Theories on concepts to help you design a better web site to promote your music.
Before anyone jumps to any conclusions about the content of this article, let me say straight away, I am going to steer clear of as much of my personal opinion as possible and stick to just findings of usability studies and human interaction with web sites.
Ultimately, and sadly, if you are ever involved in creating a web site with any more than one or two people, it generally becomes an ego-driven and politically driven project. It's much like music, every player in the game needs their ego stroked a little or they get hurt and leave, or just get ticked. It's lame, but that's the way it works, in large corporate situations it's typically the person with the highest rank that gets their way. All the designer and developer of the site itself can hope for is that that person has the intelligence and humility to know when to ask someone that they trust knows better.
Regardless of personal opinions regarding color, layout and just the overall look and feel of a site, certain truths exist that have been proven time and time again in user studies.
What is a User Study, Anyway?
User studies are really quite interesting, if you ever have the chance to observe one, I highly recommend it if you are interested enough to be reading this article.
In a perfect scenario, user studies are conducted by two or more groups of people, one group being the users and the other group or groups being all the people that have a vested interest in the product from designing the user interface to the developers of the product, marketers and so on. In that same perfect world, the users are never actually seen by the other group or groups. The reason for this is, in theory, to prevent natural human prejudice from interfering with any judgment or outcomes of the testing. If one user is a minority and a couple of the people in the other groups are prejudice against that minority it could affect the outcome of the test by inflating or ignoring that users input.
The user are given a series of questions that they can find the answers to on the web site (or application or whatever) being tested. The people that are conducting the test only see the computer screens of the users, seeing where their mouse travels, and in the most advanced studies they where headgear that will indicate where their eye is drawn at various times and in various places.
All this information can then be analyzed to get a better idea of how people act, react and their logic in solving problems. If 80% of the users did the same thing to find the answer to one question, and the answer is really somewhere else, that is a good indication you should consider moving that content. It's easier to move your content than to retrain the human race.
Commonly Accepted Usability Facts
Be aware that, like anything, these finding can seem odd, or even contradict each other. The designers greatest challenge is to make a site as usable and as attractive as possible without letting either of those aspects trample the other. And remember, though I write these like they are my personal beliefs, that may not be the case, I am just sharing information provided by the tests and studies I have read that apply to web sites..
The Great Debate...to Frame or not to Frame (or IFrame)
Before discussing the details, I have to begin by defining what a frame and an iframe is. A site build with "frames" is the site that has the main viewing window chopped up into several smaller windows. Typically, one window will be the navigation and the other will be the main content. Click on a link in the navigation frame and it will change the content of the main content frame. Sometimes people put header and footer frames as well. These are readily apparant to the surfer.
IFrames are similar, althought not always as apparant to the surfer. It still is a window within a window, althought it isn't diced up the same as a typical, old-school frame, and it can be dymaically positioned at any point on the page and populated with content the is independent from the main page.
In the old days frames were bad simply because not all browsers supported them, so the designer wouldhave to build an error catch for those people. Those days are long gone. The debate rages on...
There are still several other reasons to not use frames, and keep in mind not all of these reasons apply to iframes.
Personally opinion coming: Frames are, more often than not, used as a work around for an otherwise bad site design and hierarchy. Very, very rarely is a framed site truly necessary, and should, whenever possible, be avoided.
Large Images, Flash, Shockwave, Java Applets and other such Annoyances
All of things can have their place on a web site, they were created for specific reasons, and the reasons may still be valid and useful, though there are things to consider when using some of these elements.
The above rule regarding something using plugins can be worked around. There are often ways of checking the client for the necessary plugin, if the plugin does not exist, then show an alternate object. So if you intend to use Flash or something similar on your front page (or anywhere really) check for the existence of the plugin to support it before showing that object.
Audio Formats and Downloads
Multimedia formats are littering the internet, it's hard to choose the proper format to use. There is QuickTime, Real Player, Windows Media, mp3 and many lesser known formats. For strictly audio applications, such as we deal with as musicians, mp3 is all the rage. Add to that the fact it is very commonly accepted and while I have no statistic I would bet 95% or more of internet users have an mp3 player on their system. Some may not even know it.
One drawback, besides the obvious quality loss, as is the case with most any streaming/compressed media type, is it also only supports mono and stereo, so if you are forward thinking and creating surround audio, mp3 won't be the answer, otherwise, it's a wise choice.
When posting music for download, do not force background music on your users, make it a clickable link that requires user intervention to play. Forcing something of that size on someone could choke the internet user on a slow dial up connection. Also, it's a wise idea to have two downloads, one for high bandwidth users (DSL, cable, etc) and one for low bandwidth (ISDN and dialup). While the low bandwidth version will lack some quality, at least they can listen to something without waiting forever for the song to download and play. Which is, presumably, why they came to your site.
The above are guidelines based on the results of testing actually internet users of all skill levels. If you are targetting a very specific group of people in which you can predict certain characteristics about them, all the better for you. Use that knowledge and consider it when designing the web site.
The developer (you) will always understand the navigation and usage of a site. If you are building a new one, test it on some friends and see if they have valid advice for you to consider.
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