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Common design principles, like publishing genres, are essential for good customer relations

By Hugh Brown - posted Sunday, 15 April 2001

One of the most useful features of a newspaper is that it is a standard for content presentation. This means that when you buy a newspaper, you can reasonably expect to know where to find things in it – important news to the front, opinion further back, sport further back still, etc. Further, each page is laid out to reflect the natural gravity of reading right-to-left and top-to-bottom (in English). The same is true of magazines, textbooks, roadmaps, and even novels.

Similarly, when watching a TV show, you can be sure that the programs’ producers have constructed each shot to guide your eyes and ears to the aspects of the program they want to emphasise. In this way, based on well-researched user behaviours, the producers of other media content can reasonably predict how their "content" will be interpreted.

To use a simplified sender-message-receiver model, the sender can be maximally confident that the receiver will get the message the sender wanted to send. Individual interpretation is largely subverted in the name of large-scale, common-meaning communication.


On the web, this aspect of production can be both more important and less important, depending on the site’s target audience. If the site aims for a small community of niche-interest users, like say fans of an obscure 17th century poet, they can afford to use a certain amount of unique expressions and navigation features. However, if the site intends to target as many users as possible, like say, they must use as many simple standards of communication and readability as possible.

This is especially true for sites that seek to appeal to a multi-cultural audience. If the site is in English, and a significant (and growing) proportion of the Web’s users are not native-English speakers, the closer the site’s design conforms to textbook English, the better.

Complicating this is the culturally preferred order of discourse. For example, English is usually structured to make a point at the start of an expression and then justify, explain or qualify it in subsequent phrases. Chinese, on the other hand, is structured to build from a string of ideas to a final statement of the point. Failure to appreciate this can make reading an article written in English by a Chinese-thinker a challenging experience – and the same is almost certainly true vice versa.

Of course, a great deal of research is being conducted into how human beings interpret Internet Content. Prominent efforts include the Poynter Eyetrack study, which found that, contrary to some proponents’ claims, news readers tend to focus on headlines and similar micro-content before looking at images. Other research is reported in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication and the Journal of Online Behaviour, among others.

It’s important to note that newspapers, movies and TV shows have not always been designed the way they are today. They have evolved into their current form as designers’ thinking responded to the aspects that worked best for the medium. Similarly, successful Web sites are evolving into design "genres".'s is the best-known e-commerce genre, while a range of news sites has adopted a variation on the standard used in, for example, Slate, Salon, Editor& Publisher, and Internet Content. Others have emerged for political sites, company sites and Interest group sites. These are subtle variations on the same design features – which are determined by users’ responses to the medium.

However, while the Web sites of the enterprises that are used to publication standards have realised this need quickly, many company and personal sites are still in the grip of the creative egos who call themselves "Web designers". Their sites feature excessive graphical elements, pointless flash introductions, jargon, and poor navigation structures. They are often very distinctive and quite vibrant but in an effort to stand out they defy conventions and make users conform to the site’s design – very poor customer service in anyone’s language.


This approach to design may well result in the site in question having a small band of loyal, followers but it creates a barrier to acquiring new users. Remembering that less then half of Australians have an Internet connection, non-standard designs force new users to learn whole new sets of interactive functions. Given the number of alternatives the new user has, they may well choose to frequent a site that conforms to the standards - it's less confusing.

It would be nice one day to subscribe the creative egos to a newspaper that had a huge picture occupying the front page, read from right to left, and the most important news in the middle.

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This article first appeared in the Internet Content newsletter on April 17, 2001.

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About the Author

Hugh Brown is a PhD candidate in the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT and teaches communication at the University of Queensland and QUT. He was editor of On Line Opinion from June 2000 until August 2004 and has a degree in journalism from the University of Queensland, for which he was awarded a University Medal. Before joining On Line Opinion he was editor of the now-defunct Tr@cks e-zine, based in Brisbane, and inaugural student editor of The Queensland Independent. He has also freelanced for a variety of publications.

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