II-3. Tips for Websites

II-3-1. Content

Content issues focus on the utility dimension of usefulness. Dose the content serve the needs of the user? This is an important issue that can be assessed by posing questions to participants during usability testing and user inquiry research. In the mid-1990s, many organizations rushed to launch a web site without much strategic thought being given to how the site might be used. Many organizations fully expected to add or refine content later. Raj suggests that web sites need to become more consumer-centric, aimed toward organization-sponsored programming. Effective sites must go beyond being a digital data sheet about the organization and need to be "compelling". Nielsen, the guru of usability research, explained the importance of content this way:

Content is the next frontier in web usability. Ultimately, content is king from a user's perspective. It is what users are there for. Usability studies tell us, when a page comes up-bong-people look in the middle of the content.

Importantly, because content is the driving force behind acceptance of web sites, many organizations are rethinking their web site strategies to invest in content, rather that in complicated and costly advanced designs or navigation components. Indeed, some of the most heavily trafficked sponsored sites are those that provide mundane and practical information. The Wall Street Journal observes that it could be 10-15 years before the full entertainment potential of the web can be exploited -not until enough users have access to broadband distribution channels that can deliver graphically-intensive content.

This raises the issue of why individuals visit a web site. Uses and gratifications theory suggests that people are motivated by a variety of needs and derive multiple satisfactions from using media. One study of why people are attracted to a commercial site suggests that obtaining information is only one of seven concerns of users when accessing a site. However, for managers of sponsored sites, fulfilling users' needs for timely information about the organization remains the primary business justification for incurring the costs of site development and maintenance. This is true whether the intent is to promote products or services, to provide timely responses to inquiries, or to maintain relationships.

Content Issues of Special Interest to Public Relations.
Nonprofits web publishers have become increasingly sophisticated in their use of the web. They have focused on the aggressive promotion of their sites, expansion of the content, and the addition of games, databases, and other devices.

Several recent commercial research studies suggest that the fundraising field might not be taking full advantage of the web. Tsantes & Associates surveyed the use of the web by high-tech reporters. The lack of readily available press contact information was a major complaint, along with poor design and the lack of product information. The Tsantes research suggests that fundraising field is ripe to apply usability research in analyzing the effectiveness of sponsored web sites targeted to this key audience. For example, what is the usability of the typical press room on an organization's web site?

Another pertinent content issue deals with the perceived credibility of the web. In their annual survey of print journalists, Ross and Middleberg report that journalists find web sites to be sorely lacking in credibility, regardless of whether the sponsor was a for-profit business, a trade association, a nonprofit/public interest group, or an activist group. Web sites are classic examples of hybrid messages, which combine elements of information and promotion. As a new medium, many users are confused about how to interpret web messages because they have not fully delineated cognitive rules for processing web information. More research is needed to understand how users view the web as a source of information. Usability testing, particularly close monitoring of verbalizations about content and questionnaires completed by laboratory test participants can provide a potentially useful way to research this problem.



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