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Signposting from the virtual world to the real one

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I know that it’s something of a risk talking about website design – and the pitfalls of not thinking design through – a mere 24 hours after The Stage has launched the latest stage of our continuing online revamp. And yet, for the first of my weekly columns looking at technology within the arts sphere, there could be no better time.

Being deeply involved with The Stage’s redesign, I’ve had my eyes opened to the usability mistakes we’ve made in the past, how to correct the mistakes we will almost certainly make in the future – but more importantly, why they are mistakes in the first place.

Over the last few years, I’ve been visiting more and more fringe theatre venues all over London (and, on occasion, further afield). Often it’s as the result of an invitation which has been accompanied by a press release, which usually contains more information – but when it doesn’t, or even when it does and I want to double-check, I will go to the venue’s website to look up what time the production starts, how long it’s estimated to run for – and, most importantly, how to get to the venue in the first place.

You may be surprised how often it’s impossible to find basic useful information. I’m not going to name names – that would be unfair – but one of my favourite small London venues, which normally does a great job of communicating to the world about its productions, commits one of the cardinal sins of theatre websites: its actual address is tucked away under a link labelled “Contact us”.

Now, I know that the managers of that venue wouldn’t dream of thinking that a visit to their theatre is the same as dropping them an email. And yet, like many venues out there, their physical address is hidden away.

[pullquote]The first tool at your disposal is common sense. It costs nothing to perform a little bit of roleplay[/pullquote]

A lot of the time, mistakes like this come about because, in an effort to keep their marketing costs down, small venues build their website based on a pre-built “theme”, making small adjustments to incorporate their venue’s logo and production information. The trouble is, such templates are often designed for office-based work environments or product sales, where personal callers aren’t part of everyday business to the same extent. In many cases, replacing the “Contact us” page with one entitled “Your Visit”, “Getting Here” or even “Map” can go a long way to encouraging first-time visitors to your venue.

There is a whole discipline attached to looking at websites and how they work (or don’t) from a user’s point of view. It’s known as User Experience, UX for short, and experienced UX consultants can charge a pretty penny for their services. They usually do so because their knowledge and advice is valuable, and can convert into higher sales for the website who commissions them. But for many small theatres, who run on a shoestring anyway, the cost of hiring a UX specialist can be prohibitive.

If contracting an expert isn’t an option, then, what can you – or the person who manages your website – do? The basic answer is, “do it yourself”. Nobody can turn themselves into a UX expert overnight, but there are lots of resources out on the web that can help you learn how to look at your own website not as its owner, or its designer, but as a member of the public.

The first tool at your disposal is, of course, common sense. It costs nothing to perform a little bit of roleplay in the privacy of your home or office, and visit your website as if you are someone who’s never visited before. You could draw up a list of questions someone like that may have, and see how easy it is to find the answers. For example:

  • What’s on at this theatre in six weeks’ time?
  • How much will the tickets be?
  • If I’m going to drive to the venue, where’s the best place to park? For public transport users, where’s the nearest Tube/rail station, or which bus routes are the ones to take?
  • For theatre spaces that are inside other businesses (e.g., most pub theatres), is it clear where to go to pick up tickets?

If you’re heavily involved with a venue, it’s important to realise that the questions you come up with may not be the ones a “genuine” site visitor wants answered. If you can, get other people to sit in front of you, and watch them as they use your website. Give them a basic task – working out how to visit the theatre would be one of the more basic ones – but no other clues. Don’t give them any help at all, even if they end up getting completely stuck. It can be best if you position yourself so that you can’t see the computer screen they’re using – just ask them to say out loud what they’re doing, and watch their face as they navigate your website.

It can be an uncomfortable experience to see someone struggle, especially if you’ve invested a lot of time and effort to improve it. But even the most negative appraisal collected in this way is useful: you can end up making small changes that will benefit your audience in big ways.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that small venues are the only ones whose websites are less easy to use than they could be. When I put a general question out on Twitter, ATG’s website was mentioned several times in reply, as was the Barbican’s and even the National Theatre. Those websites have additional demands – having to work for multiple venues, performance spaces or arts disciplines, for example – that smaller theatres don’t have to worry about. It’s fair to say, though, that nearly every site out there could probably benefit from being a little bit more user-focussed. You’ll never get to the stage with a website where you can say, “Right, that’s the UX done” – it’s an ongoing process that should be an intrinsic part of the way your organisation promotes itself online.

If this column has piqued your interest in learning a little bit more about UX, and applying the principles to your own online presence, I’d recommend Martin Belam’s website, http://currybet.net/ as a good starting point. A UX designer who’s previously worked with the Guardian and the BBC, he recently held a couple of evening seminars on UX basics for The Guardian’s Masterclasses series, one of which I attended. The resources and links he handed out after that event don’t seem to be online, but he’s converting his talk, So you think you want to be a UXer?, into a book – so keep an eye out on his blog for that.

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