28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XX

Interaction should enhance the user experience, not hinder it.

Technically, all websites can be categorized as interactive, no matter how basic and seemingly passive to a user’s behaviors. With the exception of parked domains and single-page sites with no buttons or links to any other page, there is some degree of interactivity between the human and the machine.

When the elements of a site are developed to react in a new, unexpected, experimental or engaging fashion, it becomes a subject of interactive design, with all the connotations and philosophies that go along with the practice. There are many reasons to choose to make the switch from static HTML to a more dynamic presentation such as Flash: added functionality, a more human look and feel, or just a desire to stand out from the drab expanse of drab unmoving, sites on the web.

When planning the style and degree of a site’s interaction, it’s important to consider the reasoning behind it and whether it will enhance the overall user experience. Quite often, websites will feature full Flash menus that, once looked into, are little more than simple menu lists with moving elements, often slowing user navigation and resulting in unnecessary disorientation. In fact, a large number of artistic portfolio sites made in Flash are simple menus made more frustrating than helpful by making users chase moving buttons, explore confusing landscapes with no visible hints as to what leads where, and perform feats well beyond simply clicking on a concise list of available options, which would have worked just as well.

The Amsterdam Film Experience website starts off with a number of thumbnails randomly tossed about the screen–some overlapping others at times–which lead to a featured film or information about the event. The menu is more engaging than a simple list of pages and videos, but makes it difficult to find what the user is looking for, especially since buttons don’t tell where they’ll lead until the cursor rolls over them (a phenomenon knows as Mystery Meat Navigation, which, aside from exploration-centered experiences, is a very bad idea, as it makes users do more work than should be necessary to discover where clicking will take them; after all, moving the eye is far simpler and takes less effort than moving the mouse and accurately stopping over the button’s hit area.)

When the user chooses a thumbnail–by either double-clicking or dragging the image into the box in the lower right corner, again muddling the experience–the remaining thumbnails fall to the floor, where they remain for the rest of the visit, unless the user drags them around to see what’s hiding behind them (having dropped to the same Y axis, thumbnails are even more likely to overlapped, leaving at least a couple completely hidden, as well as some important text and the email input field). The sudden exposure to gravity gives these thumbnails a tangible quality, which might make the user feel more connected to the site, but with all the overlapping and trouble caused by vague button descriptions, it’s a shame to give the appearance of a row of physical objects and yet not provide something to hit when things get too confusing.

Of course, while the interactive element of this site isn’t necessary, the experience can still be quite enjoyable. But forcing users to play along with less than conventional site navigation, when many of them might want to quickly find what they’re looking for and move on, isn’t a good way to reach the broadest audience. A successful interactive site will be designed with the understanding that some users aren’t looking for an immersive experience, and supply a secondary, static navigation style to allow those users a less complicated experience.

Interactivity can greatly enhance the user experience, but there is a time and a place for it, and it’s impossible to tell whether a user will be receptive to interactive immersion at any given time. Instead of expecting users to fully appreciate the artistic vision of a website, designers should try to make sure the experience will benefit from the addition of interactive elements, and even then, try to give an alternative for what might end up frustrating a percentage of their visitors.

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