July 21, 2008

Learning Web Design From Snoopy

Who doesn’t know Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown and Snoopy? We know about Charlie Brown’s yearly disappointment, trying to score even one run on the baseball diamond. We know about Snoopy’s rich fantasy life as a WWI aviator, wooing young women and drinking root beer. These characters are rich and detailed in our mind’s eye, but how did we come to know them? A comic strip only has four small panels, thin black and white lines, just a few short snatches of dialog. Not much to go on.

We understand Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and all of the rest because we lived with them. We received a daily newspaper or read the strip online. Over the course of weeks, months, and years (even decades in the case of Peanuts) we built up rich mental models of these characters and their relationships. We know exactly how Lucy will act in a situation and how Snoopy will act differently.

Web sites are the same way. It’s rare that a user will spend hours digging into every nook and cranny of your site, following every link and trying every option. Instead, the user will return to your site again and again for short visits when the need arises: buy a book, update account information, print out driving directions.

How can you take advantage of these short, directed, repeated visits to your site? Just like Charles Schulz, maintaining consistency of treatment and experience across visits will help communicate your brand clearly to your visitors.

But more than just maintaining consistency, users have to see variations on the theme to understand the big picture. If every Peanuts strip was Lucy pulling the football out from under Charlie Brown’s kicking foot we’d learn very little about the characters. Instead, Schulz varied his themes and the situations his characters were placed in. This variation over time helped us understand, in more depth, the story Schulz had to tell us.

So what does this mean for your Web site? Maintain consistency but provide frequent variation to help repeat users grasp your overall story. Even if users don’t read every page on your site, they will notice new features and headlines on the pages they visit that will help them understand your company or organization.

So take a cue from Charlie Brown and the gang: think about repetition and variation over time as you design and maintain your Web site.

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