///Customizable Websites – The Definitive Guide

Customizable Websites – The Definitive Guide

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.
  • Add applications known as ‘widgets’ – These are small applications often built in HTML and JavaScript that can be used to display content feeds (such as RSS) or perform more advanced functions. The most popular widgets on Google’s customizable web page, iGoogle, include a simple clock, a local weather summary, a daily horoscope and a Wikipedia search.

    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 colour scheme.

    Screenshot of iGoogle
    Users can add skins to change the overall appearance of their iGoogle page.

Introduction

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?

Benefits of adding customization to your website

You could attract new users and keep existing users more engaged
with your site by adding customization. This is due to 3 factors:

Personalization
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 favourite content features most
prominently. They may prefer this to static competitor sites.

Entertainment
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 beta.

    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 customise. 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 customisable 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.

Conclusion

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.

2010-05-25T22:35:00+00:00 February 6th, 2008|Design|0 Comments

About the Author:

Abid's crazy about usability - so crazy that he works for Webcredible, an industry leading usability and accessibility consultancy, as a user experience consultant. He's very good at eye tracking and extremely talented at writing for the web.

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