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[Usability Matters]  

Design to Discourage Wandering

Keith Instone

This article refers to the Mars Pathfinder site as it appeared Tuesday, July 15, 1997. The site has already changed even before I finished writing this.

As the Mars Pathfinder (MPF) Sojourner continues to explore the Red Planet, its moves must be precisely planned. Any wandering by the rover would seriously jeopardize the mission. Although I cannot prevent the Sojourner from wandering off on Mars, I can suggest some changes to the Pathfinder site to discourage visitors from wandering around aimlessly.

Note: I do not want to discourage people who want to wander (browse) around the site. I only want to help users who are looking for something in particular from having to wander in order to find it.

Likewise, the route that visitors to the Mars Pathfinder Web site are expected to take should also be carefully planned to discourage wandering. Wanderers tend to get lost, and everyone agrees that is bad.

A design that discourages wandering is an inexpensive way to conserve bandwidth, reduce server load, and allows people to access the site as quickly as possible.

Before I get started on some of the ways to improve the MPF site, I want to point out that what they have now is not a disaster. The design is simple, the response is relatively fast, and you can find what you are looking for if you patiently wander around.

It is obvious that the three-person staff in charge of the Web site has to spend more time preparing content and coordinating efforts with the mirrors than worrying about Web site design. I understand those real-world contraints. I would complain loudly if the site was over-designed and the design was getting in the way of their awesome content.

I have identified three aspects of the current Mars Pathfinder site that are forcing users to wander around to find what they are looking for.

  • The multiple home pages are not labelled well. Users who cannot get a grasp of the site from the home pages are sure to wander from them.
  • Links to different sections of the site are not very descriptive. Users are forced to explore the sections just to learn their basic contents.
  • While most pages are time-stamped, the links on them are not. Return visitors cannot see if a section has new content unless they go off and check it out.

Where's Home?
There are three different "home pages": selecting a mirror site, latest news, and general information about the mission. This is a good separation of the different content at the MPF site. The mirrors represent meta-site information, the latest news is updated frequently, and the general page contains the background mission details.

However, the relationship between these three pages is never made clear to users. I had to revisit them several times before I could figure out what each was for.

The problem is compounded because none of these three pages has a distinct name associated with it.

Take the "Latest News" page (from Tuesday) for example. I call the page "Latest News" because this phrase summarizes the content of the page, even though it never appears on the page itself. The "Mars Pathfinder / Welcome to Mars!" title and header on the page are too vague (and appear on other pages) to serve as a good name.

"Latest News" is what some of the other pages call it by virtue of the text in the link that jumps to it. But other pages point to this page with "Back to the Most Current Image and Data." The location on the page of links to "Latest News" varies as well.

In order to help users identify and understand the three home pages, there needs to be consistent, clear names for them. And there needs to be links between the home pages in consistent locations so people can easily get from one to the other.

Descriptive Links
The Mars Pathfinder site could prevent visitors from wandering by adding short blurbs to their links so users have some clue what each section is about before they go there.

For example, there is a link to "Rover Status" on the "Latest News" page but there is no description of what that link really leads to. Users are likely to take a chance and click on it. If that page turns out to be boring to them, they will have just consumed a few server hits and become a little frustrated because they had to wait for something they did not want. That's a lose-lose situation.

Take, for instance, the "Rover Status" link. A single accompanying sentence about the specific rover information in that section should be enough to keep wanderers away.

Time-stamp Links
While the Pathfinder is so much in the news, its site should be heavily time-stamped to show when images were added and how current information is. For the most part, this is done on the MPF site, but it could be done better.

For example, the "Latest News" page does have a time-stamp for the page in the left hand corner, but that is not enough. That date refers only to the images on the right of the page. It does not clue return visitors in to what other content at the site has changed recently. For example, the "Navigation Information" link goes to week-old information, which is ancient history if you are visiting the busiest site on the Internet twice a day.

The links themselves on the "Latest News" should have separate dates which tell users how current the content is at the other end. If users can tell what has changed from the home page, then they won't have to wander any deeper to find out on their own.

Redesign to Discourage Wandering
I redesigned the "Latest News" page from Tuesday to illustrate my point. The links go to the real site, so use the page to try and find something. A quick glance at this page should reveal three things:

  1. descriptive links to the other home pages
  2. blurbs that describe what each section is about
  3. time-stamps that shows recent changes to the site.

If your site is getting overloaded, you probably won't have the luxury of setting up mirrors sites like JPL did. Logical solutions would be to upgrade your server and your connection to the Internet, of course. However, you might consider the cheaper alternative of redesigning your site so that users are not as likely to wander around and get lost.

These simple solutions will add a responsive feel to your site, while at the same time keep visitors from getting lost as often.

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