There is No Prejudice in Population Stereotypes
Definition: Population stereotypes are the long-term habits and well-ingrained knowledge that we have about the world (Kantowitz & Sorkin, 1983).
Did you put the the 'A' in the top left corner? Probably. But guess what, not everyone does it that way. Some folks start their labeling in the top right corner. And other folks do it in other (seemingly crazy) ways.
The majority of people will start their labeling in the top left corner. That is, people will stereotypically place the 'A' in that position. Notice that we are looking at tendencies here, not absolutes. Only knowing your users will give you the answers and knowing them one-to-one is best.
Here's another example of population stereotypes. When walking into a room, assuming it is dark, what way would you flip a toggle switch to turn the lights on? You have two choices, up flip or down flip. You will probably say that the switch should be flipped up; you think that up is on and down is off. Most people use this implicit "flipping heuristic".
Indeed, most Americans think that up is on. Yet in other other countries, the opposite is true. If you put a little thought into this you'll realize that there is no empirical reason to believe that one way is better than another.
Now, what about the Web and usability? Population stereotypes are critical. Let's start with this simple example. What color should links be, in your opinion? What color are they usually? Blue perhaps? The color blue for links is a very powerful population stereotype. When you break that stereotype, you break the readability and usability of the text. The degree of the degradation is uncertain, but it is there. On the flip side, people get really ticked off when something is blue and underlined yet it is not a link (yes, I've seen blue underlined text that does not function as a link -- ridiculous!).
Population stereotypes obviously augment consistency too. Conversely, when you break consistency within and between pages, you've shot yourself in the foot. When you use non-standard colors, fonts, and graphics, you tend to slow users down.
Don't get me wrong a bit of flair and individuality is important. But breaking population stereotypes too often will anger and frustrate users.
Let me introduce a term I've recently begun using: Web site stereotypes. These are things that you do to create consistency from one page to the next on your Web site. The assumption is that graphics, logos, layout, and so on, all play a role. They are obviously highly related to branding mechanisms. Yet, Web site stereotypes go beyond such mechanisms. They include writing style, editing preferences, language usage, content cohesion, use of white space, and even advertising partners. Simple branding does not capture the Gestalt nature of Web site stereotyping.
You can create Web site stereotypes. The main rule of thumb, not surprisingly, is to be consistent throughout your site. This fosters cohesion. Every font, every paragraph, every graphic, and every logo will train users to understand you site. Everything is training your user population; you're always building and shaping their knowledge and Web site stereotypes.
Remember that we are creatures of habit and that we learn things implicitly. You can learn things, yet not even know that you learned them. When those unconsciousness things get disturbed, you get frustrated and annoyed. So, even the subtlest of cues can be of importance in the building of Web site stereotypes. Be vividly aware of your writing style, fonts, editing, logos, and graphics. And remember, you lose users' trust when you add too much static, which is often caused by the breaking of Web site stereotypes. In contrast, properly used Web site stereotypes will increase Web site usability.
So, try not to rock the boat too much. Every page on your site should NOT be innovative. Add your special touch but don't try to push any new paradigms too hard. In your Web site development, tempered innovation is better than supernova innovation. Continuous iteration and improvement will yield great innovations, and a steady development process will manage the various changes appropriately too.
I know that these ideas, especially "don't rock the boat too much", will anger certain folks, such as graphic designers and artists. I'm not against a liberal view of development. However, I am against poor usability and when there is too much change from page to page, you end up with noise and broken Web site stereotypes.
If you want to provide good information and a solid design, then utilizing Web site stereotypes is something to consider.
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