The Science of Web Design: Give Users Options, But Not Too Many


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How do you get people to interact with a website? Image by arinas74

How much is too much, when it comes to self-expression and customizing an interactive web portal or online community? It’s a delicate balance that depends on avoiding decision fatigue, while allowing cosmetic changes and abilities to express individual thoughts and ideas, according to new research from Penn State.

Gadgets and Blogging Platform For Heightened Interactivity

Getting users involved in a web community is one of the great challenges of the Internet. How do you not only get users to come to the site, but sit down, make themselves comfortable, and then keep coming back for more? Dr. Shyam Sundar, founding director of the Media Effects Research Lab at Penn State University, has isolated several potential offerings that can increase interactivity and user enthusiasm for a website, web portal, or online community.

In research presented today at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Dr. Sundar demonstrated that a combination of gadgets, cosmetic personalization (changing colors, fonts, and other methods of making a page unique between users) and blogging is the optimum combination for user interactivity.

Why is This Research Important?

For a Web Admin, this research is a window into the psyche of the casual browser, and offers an opportunity to increase interaction and interest in a website. As Dr. Sundar told Decoded Science, it also “highlights the need to view interactive tools as vehicles of self-expression, rather than simply as a back-and-forth exchange of information between the user and the system.”

He continues, saying that, “cosmetic customization features on modern media devices (e.g. face-plates on cell phones or background images on our desktop screens) may seem trivial, but our research shows that users have much more positive attitudes towards interfaces that they decorate, compared to those that they don’t. More importantly, cosmetically customizing one’s interface serves to enhance user’s engagement with the content in that interface, especially when the interface offers ongoing opportunities for self-expression, such as active blogging.”

“In fact, we found that active blogging (i.e., personal journaling) leads to more positive attitudes toward the portal than filter blogging (i/e forwarding content prepared by others) and greater absorption with the  content and greater intention to use the portal in the future.”

Does that mean a website should devote itself to creating a blogging platform for users? Not quite – according to Dr. Sundar, even “Offering users a simple text field can be profoundly important for self-expression – goes to show why Twitter and status-update function in Facebook are so successful.”

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