Monday, May 16, 2005

Getting to Know You

No offense to the Chamber of Commerce, but Gallup, New Mexico is probably not one of the state's top attractions. Even so, its strategic location in the center of Native American culture is wholly unique. "An estimated 75 percent of the world's Native American arts, crafts and silver jewelry is traded in Gallup," says the Chamber—and given the scores of traders, retailers, pawns, manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors we saw along Gallup's classic seven-mile stretch of Route 66, I'd say that's a conservative estimate. If you love Native American arts, Gallup is the place to visit.

And while you're there, you simply have to eat at Earl's Restaurant, serving up hearty American fare to locals and tourists alike on Route 66 since 1947.

While the food was good, what sets Earl's apart is that it's also a peripatetic bazaar of Native American jewelry and crafts. While you eat, local vendors visit your table and display their wares. Now, I'm from L.A. where we occasionally have cultists of various stripes trying to sell roses at restaurants—and so I have to admit I wasn't initially thrilled by the nearly non-stop parade of sellers. While the respectful and polite manner of the vendors (not to mention their oft-beautiful goods) was winsome, I felt awkward.

Yet in looking around, I noticed that most of the other patrons (especially other Native Americans) took the vending in stride. Indeed, there seemed to be a protocol or etiquette involved. Almost without exception, the locals would stop eating and thoughtfully examine the vendors' goods—often handling them, commenting on their craftsmanship and engaging in conversation. A little light went on in my head: "Respond with the same respect that I'm receiving."

So I emulated my fellow diners—and it was like magic. The interactions changed from being interruptions to genuine pleasures. I learned a bit about Native American jewelry, had some conversations with some very fine people and enjoyed myself immensely. Even better, it prepared me for many similar situations in Santa Fe and Taos.

That night, it hit me: How many Web sites have made me feel as awkward as I first did at Earl's?

It's very easy to become so wrapped up in designing and producing a great site that we forget that we're inviting our users into another world or culture that may be unfamiliar to them. Our enthusiasm for the content and our rich domain knowledge can inadvertently lead to opaque information architecture, unclear navigation and overuse of jargon. As a result, our valued users can feel excluded or inadequate.

Over the last year, I've been working on the redesign of a truly wonderful collectibles site populated by thousands of ardent collectors. Our user research revealed that the site was kept afloat almost solely by hardcore collectors; novice and intermediate collectors were poorly represented. Remembering my first visits to the site, I immediately knew why: The site was impenetrable due to its heavy use of insider terminology, a structure that assumed expert domain knowledge and a lack of any content that could welcome and guide newcomers. None of this was purposeful, but simply grew out of the site team's own enthusiasm.

What the site lacked was a way to introduce novice and casual collectors to an unfamiliar culture. They felt awkward and unsure of how to proceed, just like I did at Earl's. We needed to provide cues and insights into our world.

Phase 1 of our new design completely revamped the IA, simplified the navigation (even while adding new content), provided more cues to subsurface content and employed plain language. And although we have yet to implement content specifically for new and casual collectors, visits to the site have leapt by nearly 20% in the three months since its launch.

The lesson: Help new users enter the world of your site by embedding cues, hints, models and guides in your IA, navigation, content and design.

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