Web Surfing ? How about a new analogy for experiencing the Web?(PartⅡ)

Last time I introduced you to the reasons why "surfing" is not a good analogy for the ways people experience information and applications on the web. The goal of surfing is to be moving fast across the top of the water and not being in the water. This time I will provide a deeper explanation of the swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving analogies, activities where the intention is to be in the water.

Three Types of Web Users

Swimmers are the people who come to the ocean, lake or pool for some fun. In the real world and on the web, swimmers spend most of their time on the surface. They are not equipped or interested in diving deeply into the water or a Web site. They are interested in a diversion, entertainment, or exercise, and do not want to expend much effort below the surface. Swimmers do not dive very deeply because it requires effort they are not interested in using and the naked human eye is not designed for seeing underwater. They are looking for a quick fix of fun or just a way to kill some time. This means that if a Web site is slow to load, swimmers get back in the boat - a search engine, hyperlink or bookmark - and go to another spot where less time and effort are involved in the experience. The great thing about Web swimming is that it is extremely easy to get to another, more interesting, place to swim. Swimmers aren't looking for anything in particular, they just want to enjoy the water. Their actions are closely related to casual browsing.

Snorkelers are more willing to expend time and effort in their search for experiences, information and applications on the Web than swimmers. They are interested in swimming down into the depth of a site, but they have to be able to see the value of the effort from the surface. When a person is snorkeling, they will have a mask and snorkel and they may have swim fins. The mask allows the person to see clearly underwater. Within the analogy, the mask represents the experience level of the user and a desire to see what is deeper that than the surface of a site. The snorkel is a breathing tube which allows the person to breathe and maintain visual contact with objects under the water. Snorkelers can keep their heads down in the water, they don't have to break contact with the world under the water in their attempts to breathe. When snorkelers see something of interest deeper in the water, they catch their breath and dive down to take a closer look. When their oxygen runs out, they swim back to the surface, blow the water out of the tube and take a breath while keeping an eye on what interested them below the surface. It is then possible to simply swim back down again. If you lose visual contact with something under the water while you are catching your breath at the surface, it is difficult to return to the same spot again below the surface. This is true even when you have a mask. You end up wasting time, energy and oxygen searching for the thing that already attracted your attention. In Web terms, this means you become frustrated and leave the site for another spot. Snorkeling requires some skill in the use of the breathing tube and learning how to maintain visual contact with the underwater world. It is also characterized by the use of several significant pieces of technology. Swim fins are additional tools which allow the snorkeler to move faster and more efficiently to conserve time and oxygen and increase their enjoyment of the experience under the water.

Another feature of snorkeling is that you do not just snorkel anywhere. You snorkel in parts of the ocean or a lake where you know you will be able to experience some interesting things. This may be a genre or category of Web sites or it may be the features, media or experiences provided by a specific group of Web Sites. These might be the sights which you find in a person's list of bookmarks, sites which have proved to be of interest in the past. Snorkelers are looking for an engaging experience with more depth than swimmers. They often come to the activity with particular information or experiences in mind, but snorkelers are open to the serendipity of discovery that can happen under the water. Snorkelers can closely examine any object which attracts their attention. The point of interest for snorkelers may not be specific when they get in the water, but they often go to the places where they or others have previously found information or experiences of interest. When these sites do not pan out, they prove to be boring, or there is no way to see through the murky water, snorkelers get back in the boat and move to another site where they might find an experience which is worth some time and effort. Snorkeling involves greater involvement with the water at depth than swimming, but is not as sophisticated an experience as scuba diving.

Scuba divers are well equipped and know exactly where they want to go or what they want to find when they come to the water. Scuba gear allows the swimmer to stay under the water and close to the objects of interest for long periods of time. Scuba divers in the Web are experienced information seekers who have all of the tools - cognitive, experiential and technological - which enable them to accomplish their task. A scuba diver goes to a very specific spot to see, find or experience a very specific thing. If the spot does not provide the necessary tool, experience or information, the scuba diver moves to another location, which will hopefully provide what they are seeking. Scuba divers are the most directed and experienced users of the Web. They have a specific reason to enter the water and they have the skills and tools to realize their need or desire. Scuba divers may be willing to put up with murky water or bad design because they know that there is valuable treasure to be found at a specific diving site. They also now how to find the treasure they seek, even in the most poorly designed spaces. One should never, however, discount the importance of good design and usability because even the scuba diver appreciates clear water and usable spaces. These make the accomplishment of a goal that much easier and the experience that much more enjoyable, both of which will lead the individual to return to the site when a similar need or desire arises in the future.

Understand User Experience

These three types of interaction with the Web tell us a great deal about the people and purposes brought to the ocean of information, applications and experiences. Knowing which kind of person is in the water at your site will enable you to design applications, content and experiences that serve that individual's activities and needs. It is possible to look at the three types of users along a hierarchy of involvement. Swimmers are looking for a place to splash around and relax for a while. A snorkeler is interested in more activity and higher involvement but can still be attracted or distracted by style and functionality. These are the individuals who are looking for something and it is up to the designer to show them that what is available in this particular spot is something that has value for them. Meanwhile, the scuba divers are highly focused and motivated, they are on a mission, and a site can be useful or not. The challenge for designers is communicating to scuba divers what is possible to do in this particular part of the ocean.

The scuba diver is the most likely Web user to be locked into habitual patterns of swimming for specific purposes and these patterns are difficult to change. They have their preferences, which are based on a great deal of previous experience, and it is hard to crack into their internal processes or attract their attention. The best way to attract a scuba diver to a particular spot is through the advice of other scuba divers. Snorkelers are the web users who are active enough to be valuable - they may stay, they may buy, they may tell a friend -and they are also open enough to be influenced by the design, features, strategies and experiences found at a particular site. Swimmers are the least intentioned of web users. They may be more attracted to the “cool”, the“new”, and the “trendy” with little interest in what happens beyond the home page of site.

It is important to remember that the people are not always a single kind of aquatic adventurer. The scuba diver and snorkeler can simply go swimming. The swimmer can encounter a site which sends them back to beach to get more equipment, or training, and they can become a snorkeler or scuba diver because a particular site provided the potential for more interesting experiences than those available on the surface. The snorkeler can also become a scuba diver when the experience calls for the additional equipment. The great thing about the web, and point where this analogy becomes science fiction, is that users don't have to go back to any beach to change their equipment and intention, they simply change their intentions and the way they are moving through the water.

It seems a worthy goal in terms of communication design to attract people to a particular place in the ocean of information and then turn swimmers into snorkelers and snorkelers into scuba divers. This means that a site needs to provide depth and focus in the available experiences, applications and information as well as an attractive and relevant design. The architecture, look and feel, interface, content and applications need to work together to create a usable experience for a range of people within a target audience. Understanding how different people can use a site is the way to build loyalty and create value. This understanding begins at the general level of analogy and moves to the more specific definitions of user experience.
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