Web animation tires surfers

Web animation continues to infuriate many usability experts. The fact is, users will generally place a premium on editorial, rather than promotional content.

commentary Skipping is in vogue in our interactive age.

Consider the ubiquitous home page "splash" screen, the animated Web appendage that enriched early Macromedia investors and infuriates many usability experts. Sometimes, clever introductory animations provide just enough interactivity to make them charming, such as BMW's new Mini Cooper site. But these hefty, kinetic introductions quickly tire most repeat visitors, especially when they access these sites with dial-up connections. In response, many sites include "skip" links that allow users to bypass the floating images and digital riffs.

Something is seriously amiss when you need to incorporate escape mechanisms that allow your audience to avoid important messages. Skip links suggest that these carefully crafted animations may actually be superfluous, a point inadvertently driven home by the USC Annenberg School of Communications, which offers the courtesy of two skip functions on its home page. One allows you to avoid the animation now while the other banishes it forever.

We know that most Web users do not read entire pages; they simply glance quickly to find what they consider most important. This latent impatience encourages some designers to borrow the visual tactics of advertising to catch our eyes and curiosity (Flash animation being the most dramatic example), when the real focus should be the clear presentation of essential content.

Why? We encounter advertising accidentally, as a component within another source of information or amusement (such as a magazine or TV show) or an intrusion in our normal activities (such as a billboard on a highway). Despite early media emphasis of the Internet as a browsing medium, Web users generally know what they want to find, and they will place a premium on editorial, rather than promotional content.

For instance, I have an aging Subaru station wagon, and I am currently looking at information about new cars. With a young family in tow, I am particularly interested in cargo space. The folks at Jeep thought it might be fun to create a downloadable animation that shows how much stuff you can fit in their new Liberty SUV. While visually impressive, this demonstration failed to provide the one fact I found on every other site I visited and the only thing that really mattered for comparison purposes--the size of the cargo area in cubic feet. In fairness, Jeep did offer this information in a PDF file, which of course represented another time-consuming download.

If scanning and screening represent natural user tendencies, then Web sites should universally extend the same invitation that we place on "splash" screens. Accept the fact that users will probably skip over most of your Web site and then organize content based on this inherent tendency.

First, carefully examine all proposed content and classify it in descending order of importance, so that a home page contains only information that appeals to the largest potential audience. Limited choices means limited skipping. Second, identify the remaining information that broad audiences may view as skippable, but retains strong narrow appeal to those visitors seeking specific details. Create subsection categories particularly intuitive to these users, such as by audience, marketplace, or service/product category, so they can find what they want with a minimum of fuss.

Third, jettison anything, no matter how cute or clever, that a majority of your audience will likely bypass on a repeated basis. Adding material of minimal benefit will only increase your maintenance responsibilities and costs, lead visitors down the wrong pathways, and potentially slow down overall site performance.

Four centuries ago, English philosopher Francis Bacon scanned a sea of information much shallower than the one we face today and still identified a basic human need to prioritize. "Some books are to be tasted," he noted, "others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." In the end, we turn to Web sites for the same reasons we gobble down breakfast bars. We satisfy our hunger for the moment when circumstances force us to skip the whole meal.

Mike Sockol is a senior vice president and interactive practice leader at Makovsky & Company, a full service, award winning communications firm based in New York.

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