According to a survey from netcraft, there were about 672 million web pages in may 2013. And according to http://www.worldwidewebsize.com/, there are about 1.7 billion indexable web pages as of this writing.
No matter how many web pages exist on the internet, almost all of them will fall into at least one of two categories
Informational web pages are those whose prime concern is for the user to read and comprehend what is being presented. There is very less interaction apart from a few buttons and links here and there but the such pages encourage users to spend time gathering ‘relevant’ information from what they see(more on this later). The simplest examples of such pages are - http://www.wikipedia.org/, http://www.nytimes.com/, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ (aka, all news sharing sites), http://www.yahoo.com/, to name a few.
Transactional pages are those on which the user is expected to interact with the page aka engage in a dialog with the interface. I use the word dialog because (ideally) every action must have an equal but not necessarily opposite reaction. In fact, every action on an interface must have a correlated reaction (Also read Nielsen’s 10 heuristics on interface design).
Notice that I am talking about pages, not websites as a whole. A website usually contains a mixture of pages of both kinds. Not only that, theres a different proportion of information and transaction on every page. Nevertheless, some pages are information heavy and some are transaction heavy. However, when you are busy involved in creating user experiences, it is critical to understand how to design interfaces for each of these distinct categories.
a) Designing for Informational interfaces
Informational interfaces are content heavy. This implies that you need to effectively draw the user’s attention to certain sections of the page. Informational interfaces are more likely to be the landing pages of a website, or pages that appear after the user performs a certain action, like submitting a form or clicking on a button to see a product’s details. When designing for such interfaces, the layout and visual structure of the page is critical. Always keep in mind that when users are viewing such an interfaces, they are ‘scanning’ instead of reading.There is an F pattern that users follow on such pages. However, not everything in the world is against you.The user understands that since it is an informational page, not all of it is going to be directly relevant to what he/she is looking for. However, there is also an expectation that scanning would lead to finding the right content. Therefore, such pages are also the best pages to highlight certain sections using colors and shapes. These pages are also perfect for advertisements and other interesting stuff.
b) Designing for transactional interfaces
As mentioned earlier, these kind of interfaces are dialog heavy. The first thought that comes to the mind for such interfaces is - immediate visibility of a call to action. For example, if it is a product site, the ‘buy’ button is perhaps the more important button. The second most important would be the button that lets the user view more details. There can be many more buttons, but without these two buttons being the most prominent buttons, you are asking the user to do more work than is necessary to make a purchase.
Another important thing when designing transactional interfaces is the ‘sequence’. For example, a ‘go’ button for a search field is always placed to the right of an input field or below the input field. This implies that you first need to type something and only then press the ‘go’ button.
A closely related concept is that of visual hierarchy. For example, consider filling a form which has a large number of fields. Although it works best to minimize the number of fields, sometimes you just can’t help it. In such cases, it makes perfect sense to categorize fields into different subgroups. Not only does it improves clarity, but it also emphasizes sequence and allows for visual hierarchy and grouping.
And last but not the least, ‘clarity’ is an extremely important factor for creating such pages. There should be absolutely no distractions (read advertisements) on pages that require the user to engage in a heavy dialog. You already have your user’s attention. Don’t divert it somewhere else.
An important aspect of this 2 category design approach is the ability to interleave content across pages across these two categories such that it creates a coherent user experience without overburdening the user.
Would all your users be interested in reading page after page or content. Or would they be interested in continuously doing tasks on your interface? I don’t think users would like to continue doing either for a long duration of time. Balance is the key. Throughout a task that spans a number of pages, you would want to interleave pages such that some of them are information heavy and some of them require your users to perform actions. This would give your users time to evaluate an action that they just performed or comprehend what they just read. If nothing else, it serves as a mini break from a monotonous task. As an user experience designer, you want to take your user from point A to point B and you want to keep the conversation going. If you are the only person who is talking, you will lose your customer. If your customer is the only one who is talking, he will feel stranded. Balance, balance, balance.
Get into the minds of your users, and always talk to them, even if it is only through your interface. It shows that you care. It shows what kind of a designer you are.