Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A sense of place and frameworks for the web

Previously, I've written about the differences between looking at digital vs architectural space, but I'm also interested in the similarities. There are two concepts in web design/user experience that come from the physical world. Number one, a sense of place. Two, frameworks.

How do you create a sense of place when designing for the web? It could be as simple as having some repetitive elements that create an element of familiarity. I think Steve Krug can help us with this answer. I'm almost finished reading his web usability bible, "Don't Make me Think", and there are many gems worth remembering.

In the web space, there are some idiosyncrasies that you will not find in the physical world. He describes the experience as being dropped from the sky into the middle of a maze, or being lost in space. There is no sense of scale, no sense of direction and no sense of location. Probably why the back button accounts for 30-40 percent of all web clicks. Tools like clearly visited links, breadcrumbs, persistent navigation and site identification (as home button) make the experience much more enjoyable and less confusing for the user.

Another metaphor with the physical world: web navigation as streetsigns. Navigation is so much more than just a feature of the website - it IS the website. It shows you the content, where to begin, and it gives a sense of place, of feeling grounded. If a site is done well, it will clearly tell you where you've been, where you are in this moment, and where you need to go.

Liz Danzico writes about frameworks on 52 weeks of UX, and she relates designing them to creating opportunities, possibilities for action for the user. Just as in architectural space, if the frameworks are too strict it limits the possibilities for movement - there is less freedom. However, if there is no structure or organization, then it leaves open the possibility for chaos. Designers have the responsibility to create a balance between these two extremes.

Erving Goffman, whom Danzico dubs the father of framework analysis, describes the delicate balance: "Frameworks allow people to locate, identify, and label an infinite number of concrete occurrences. People can move through the complex framework of a city or a website, but they’re unlikely to be aware of it or even be able to describe it if asked. People fit their actions into the ongoing world that support a set of activities—the “anchoring of activities.” It gives them context and interpretation from their point of view. Be clear, but leave room for stories to be told and to flourish."

Storytelling as a metaphor for web interaction - the more engaging the site, the more people will be attracted and encouraged to be themselves, be social, and tell their unique story.

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