Making Content (Not) Suck

Christine Perfetti, from User Interface Engineering, wants your content to suck.

Her presentation at the Public Media 2007 / Integrated Media conference this morning – “Why Content Must Suck” managed to draw a full crowd, despite being at 8am.

The concept, once you get passed the deliberately provocative title, is that rather than pushing users around, or forcing them through content in which they are disinterested, your content ought to pull users in, by virtue of its interestingness and applicability to their concerns.

(How many times have you heard discussion of making sites sticky, or driving traffic to a given page, or pushing users toward specific content?)

Creating content that sucks means focusing on satisfying user needs first, and then building the platform in such a way that it allows users to find the content which will satisfy their needs.

Perfetti also talked about the scent of information – the notion that well designed sites give off a scent which suggests to users that they content they seek is nearby. Sites that are poorly designed are scentless – they give no suggestion to the users about where their content might be found.

A few of the insights she shared:

  • Search is scentless. Even users who consider themselves “search dominant” actually scan the page first looking for clues or scents – and fall back to search only when they find none. (The exception is places like Amazon, where what you are looking for (a book title, for example) is likely to result in a narrow set of focused results that would be hard to get to any other way – navigating down through categories would take a long time if you know precisely what you are after).
  • Sitemaps are the refuge of the scentless. If users are hitting your sitemap a lot, that is a sign that something is fundamentally wrong with your design. (Why don’t more sites blow up their home page and replace it with the sitemap?)
  • “Cute Links” block scent. Just because you spent marketing dollars to come up with a “unique” name for a content category doesn’t mean users have that name as a trigger word for their scent trail. In fact, the more unique it is the more opaque it is likely to be to your users.
  • Longer links give more scent. In UIE’s research, 7-12 words is the optimum link length. 1-2 words doesn’t give enough context to give high degrees of confidence that the target will contain the content sought. (Those 1-2 word tier one navigation categories will always lead to further categories – they are too broad to be full of scent).
  • Perceived download speed is what matters – not actual download speed. Perceived download speed is very dependent on how easily users find what they need. (The more cruft you put between users and their goals the more slowly they will perceive your site as loading).

Throughout her presentation I was struck by the recurring theme of providing interesting content and then connecting users to it: be interesting, and get out of the way.

True “stickyness” comes from meeting user needs. If you start from the point of view of trying to force users into being interested in something they don’t want, you will fail.