Web design has come a long way. We strive to play the game in adherence to Standards, we separate structure from presentation as much as possible and we have taken into our hearts the fact that indeed the Experience is the Product. Or have we?
A core ambition of website designers is to keep visitors on a site, get them to consume the content and perhaps even interact with it. Why then are users still left to themselves after they have done what should bring joy to every site owner: after they have read all of the content? Too often they are fobbed off with just a copyright info, a legal notice or a claim to W3C validity at the end of the page. They are met with bland place holders where they should in fact be rewarded for their effort.
Let us imagine a user that has just devoured all of the beautifully laid out information on a page. He is a most wanted user: he made the effort to scroll down all the way. He might have gotten engaged in an interesting train of thought, or become convinced of a certain product’s advantages – in any case, he is entertained, even excited to a point. Now the user has arrived at the bottom of the page and is looking for more to read, to absorb, to engage with. Ideally, we would want him to stay and navigate to another part of the website. Ideally, he would find recommendations where to go next. Unfortunately for both of us, he is usually faced with nothing helpful and left to himself.
Footers are in serious need of some love. We have to pay more attention to what is going on (literally) “down under”. Just like Europeans acknowledge the existence of Australia but rarely know what is going on there at any given time, footers still are a bit of a hazy area in web design.
What are possible solutions then? To be honest, we (as designers) are only bound by our imagination. That is the beauty of it: once footers are understood not as a point of probable departure but as a point of pending decision, the possibilities are endless, as long as they stay in line with the context of the website.
One of the most common uses of the footer area is the placement of a feedback form. Gaining immediate feedback can be immensely valuable, and is most famously used in blogs. Bloggers have almost unanimously included comments at the bottom of every article, but news and corporate sites also are slowly beginning to embrace this opportunity for user feedback.
Other pages, like last.fm or skype.com put almost their complete navigation or sitemaps beneath the content area. Whereas this certainly offers the user ideas about where to go next, the sheer amount of options may cause the opposite effect of what is intended.
E-commerce pages may want to display related products to the one described on the respective page (a feature promoted by Amazon, for example), a link to an order tracking form or to their support area, and possibly customer reviews.
A company providing services might offer links to other services than the one highlighted on the page and showcase excerpts of their portfolio to complement the description of their work.
Footers could also include links to partner organisations, contact information, promotional elements, recent news – again, there are endless possibilities.
Just as long as we comprehend our footers’ potential as beginnings instead of mere endings.
(* Courtesy of Smashing Pumpkins, 1997)