revels in embellishments and irrelevancy. Getting to the point seems to be beside the point when you invest a fortune in fat media. After all, you've got to have something elaborate to show for your money.
- Authoring . With simpler media forms, authors who actually know the material are more likely to produce the content. Complex media forms typically require outsourcing to external teams who don't have the same everyday exposure to the product line they're trying to explain. The more layers between the knowledge and the authoring, the weaker the content.
High-end media often forces users to suffer through material designers want to showcase, rather than taking users directly to the material they came for. This is completely contrary to the freedom of movement that characterizes a happy user experience on the Web.
Rather than dominate users with fancy media, empower them with simple media that they can control and that lets them directly meet their needs.
Why Complex Media Gets into Sites
Low-end media works best in most cases, and it's almost always considerably cheaper to implement than high-end media. So why do so many websites use inappropriately ornate media?
- Design agencies sometimes recommend more elaborate solutions than the client really needs in order to increase their billing.
- Technology vendors push whatever high-end technologies they happen to sell. Even though 3-D spinning and zooming rarely works as well as simple close-up photos, there is a vendor at every tradeshow selling 3-D to unsuspecting website managers.
- Website managers never watch people using their websites, so they make decisions without first-hand understanding of usability. Because advanced solutions seem better intuitively, those managers are easy prey for promoters of complexity.
No sales people pester Web managers to save money by spending just a little on good photography and a few pages of concise writing. Photographers and writers could advocate simplicity, but they're typically less organized and influential than bigger vendors or agencies.
Exceptions: Newsletters and Internet Applications
Low-end media doesn't always offer the highest usability, but even the exceptions confirm the general rule.
Email newsletters are the first exception. In usability testing a broad range of newsletters , we found that HTML newsletters were better than plain-text newsletters. Although I still recommend offering an ASCII version for users with low-bandwidth connections or who otherwise prefer a low-end newsletter, most users prefer HTML. The reason? Enhanced layout makes articles easier to scan, and a few pictures can add to the newsletter's communicative value.
Internet-based applications are another exception. Usability is enhanced when full-featured programming systems have real GUIs, which are usually better than the clunky, page-by-page presentation of features that traditional HTML pages offer.
Both of these counter-examples confirm my main principle: It's best to give users fine-grained control over their experience.
- Using HTML for newsletter layouts facilitates scanning and makes it easier for users to pick out the items they want to read.
- GUI applications allow synchronous humancomputer interaction with direct manipulation control and feedback at the dialogue's lexical and alphabetical levels.
Downloading pirated music and video is another obvious exception (as are the corresponding legal services), but such Internet services are not websites. For that matter, neither are email or Internet-based applications. It is important to remember that the Web and the Internet are different concepts .
For actual websites, our usability testing has found one exception; it relates to children's use of the Web . Unlike services for grownups, a website's "kids' corner" often benefits from additional sound effects and animation.
For adults, however, the conclusion is clear: a website empowers users when it delivers content in low-end media that is easy to scan and focuses on answering questions that users are likely to have. Reserve the high-end media for those rare cases when it truly adds value by showing something that cannot be presented otherwise.