AOCS 2.0 debuts
By Catherine Watkins
A drum roll, please: The new AOCS web experience, otherwise known as AOCS 2.0, debuted in early May. The unveiling followed more than a year of extraordinary efforts by all members of the AOCS staff, led by AOCS Web Strategy Manager Amy Lopez. Lopez, who has an M.Sc. in animal nutrition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is also in charge of developing AOCS’ eLearning programs. As a scientist working for a scientific association, she naturally took a scientific approach to the redesign. She not only pored over reams of research on website usability and design, she also analyzed traffic patterns on the previous AOCS site to better understand what visitors to www.aocs.org need and want.
Like many nonprofit organizations, AOCS developed its first websites as time and staffing permitted, bit by bit (byte by byte?). The ad hoc approach led to a site with more than 3,000 separate pages, including some that had never been accessed. As Lopez began managing the herculean effort of redoing the old site, she used three organizing principles: usability, readability, and simplicity.
Research Leads the Way
Lopez began by researching usability, or how to design a site from a user-centered standpoint, rather than from an organizational standpoint.
What she found was that AOCS—like most companies and organizations—had designed its previous sites based on nonweb experience. “The web is a new medium and requires a new approach,” writes the chief usability researcher, Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen is a principal of the Nielsen Norman Group in Fremont, California, USA, which he co-founded with Donald A. Norman, a former vice president of research at Apple Computer. Rather than structuring a site to mirror the way an organization is structured, Nielsen says, a site should be structured to mirror users’ tasks.
The key to taking the frustration out of finding information on any website is navigation designed for the tasks users want to accomplish. The new AOCS site exhibits Nielsen’s well-researched recommendation for navigation: mega drop-down menus.
Mega drop-downs, or big, two-dimensional panels divided into groups of navigation options, allow for one-click navigation for most users. All options are visible at once without scrolling. Navigation choices are structured through layout and typography.
Mega drop-downs will not help users, however, if the terms used do not reflect the tasks that visitors want to accomplish. For example, the old AOCS site had a tab for Technical Services. AOCS staff knew that the AOCS Technical Services department oversees method development, but users did not. Therefore, finding AOCS methods on the old site was difficult. Which is precisely why the new site has a tab for methods, and not Technical Services.
The Process of Redesign
Next came the huge task of examining all 3,000+ pages on the old site and rewriting those that needed to remain. This part of the redesign involved the entire AOCS staff and was also based on research. (The new site has about 1,500 pages.)
As Janice Redish notes in Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, people come to websites for content. They want information that:
• Answers a question or helps them complete a task,
• Is easy to find and easy to understand, and
• Is accurate, up to date, and credible.
Research shows that web users want information, but actually do not read much—“especially before they get to the page that has the information they want,” Redish says. Further, even on informational pages, “they skim and scan before they start to read.” In fact, the order in which they read is affected by design more than by traditional left-to-right, top-to-bottom sequence (for those languages that are read from left to right).
Jakob Nielsen found that 79% of his test users “always scanned any new page they came across; only 16% read word-by-word.” Another study found that users read email newsletters even more abruptly than they read websites.
Now when visitors arrive at www.aocs.org , they will find content that can be skimmed and that uses about one-half the text that formerly appeared. In addition, the use of subheads, bulleted lists, and short paragraphs has greatly increased readability.
One reason web users skim content is that reading from computer monitors is tiring. Users also exhibit two distinct eye-tracking patterns, research shows. (Eye tracking is the process of measuring either the point of gaze or the motion of an eye relative to the head.) About 40% skim the page in an F pattern (two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe.); 60% skim in a Z pattern. These patterns can be modified through clever design: Studies show that images with faces or face-like shapes alter eye-tracking patterns.
What is next?
The AOCS web team reports dreaming about the new website during the process of its redesign, including having nightmares about malformed URLs (Uniform Resource Locators, or web addresses).
Would Lopez go through a complete website overhaul again? Absolutely. “It is a wonderful, fun job where we get to truly help people every day,” she says. “We all love what we do.”
If you have not already tested out the results of the 15-month project, head over to www.aocs.org now. See if you agree that the redesign has gone a long way toward fulfilling the AOCS Governing Board’s No. 1 objective on its current strategic plan: “The AOCS website should provide information ranging from late-breaking to archival, making AOCS the primary authoritative source of emerging issues and late-breaking news of importance to AOCS members and constituents.”
And if you do not agree, Amy Lopez looks forward to hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
INFORM OFFERS DIGITAL EDITION
AOCS' member magazine, inform, now has both a print and a digital edition.
The new digital edition appears in a page-flipping format that replicates the experience of reading a print magazine. Each digital issue is fully searchable and all hyperlinks are live. PDFs of articles can be downloaded for easy viewing offline. Best of all, the digital version should be available seven to 10 days ahead of the previous online posting schedule.
In addition, the inform web news service on the AOCS home page has been enhanced so that stories will be organized by date instead of by topic area. Web news will be archived by month (a project that is not yet completed), so with the enhanced search functionality of the new site, pulling up a past story or stories on a given topic will be simple and fast.
Log in to www.aocs.org today and experience the new digital inform and web news. Highlights of the new www.aocs.org
- "Find it fast" listing of the most-performed tasks
- Dynamically populated view of the site's most-popular features and pages
- Increased space for inform web news headlines, making scanning easier
- Open access now to all listings (associations, industry, vendors, and technical resources) except the membership roster (which remains available only to members)
- 19 listservs: one each for AOCS divisions and sections
Technically, a listserv is an automatic mailing list server developed by Eric Thomas for BITNET in 1986. Practically speaking, when email is addressed to a listserv mailing list, it is automatically broadcast to everyone on the list. The result is similar to a newsgroup or forum, except that the messages are transmitted as email and are therefore available only to individuals on the list.
- Ability to read and write reviews of AOCS products
- Personalized content delivery, including recommendations
- Expanded free informational resources, including The AOCS Lipid Library
- New site for the AOCS Foundation (www.aocsfoundation.org) highlighting current funding projects and different donation options
Here are four must-have books on web redesign and writing, recommended by the AOCS web redesign team:
- Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen (ISBN 1-56205-810-X)
Author Jakob Nielsen has made a living speaking and writing about web usability, page design, and content design. Named by BusinessWeek magazine as one of the world's most influential designers, he holds a Ph.D. in human-computer interaction from the Technical University of Denmark in Copenhagen. Nielsen's website-- www.useit.com --is filled with resources on usability.
- Don't Make Me Think! by Steve Krug (ISBN 0-321-34475-8)
Subtitled "A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability," the second edition of this reference aims "to completely change the way you think about web design."
- Killer Web Content by Gerry McGovern (ISBN 0-7136-7704-X)
This book covers a great deal of ground, ranging from how to get a website into the first page of search results to understanding the benefits of blogs, RSS (Really Simple Syndication), and email newsletters.
- Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works by Janice Redish (ISBN 978-0-12-369486-7)
If only the authors of all 12 billion or so pages that exist on the web had read this book. If they had, all of us would have many fewer words to wade through while surfing.
Catherine Watkins is associate editor of inform and can be reached at email@example.com.