A frequent question that arises amongst web designers is how much text should be placed on a web page. However many web designers use decisions based on subjective feelings rather than basing their decisions on quantitative research.
Page density refers to the proportion of a web page that is occupied by text and graphics whilst white space is the portion of the page where nothing is displayed. The percentage of page white space and the percentage of the page density will amount to 100%.
Long before viewing hypertext pages on the web researchers conducted studies to investigate the relationship between the amount of information contained on a page and the amount of time that it took for a user to find an item as part of a predefined task. Not surprisingly and in accordance with what many would intuitively think they found that the more information that was placed on a screen then the longer it took to complete the task.
In light of this research many authors have suggested guidelines on the amount of information that should be presented to users at any one time. Some authors have issued guidelines stating that screen densities of 25% shouldn’t be exceeded at one end of the scale and 60% at the other. However one aspect these items didn’t cover which the web designer or web developer should be aware (but frequently aren’t) is that other components of a web page have a significant effect on a web users interaction with a website and consequently the effectiveness of the site other than just the page density.
Furthermore, the main question for a web designer who has a fixed amount of information to present on a webpage is what page density to use as that will directly affect the number of pages required by the site.
One study tried to address this question by presenting a fixed amount of information with different numbers of pages. There were a large number of low density pages, a medium number of average density pages and a low number of high density pages. Other factors such as the need to scroll the screens of information were removed from the study.
What the result of this investigation found and should be remembered by web designers at all times is that performance was significantly faster on the low number of high density pages, with the performance being worst on the high number of low density pages. Another interesting attribute of this investigation was that there was little difference between novice and experienced users, high density pages always won.
These results suggest, to a certain extent, that the best approach for web design is that lots of information should be placed on a webpage as densely as possible without risking the loss of user accuracy or satisfaction. This will also result in a lower number of web pages which a user will have to navigate through. Some people may take this to the apparent logical conclusion that everything should be placed on one page. However, to keep the web designer on his toes, other factors come into play, such as the need to scroll and how the information is presented on page, let alone the time to load individual pages.
A further study which supports high page densities which involved users searching for information on commercial websites found that the more white space, the less successfully people found information. The authors however speculated that although this aided readers who were looking for specific information, it may not be helpful to people skimming pages, who will be most successful when they can skim the most material the most quickly.
However before the web designer or web developer set out to create the ultimate web design there are other design tricks that can increase the effectiveness of a web site. There are four items that should be remembered:
- Abbreviations. By using abbreviations which the users will be familiar with rather than the full text the density of information that be conveyed in a limited number of words is dramatically increased.
- Reduce unnecessary detail. Don’t get carried away with superfluous detail. Winston Churchill once apologised for writing a long letter to someone as he didn’t have time to write a concise letter. Spend time by rigorously reducing the amount of unnecessary text.
- Familiar format and presentation. By presenting information to users in a familiar way so that they don’t have to think increases the speed and accuracy. Examples of this would be presenting dates in d/m/y format for Europe and m/d/y for the US. Other items would include postcodes (zip codes), thousands separators and telephone numbers (don’t use full international numbers if the users will be from the same locality).
- Tabulate. If information can be presented in table form then the web design should reflect that. Tables have the advantage of allowing the use of descriptive column and row headings that exquisitely eliminate the need to keep repeating the same label to data elements. The result being the same amount of information with reduced text.
By being aware of these web design guidelines it is possible to create a web site that will allow users to effectively interact and leave a lasting good impression of your hard work.
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