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Relevance. Part four of a four-part series.

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2003. Successful online presence: relevance (part four of four). http://www.techwr-l.com/techwhirl/magazine/usersadvocate/usersadvocate_relevance.html

Click here to read part 1 of this series.

Click here to read part 2 of this series.

Click here to read part 3 of this series.

Relevance means the ability of a site to present information that satisfies the visitor’s immediate needs. If it doesn’t meet those needs, then it’s (by definition) irrelevant to that visitor. Obviously, our goal in designing a site is to make its content as relevant as possible to visitors. The key to understanding what makes something relevant lies in recognizing that relevance is never a static, unchanging aspect of the content you provide: some things must change regularly and some must stay the same, but some may fall into both categories at different times. Knowing which information falls into each category, and when, can be tricky, since it relies on sound knowledge of the people who will be using your information and whose needs you’ll be satisfying. Unfortunately, those needs change, and if you thought the computer industry changes quickly, you haven’t been paying much attention to the people around you. It’s hard to think of anything as messy and unpredictable and ever-changing as people.

Given this unpredictability and mutability, learning how to cope with human visitors would seem to pose an insurmountable challenge when you’re trying to design a continuously relevant site. Fortunately, considering a few examples of each category of information can shed considerable light into the types of information you present and how to keep that information relevant.

One of my favorite oxymorons is the constancy of change. It’s certainly true that some things must change regularly to remain relevant. For investors, stock prices must be updated as instantly as feasible; for politicians and business executives, local and international news must keep up with the rapidly changing world; and for travelers, flight schedules and the weather forecast must be equally up to date. In each case, the content that you provide mimics that fact that the real world outside your Web site is changing, and that your site’s content must change to reflect the new state of the world.

On the other hand, some things rarely or never change. Dictionary entries change only slowly to reflect changes in word usage, the physical constants of the universe change only when the measurement tools used by physicists provide more precision (though there are a few exceptions), and reference manuals for programming languages remain mostly constant even when the languages acquire new features. When someone wants to look something up that they know hasn’t changed, such as your phone number or mailing address, constancy in your site’s content is a virtue.

Of course, some things require both change and constancy. The same site that lists minute-by-minute stock prices will generally also provide a historical record of stock prices so investors can gauge a potential investment’s track record. The same news channel that provides up-to-the-minute election coverage also preserves articles from throughout the year-long campaign that preceded the election to satisfy historians and those who will dissect the election results based on the events that led up to them. And scientists and farmers both need to know tomorrow’s weather and the weather trends for the past several years or decades so they can predict what will happen next year or even next decade.

Some things benefit from change, but don’t require it. Entertainment offers a fine example. Most of my generation still have vinyl records (LPs) or CDs of those records for music that was popular decades ago, and we keep returning happily to these songs—to the dismay of our children. That same process is hardly new; it’s amusing to imagine the generation of children after Mozart complaining about how dated his music had become. Yet even those who claim that rock and roll died in 1970 still find new bands and new music to keep them interested and to expand their musical horizons. The same is true of movies. Many of us have movies we rent time and again; for me, watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail was an annual post-exam ritual throughout university and that film remains an occasional nostalgic rental, yet this doesn’t stop me from keeping up with newer, equally entertaining films such as The Usual Suspects and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Confused yet? Don’t be. The key lies in understanding why your audience would want to come visit your site: what do they want that’s new, what do they want that’s comfortingly the same, and what things might fall into both categories? Once you know the answers to those questions, you can begin designing the site to match the nature of the information you'll provide to what you expect people to do with that information. Sometimes, understanding this relationship will suggest the most appropriate technologies (media) for your information. But even when the solutions to meeting those human needs prove to be technological, the needs remain human, and technology alone won’t meet those needs. You’ve got to have the human touch too.


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