One of the themes from this weeks readings was that for a user to engage with your website you have to make the design appealing. But as Rosenzweig and Cohen point out in their introduction to the chapter “Designing for the History Web,” everyone thinks they know what good design is with consideration to the layout, colors, and fonts, but actually creating a website where people stay on a page longer than a minute is a tall order. If the website is a tool we want it to be useable but not overly simplified, attractive but not overly artistic. It is a hard balance to strike.
According to the Nielsen Norman Group the average user will leave a webpage after 10 to 20 seconds. This made me think of the average time people will look at a painting. It is almost the same amount of time. The Getty says that the time is a little bit longer at 30 seconds, and an article by Jeffrey K. Smith and Lisa F. Smith called “Spending Time on Art” recorded that “the mean time spent viewing a work of art was found to be 27.2 seconds, with a median time of 17.0 seconds.” Basically though, people in museums will spend about the same amount of time looking at a work of art as people looking at webpages online.
The article Improve Site Usability by Studying Museums by Alexander Dawson offers suggestions for website designers to think about website features similar to museum features including engaging content, featured exhibits, signs and directions, brochures, maps, and space and clarity. Thinking about web design in this way is really fun and in the article there are interesting examples of actual websites that incorporate the different features. But even with all these different ways of engaging visitors online, will their time spent on a website increase?
In his article from 2001 Jacob Nielsen asks “Are Users Stupid?”. The same could be asked of museum patrons. Many visitors at museums (especially the large encyclopedic kind) have the same attitude as users in Nielsen’s article. They want to get in, get out, and move on. And people are most comfortable with what is familiar and intuitive to them. Philip Hensher writing for the Daily Mail in London set up an experiment at the Tate Britain to see how long people looked at contemporary art. The results were well below the average 17 seconds and down to a dismal 5 seconds. Hensher found that “it was the familiar and traditional paintings that people devoted most of their time and attention to.”
But having the most hits or visitors shouldn’t be a museum or website’s main concern. Rosenzweig and Cohen write “think about community, not numbers of visitors,” and emphasize that it’s not how many people visit your website, but how well they use it. Providing excellent content is an important way to make a website relevant, but by combining excellent content with good design it might be possible that a successful history website could be created and used by many in a meaningful way.