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Billboard design: creating sites for the 60mph user

Assuming you’re paying attention to the road, or texting, or going 90 in a 55, billboards have only a fraction of a second to catch your attention. (Unless of course you live in L.A., in which case they have hours.) The same applies to websites. Users have become so accustomed to the quick fix of information they can get and actions they can perform on the Internet, that they have come to expect it.

We are always in a hurry when doing something online, and we expect to get what we need in a matter of seconds. Essentially, we are usually browsing the web at about 60mph – with only seconds to get a glimpse of important information.

From Steven Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think (2005):

“If your audience is going to act like you’re designing billboards, then design great billboards.”

What’s that? You’ve never designed a billboard? No worries. We will split this article up into two sections: design and content. Both have techniques to help gain and keep readers attention when they are visiting your site in a hurry.

First Impressions

First impressions are everything when it comes to the web. Within the first second, your website needs to establish its brand, credibility and trust. A design that is aesthetically pleasing might keep you around for a couple extra seconds – but ultimately, if you don’t know or trust the brand, the site has failed an important test.

The average user is much less critical about design than web designers and developers.It’s important to note, however, that us web designers and developers have much less tolerance for poor design than the average user. We have a solid foundation of design skills that make us much more critical of websites. So let’s say the average user is not quite so judgmental, and will be a little more forgiving with an uglier site.

No matter how ugly the site, there are two elements that should grab user’s attention right away:

1) Prominent Logo/Title

Let users know where they are. A most common convention is to keep a logo and tagline in the upper left or center of the page that always links home. Taglines should be clever but easy to understand, and should appropriately reflect what your site is about.

2) Clean Navigation

The navigation system is the user’s visual roadmap. It gives them an idea of what kind of content they can find here and where they should start. Primary links should be easy to read and above the scroll of the page. Additionally, for more interactive sites, you might consider including utility links in the upper right. Utility links include actions such as ‘purchase’, ‘login/logout’, ‘search’, etc.

Kiwi Bank

Kiwi bank does a good job of creating a clean and attractive site design that doesn’t sacrifice the prominent logo and clear navigation. It is simple for users to see where they are and what they can do there.

Thumbnail design

Say billboards actually worked, and people were constantly pulling off the road at the next exit to visit the largest ball of twine, or Joe’s Famous Steakhouse that’s not even remotely famous. We wouldn’t have the time to pull off at every exit, so we would need to be selective about what we wanted to see.

Kiwi BankAs mentioned earlier, when it comes to aesthetics, we are all fairly judgmental. We like to be impressed by a website’s design as soon as we see it. But sometimes, we’re moving to fast to even visit the site. Thumbnail design has been gaining popularity recently – with the notion that a design should still look attractive even when condensed into a 320×220 screenshot.

When browsing inspiration galleries, don’t we often only click on the sites that have an attractive thumbnail? These thumbnails act as mini billboards for us, enticing us to come view the entire site. Unfortunately, we are quick to bypass any design that doesn’t meet our standards in a thumbnail.

Writing Copy: Visual Stopping Points

When writing for the web, users need reassurance that they will be able to rest in between paragraphs. Not that your writing is so boring it puts them to sleep, but stopping points actually give readers more motivation to continue.

How many times have you been reading a book where one of the chapters starts getting just a little too long? You’re 50 pages deep in chapter four and there is no five in sight. Eventually you give in, and start flipping the pages to count how many are left. The chapters of books provide solid resting points for readers, and motivate them to continue.

Online, the same principle applies. Whether we like it or not, people who use the web are skimmers. It’s not often we read an entire article of text, especially if it isn’t accompanied by photos, diagrams or fun links of truck-chasing dogs.

When writing copy for the web, think about what kind of resting points you can add:

1) Relevant imagery

Is there any part of your text that can be portrayed by an illustration or diagram? These images should not be replacements for paragraphs of text, but rather, should accompany them. Quality imagery will accomplish two things: a) break up the text to make it less daunting b) explain an entire concept with just a quick glance.

2) Headlines

Bold headings that stand out from the paragraphs will allow users to skim through an entire article and grab your main points without reading a thing. Not that you don’t want users to read your article, but you want to make it easy for them to understand your overall structure at a glance.

3) Pull Quotes

I often use pull quotes in my articles if there are important concepts I want to emphasize. Styling these appropriately can provide a visual break for readers, and will give them the important points you want them to remember.

Visual Stopping Points

Nettuts+ does a great job of adding visual stopping points into their daily posts. The photo on the left is stripped of all of these stopping points. If you’ll notice, though the article on the right would wind up looking much longer, it also looks much easier to read. Nettuts+ also posted a great article that discusses visual stopping points further.

A few final thoughts

The home page takes on much responsibility, and has just a few seconds to accomplish everything necessary to get user’s attention.Remember that the home page is (usually) the first page users will see when coming to your site. The home page takes on a lot of responsibility with this role, and has just a few quick seconds to accomplish everything necessary to get user’s attention. It’s important to keep your design clean, establish your brand, and let users know what they can do at your site. If these needs are not met, you will lose a lot of interest.

Websites need to have content. And sometimes, it’s not the most interesting stuff in the world. Breaking up text with imagery and pull quotes will be a great way to keep readers motivated. Try experimenting with different headings and styles that will also make long blocks of text less daunting.

These are just a few simple ways to ensure you’re getting the attention of users that might be speeding through your site, but there is sure to be many others especially as web trends continue to evolve.


Any thoughts? What other aspects of design are important when our audience is always in a hurry? Let us know by commenting below.

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