Web Site Customization? Personalize Look And Feel? Pros and Cons
Is customizing the look and feel of your web site or blog just cool or is there something more to it? To understand better how simple it has become to create web sites that both you and even your readers can personalize, give a good look to this short video from Wordpress theme maker Buzzdroid:
There is indeed more to consider when customizing the design of your site than what simply meets the eye.
User experience and usability expert Abid Warsi takes a good look at some of the issues you should keep in mind when considering such an approach. Making your site just cooler is not often the best idea, and only if your type of content and structure is of a certain kind it may be really good to provide your readers with alternatives on how to personalize their reading experience on your site.
His usability approach and user-centered analysis are simple to understand and easy to adopt.
Photo credit: Marc Dietrich
Customizable Websites - the Definitive Guide
by Abid Warsi
Several popular websites have let their homepages be customized by users. New web technologies have made it possible to add slicker customization interfaces so more sites are allowing users to customize their pages.
But, should you do the same?
Will it make your website better for users or will it make it unnecessarily complicated? Will users even want this feature on your site?
Types of Customization
Currently websites offer a variety of customization methods, allowing users to:
- Reposition content on the page - Boxes containing content can be moved anywhere on the page (or even removed). See the Redbridge Council homepage for an example.
Screenshot of MyYahoo! widget selector MyYahoo! also offers a widget selector that includes content feeds from other sites.
- Add settings and preferences - Examples include setting how many news headlines are shown and setting your location to get relevant weather reports.
Screenshot of BBC Weather widget This BBC homepage beta widget can be set to show the weather at the user's location.
- Add 'skins' - These can be used to change the overall appearance of the web page, including its color scheme.
Screenshot of iGoogle Users can add skins to change the overall appearance of their iGoogle page.
Benefits of Adding Customization to Your Web Site
You could attract new users and keep existing users more engaged with your site by adding customization. This is due to three factors:
Site visitors can have ownership of your website by choosing its layout and appearance. Users are often attracted to the idea of having a piece of the web which is their own.
- Choice & Prioritization
Many users will prefer your site if they can choose what content they receive and change the layout so their favorite content features most prominently. They may prefer this to static competitor sites.
Your website will always seem new and fresh if users can keep adding new content and applications. Facebook's quick rise in popularity is partly because users can add fun third party applications, of which there are now over 12,000. Other social networks are now trying to catch up by making it easier for developers to create add-ons for their sites (see Hi-tech tools divide social sites for more on this).
Disadvantages of Adding Customization to Your Website
Consider these disadvantages to customization before you invest time, effort and money in adding it to your website:
- It Might not Provide Any ROI
Adding customization to your website may not produce a return that covers the resources required to develop it. Users may not want to use it or if they do use it, it may not actually lead to more demand for your product or service.
- Customization Isn't for Everyone
Users may prefer going directly to other websites for a richer browsing experience, over reading RSS headlines on your website.
- Customizing Takes Time
Many users won't want to invest time in customizing a web page. However, this isn't an issue if a default configuration is available, that is, users don't need to configure the site in order to use it. Many may give it a try before deciding it's not for them and will then revert to the standard web page.
- Simpler is Often Better
Customization controls may scare some novice Internet users. Non-customizable sites are simpler in that they have fewer controls. Some users prefer 'simpler' sites and others might worry about accidentally changing or even 'breaking' a web page.
- Potential of Poor Usability
Users may inadvertently reduce the usability of your website when you hand design control over to them. If your homepage is currently easy to use it will likely be because you've taken care over its design.
- Users May Go Overboard
Your site visitors may initially get carried away and add too much content that they won't use and will need to remove later. This will create pages that contain too much information and are far too busy.
Tips for Adding Customization to Your Website
If you do decide to provide customization, consider doing the following:
- Provide a reset button which users can press to take them back to the original configuration, as used on the BBC homepage beta4.
Screenshot of BBC homepage beta showing reset homepage button Users of the BBC homepage beta can click a button to reset their page to its original configuration
- Give users the option to lock their configuration so that content can't be moved or removed by accident.
- Make it simple to arrange content. On MSN's homepage page content can't easily be moved from one column to another. Yahoo! and iGoogle's drag and drop method is much easier to use.
Screenshot of iGoogle iGoogle content can be rearranged easily by simply dragging it around the page.
- Consider using an open application platform to make it easy for developers to migrate existing applications to your website.
When You Should Add Customization to Your Website
Whether users would want to be able to customize your website depends on 2 main factors.
Firstly, do users visit your site frequently? Customizing a web page takes time - users are far more likely to invest this time if they spend enough time on your site to make customizing it worthwhile. If users set your website as their browser's homepage or start page then this is positive indicator. The following are types of sites users are likely to want to customize:
* Portals e.g. Yahoo!
* News e.g. BBC News
* Social networking e.g. Facebook
* Search engines e.g. Google
Secondly, would your site be able to add interesting content and would it make sense to have this content on your site? There's limited usefulness in only being able to move existing content around your homepage. Users will be much more motivated if they're able to add interesting content or applications and remove what they don't like.
However, don't have addable content for the sake of it. It makes sense for iGoogle to turn itself into a portal but that wouldn't work for every website.
MyYahoo! is a perfect example of a site users would likely want to customize. Millions of web users visit it several times a day and for many their browser loads Yahoo! automatically when opened. It's also packed with content and users will benefit by being able to change the content layout, choose which content interests them and set various preferences.
Conversely, Redbridge Council, which has a customizable homepage, is much less suited to customization. Most of Redbridge's residents won't visit their council website very often and will likely feel that the little time they spend on it doesn't justify customizing it. Nor will it make sense to add content from other sources. They likely won't visit it often enough for it to make sense to add frequently changing content such as national news headlines. Also, most residents won't want to use a council website as a portal or make it their homepage.
Making your website customizable by users could provide benefits for both you and your site visitors. However, before investing resources in developing such features carefully consider whether customization is appropriate for both your website and your users.
Originally written for Webcredible by Abid Warsi and first published on January 31 2008 as "Customizable Websites - the Definitive Guide".