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Thinking About User-Interface Design for Your Personal Web Business

For a personal Web business, designing a user interface is primarily about managing your users' expectations, which includes both meeting and setting expectations. At minimum, your users have expectations about: (a) the content you ought to have on your site; (b) how they should go about acquiring that content; (c) how easy it is to understand your content once they acquire it; and (d) how to contribute their own content to your site. For example, if the theme of your site is "movie reviews," your users expect you to have reviews of the latest movies on your site. They probably expect to find these movie reviews via an alphabetical index, or by simply typing a part of the movie's title or a cast member's name into a search box. Once they get to a particular review, they expect it to succinctly address the important aspects of the movie and provide an overall rating. Finally, they expect to be able to easily add their own movie reviews. If you meet or beat your users' expectations, they'll say you have a good design; otherwise, they'll complain about your site.

If you just have one type of user, the user-interface design doesn't seem too onerous. However, in a personal Web business, you have at least three types of users whose expectations you must account for when designing your user interface, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Information activity map highlighting the different users in a personal Web business.

  1. New users (N) are visiting your site (W) for the first time and aren't really sure what to expect. Design your user interface so that—preferably with a mere glance—N knows exactly what content to expect and why it's valuable. You also want to make it as easy as possible for N to access your site's content. Finally, your site needs to be aesthetically pleasing, since aesthetics play a key role in attracting new users.

  2. Existing customers (C) are already convinced of your site's value. C is more concerned about the quality of your site's content and how easy it is to work with that content; your site's aesthetics are not as important to the existing customer. To meet C's expectations, you should design your user interface so that it's easy for C to acquire existing content, contribute new content, and learn about new content that other customers contribute.

  3. Advertisers (A), prior to accepting you as an affiliate, will visit your site to make sure that it meets their minimum requirements, and may periodically audit your site to ensure that it continues to meet those minimum requirements. Advertisers expect you to set aside portions of your user interface for their banner and text advertisements, while maintaining a professional-looking, easy-to-use site.

By now, you can probably guess why designing the user interface for a personal Web business is difficult, or at least different from designing a user interface for, say, a personal home page. You have three types of users, with different and sometimes conflicting expectations. For example, your advertisers expect you to place their banners in prominent locations on every page of your site. Pleasing your advertisers by doing so—or by popping up banners when users click certain links—may annoy existing and new customers who prefer a user interface with no advertisements at all. Thus, the optimal design for one set of users may conflict with the optimal design for another group of users.

In short, for a personal Web business, designing a good user interface is a dialectical process. You need to understand your users' expectations and attempt to meet them. Failing to meet them, you need to settle on a design that, while not optimal for any particular user group, is good enough in the sense that it nonetheless allows them to accomplish whatever they need to do on your site. With expectations properly set, the last step is to use your user interface to effectively manage your users' attention. I'll address this issue in the last section of this article.

What I want to show you next is a general user interface that's "good enough" for most personal Web businesses. I should add that I don't claim it's a great user interface, simply that it's worked well for me and for my students in terms of attracting advertisers and minimizing user complaints. We'll also look at the details of implementing such an interface.

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