In Don’t Make Me Think, an excellent book on usability basics, Steve Krug talks about a trunk test. The gist: if you were stuffed in the trunk of a car, moved to a location, and then let out of the trunk, could you figure out where you are? The idea in relation to Web usability is that users should be able to quickly determine where they are within a site based on visual clues like breadcrumbs and navigation.
I think the content on the page is as important in the trunk test as the visual elements. When we write Web content, we can’t assume that users followed a logical path.
Actually, we shouldn’t assume they followed any path: most people come straight from a search engine. That means the content on the page has to do double duty — it needs to work within the flow of the site and it has to stand alone.
The content’s main goal is to communicate. One of the things it communicates should be to help users understand where they are within your site.
Using Content to Place Yourself
We have to balance old and new information, keeping in mind both types of users. For searchers, we can’t assume prior knowledge of acronyms, definitions, or even the company name. For browsers, we need to avoid too much repetition.
We can accomplish this by using the reader’s tendencies to our advantage. For example, we know that most people are going to skim in the F pattern when they arrive at a new page. They look at the page title, the subheads, the first few words of a paragraph, and images. We can use these elements to help all users orient themselves within our site.
- Page title: Use the page title to clearly define what the page is about. Not just “Symptoms” but “Rotator Cuff Injury Symptoms.”
- Intro paragraph: Spell out acronyms on first use; make sure you use the company name somewhere near the top. These may be repetitive if you came from a logical previous page, but as long as you don’t make these elements the focus of the page, the reader will likely skim right over them if they don’t need the details.
- Subheads: Take the opportunity to repeat relevant keywords.
- Bullet points: Remember to link to relevant details on other pages. This should include links to pages higher up in the structure of the site. Don’t assume all traffic goes down the hierarchy.
These basic steps will help users who are jumping into the middle of your site and they don’t harm those who click through.