Customisable websites - the definitive guide

by Paul McCarthy on 1 February 2008

Several popular websites have let their homepages be customised by users. New web technologies have made it possible to add slicker customisation interfaces so more sites are allowing users to customise their pages. But, should you do the same? Will it make your website better for users or will it make it unnecessarily complicated? Will users even want this feature on your site?

Types of customisation

Currently websites offer a variety of customisation methods, allowing users to:

  • Reposition content on the page - Boxes containing content can be moved anywhere on the page (or even removed). See the Redbridge Council homepage for an example.
  • Add applications known as 'widgets' - These are small applications often built in HTML and JavaScript that can be used to display content feeds (such as RSS) or perform more advanced functions. The most popular widgets on Google's customisable web page, iGoogle, include a simple clock, a local weather summary, a daily horoscope and a Wikipedia search.Screenshot of MyYahoo! widget selector
    MyYahoo! also offers a widget selector that includes content feeds from other sites.
  • Add settings and preferences - Examples include setting how many news headlines are shown and setting your location to get relevant weather reports.
    Screenshot of BBC Weather widget
    This BBC widget can be set to show the weather at the user's location.
  • Add 'skins' - These can be used to change the overall appearance of the web page, including its colour scheme.Screenshot of iGoogle
    Users can add skins to change the overall appearance of their iGoogle page.

Benefits of adding customisation to your website

You could attract new users and keep existing users more engaged with your site by adding customisation. This is due to 3 factors:

Personalisation
Site visitors can have ownership of your website by choosing its layout and appearance. Users are often attracted to the idea of having a piece of the web which is their own.
Choice & prioritisation
Many users will prefer your site if they can choose what content they receive and change the layout so their favourite content features most prominently. They may prefer this to static competitor sites.
Entertainment
Your website will always seem new and fresh if users can keep adding new content and applications. Facebook's quick rise in popularity is partly because users can add fun third party applications, of which there are now over 12,000. Other social networks are now trying to catch up by making it easier for developers to create add-ons for their sites (see Hi-tech tools divide social sites for more on this).

Disadvantages of adding customisation to your website

Consider these disadvantages to customisation before you invest time, effort and money in adding it to your website:

It might not provide any ROI
Adding customisation to your website may not produce a return that covers the resources required to develop it. Users may not want to use it or if they do use it, it may not actually lead to more demand for your product or service.
Customisation isn't for everyone
Users may prefer going directly to other websites for a richer browsing experience, over reading RSSheadlines on your website.
Customising takes time
Many users won't want to invest time in customising a web page. However, this isn't an issue if a default configuration is available, that is, users don't need to configure the site in order to use it. Many may give it a try before deciding it's not for them and will then revert to the standard web page.
Simpler is often better
Customisation controls may scare some novice Internet users. Non-customisable sites are simpler in that they have fewer controls. Some users prefer 'simpler' sites and others might worry about accidentally changing or even 'breaking' a web page.
Potential of poor usability
Users may inadvertently reduce the usability of your website when you hand design control over to them. If your homepage is currently easy to use it will likely be because you've taken care over its design.
Users may go overboard
Your site visitors may initially get carried away and add too much content that they won't use and will need to remove later. This will create pages that contain too much information and are far too busy.

Tips for adding customisation to your website

If you do decide to provide customisation, consider doing the following:

  • Provide a reset button which users can press to take them back to the original configuration, as used on the BBC homepage.
    Screenshot of BBC homepage showing reset homepage button
    Users of the BBC homepage can click a button to reset their page to its original configuration
  • Give users the option to lock their configuration so that content can't be moved or removed by accident.
  • Make it simple to arrange content. On MSN's homepage page content can't easily be moved from one column to another. Yahoo! and iGoogle's drag and drop method is much easier to use.
    Screenshot of iGoogle
    iGoogle content can be rearranged easily by simply dragging it around the page.
  • Consider using an open application platform to make it easy for developers to migrate existing applications to your website.

When you should add customisation to your website

Whether users would want to be able to customise your website depends on 2 main factors.

Firstly, do users visit your site frequently? Customising a web page takes time - users are far more likely to invest this time if they spend enough time on your site to make customising it worthwhile. If users set your website as their browser's homepage or start page then this is positive indicator. The following are types of sites users are likely to want to customise:

  • Portals e.g. Yahoo!
  • News e.g. BBC News
  • Social networking e.g. Facebook
  • Search engines e.g. Google

Secondly, would your site be able to add interesting content and would it make sense to have this content on your site? There's limited usefulness in only being able to move existing content around your homepage. Users will be much more motivated if they're able to add interesting content or applications and remove what they don't like.

However, don't have addable content for the sake of it. It makes sense for iGoogle to turn itself into a portal but that wouldn't work for every website.

MyYahoo! is a perfect example of a site users would likely want to customise. Millions of web users visit it several times a day and for many their browser loads Yahoo! automatically when opened. It's also packed with content and users will benefit by being able to change the content layout, choose which content interests them and set various preferences.

Conversely, Redbridge Council, which has a customisable homepage, is much less suited to customisation. Most of Redbridge's residents won't visit their council website very often and will likely feel that the little time they spend on it doesn't justify customising it. Nor will it make sense to add content from other sources. They likely won't visit it often enough for it to make sense to add frequently changing content such as national news headlines. Also, most residents won't want to use a council website as a portal or make it their homepage.

Conclusion

Making your website customisable by users could provide benefits for both you and your site visitors. However, before investing resources in developing such features carefully consider whether customisation is appropriate for both your website and your users.

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