On the Web, you (“you” being a designer or developer) can pretty much do whatever you like. Got a hankering to reinvent how a personal profile or company presence is going to look on the Web? Go nuts. Nobody’s going to stop you. Every URL is a blank canvas. There’s infinite freedom.
But alas, there are patterns out there. Here are some familiar and fairly common user experiences:
- You visit a restaurant Website. Some lounge music kicks in while a Flash movie loads in that pans across a dimly lit interior. You fish around for some links and find the menu. In a bizarre marriage of technologies that we’ve grown to accept, the menu gets handed to you in PDF format.
- A friend points you to a band that is supposedly worth checking out. You type the band name into Google and the Myspace link is predictably within the first three results. You click on it and rummage through somewhere between 400 and 1,000 pixels of garbage to get to that familiar Myspace audio player.
- You visit Facebook and glance down your social stream of activity.
- You visit Twitter and glance at all the chatter coming from the people you follow.
- You click through a Youtube link and end up on Youtube and just watch stuff.
- Your run-of-the-mill corporate site navigation (sing it with me): Home – Products – Services – About Us – Contact Us (with some variation).
- The familiar information flow of any Wikipedia page.
Even though the Web is generally an ungodly mess, we find ourselves – as users – seeking out patterns around how certain information is displayed. In fact, while we all can appreciate some creativity and out-of-the-proverbial-box thinking, we really, really appreciate consistency. As users, we love it when templates are used on the Web. Despite how shitty restaurant sites are (and yes, they’re all shitty), we’ve hard-wired how they work and grown to understand their common characteristics, warts and all.
One of the reasons Arc90’s Readability resonated with so many people is that it empowered users of the Web to impose consistency around nearly any article-based content on the Web. It’s helpful that the tool removed a lot of clutter, but it’s #1 feature, in my opinion, is the application of a consistent representation of content.
It may come across as a bit of depraved soul-sucking to suggest that we all start to appreciate the common patterns on the Web rather than try to be unique or original. This isn’t about the shiny top-coating of the Web. It’s about the skeletal pieces that make up how things are structured. You can design a car a million different ways, but stick to what people know: steering wheel, pedals and stick shift.
Put differently, your users are building an expertise – an expertise on how to get around on the Web – that you should lean on and respect. The trick is to bring your own character, style and inviting elements of surprise while still relying upon and rewarding that expertise.