Analyzing Real and Virtual Space

I have a horrible sense of direction; therefore, I don’t drive anywhere without my GPS navigation device. Prior to the GPS, I used MapQuest or Google Maps to get around. Even with turn-by-turn directions printed out on a piece of paper, the proximity of the distance always confused me. For instance, when the direction said drives 6.3 miles and makes a right turn on Main Street. Did I miss the turn? Had I gone too far? Why don’t I see the street sign? I either looked for road signs or found a gas station to figure out where I was. It just occurs to me now (as I am writing this essay) that I never used a map to orient myself because I also don’t have a good sense of using the maps. Somehow following a set of instructions always appealed to me over a map. Even with the GPS, I rather listen to the instructions than look at the map.

Because of my horrible sense of direction, I became a much better web designer. If I can’t figure my way around a website my users probably can’t either; therefore, I always try to make the site navigation as clear and simple as possible. In Inventing the Medium’s chapter six on “Spatial Design Strategies,” Janet Murray writes:

Websites also create a sense of place, using consistency of style sheets to unite the page displays, and including the homepage as a landmark to which other pages are all related. When the space is well designed the organization is reinforced through the experience of navigation. Each time I go to a page I get a concrete experience of the relationship of one topic to another. Designers can reinforced the experience of an information space, and make it more memorable, by using clear labels and a navigation pattern that follows a logical information hierarchy. Creating a separate “site map” is poor substitute for creating a navigation menu that provides a clear, logical, and memorable map of the site organization.

While I agree with Ms. Murray that using clear labels and logical navigation patterns would make websites easier to use, I totally disagree with her that creating a sitemap is a poor substitution. In fact, I would argue that a sitemap is a design choice on the part of the creators to make the web site easier to use. A site map can’t replace an intuitive navigation system, but it could enhance the experience. For example, if users want to know everything on a particular web site and they don’t have time to navigation through the menu, the sitemap is a good place for them to see every page on the site. Furthermore, sitemap tells search engines like Google about the pages on the site they might not otherwise discover. Having a sitemap not only enhances the user experience, but also increases search engine optimization.

Design choices such as images, type and space make a web site welcoming. If the images are well designed, chosen and optimized, they can attract visitors and make them want to explore further. If the typefaces are legible and readable, visitors might want to stay and read. If the space is balanced with breathing room, visitors might want to learn more. The homepage is the space that could lure visitors into exploring the site; therefore, the space on the homepage has to be well executed. For example, the homepage of uses big open space to promote the company’s latest product.

With social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, the virtual world is perhaps an improvement over reality. Facebook allows users to connect with friends and acquaintances from that past that might not be possible in the real world. If it weren’t for Facebook, I would never discover friends from middle school. As much as Facebook and Twitter would like their users to stay in their network, they can’t force them. The way that they signal users that they are leaving or entering their network is to make them sign in. Once inside the network, users can still leave to other sites by opening up a new window. For instance, I can view a YouTube video in Facebook or open up a new window on YouTube site.

(Fifth essay for Graduate Design Seminar)