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All you need to know about web usability

All you need to know about web usabilityAfter a decade of web design work, web usability is still an important topic. We conducted the following interview several years ago with folks from Usability Sciences. It's interesting to see how relevant their advice still is - whether or not you decide to localize your site!

1. Please define exactly what web usability is and why it matters.
Web usability testing is a series of steps geared at making a web site more effective. The steps in the process include:

  1. bring in "real" consumers,
  2. give them "real" tasks,
  3. observe how the consumer interacts with the site,
  4. focus on any "conceptual hurdles" which may be impeding a user from completing their task, and finally
  5. make recommendations that would fix the problem based on user comments and our own experiences.
Why it matters is relatively obvious. Because of the speed and convenience inherent in the Internet, if a Web site doesn't meet a user's functionality expectations (in other words: if it is not navigationally intuitive), users will abandon the ship in search of smoother sailing on some other site. If users can't find it on your site, they will try somewhere else. Our goal is to make the path from Point A to Point B as logical and tangible as we can.

2. What makes a poor site poor and a clean site clean? Can you give examples?

In some ways this is a trick question: When an experienced MS Word users look at the animated paper-clip, they say, "THIS IS HORRIBLE! - What were they thinking?" Well, if you could put yourself in the shoes of someone just starting to learn Word, you might actually like that bouncy little assistant. This is definitely a factor when you are analyzing web sites.

More often than not, however, sites that are commonly considered "poor" have problems that begin on the home page. You may see an overwhelming amount of disorganized text, or a series of misleading and mislabeled links. Whether they're selling CDs or offering information — it is often obvious that the focus is NOT on the user's experience, but rather on the goals of the company.

Pages are crammed with flashing banner ads, slow-loading pictures, and navigation paths that leave visitors stranded — all in an attempt to hard sell. It seems that some dot-coms are of the opinion that building a strong, trusting relationship with their customers is not as important as it would be for a brick and mortar.

3. Clicking to another site is easy; what happens when a web user can't find what she wants?
Well, that's pretty obvious: they leave. And, importantly, once they're gone, they're gone. Understanding the pulse of your consumer is vital to the success of your site.

4. What's the attention span for online users? How long are they willing to try to find what they're looking for?
Short answer: about 30 seconds. If they don't know where to begin on a site, they're gone.

Long answer: Generally speaking, there are some trends in how long a typical Internet user is willing to wait, or how much time they will spend at any one site searching for a product, service or information. The site's usability and functionality along with several other factors largely impact this attention span.What is going on in their environment:
  • Is the TV on? Is the baby crying?
  • Do they have a slow connection to the Internet?
  • Do they have the patience to search through the site?
  • Do they know that other sites are out there?
5. As more and more non-English speaking users are logging-on the web, how can web designers make sites easy to understand for a global audience?
How to make a site that appeals to not only different experience levels but to different languages is a HUGE undertaking. This is a difficult challenge that is just now being recognized by the web community. There really is no one-size-fits-all web site. We have seen that the customization and content being specific to countries is a vital thing to do.

6. What are some of the pros and cons of the different approaches (e.g., centralized vs. decentralized production of multilingual content, translation of English content vs. creating original target-language content)?
This is an interesting subject because there are definitely differences in the results we see in cases where English content is translated to other languages as opposed to creating original target-language content. If done incorrectly, the translation of English content can cause confusion and poor readability of the target texts. It can be so bad that much of the meaning is lost in the translation. This is especially true in Asian markets.

In our opinion, if an e-business is truly targeting foreign markets, creating original target-language content is critical. It may require additional expense but the return will be significantly greater.

7. What kind of problems can you envision when creating a user-friendly site in, say, 8 languages?
The differences in how consumers expect the information to be organized and categorized are amazing. The culture and language make a big difference. In the U.S., personalization of e-commerce sites is a real positive thing for users. In Switzerland, on the other hand, a user once stated, "Don't say 'Good Morning, Friedrich.' You don't know me!".

A good conceptual starting point would be to approach the design as if it were intended for children. By that I mean to keep it conceptually simple, make navigation straightforward and eliminate guesswork. Also include something shiny :-)

8. What are some of the "cardinal sins" of web usability?
Users report dissatisfaction most frequently when they encounter inconsistent navigation and a lack of "where am I?" indicators. New visitors to a site really want to know how they got to whatever page they are viewing, and how to get back.

Users also experience discomfort when presented with flashing text and graphics. It portrays an unprofessional image. Some users associate these sorts of text and graphics to the not-so-lucky side of Las Vegas. Also, users notice how well everything fits on a given page. If there is a great deal of unused real estate or an over abundance of scrolling it is a definite turn-off and in some cases it is a "show-stopper."

9. How exactly do you measure site usability? Do you conduct focus groups or do you have proprietary software?
Essentially we approach testing from two perspectives. The first approach involves competitive benchmark testing methods and is employed to obtain quantifiable results to use for comparative purposes. This involves precise measurements and timings. The full story is rarely in the "numbers," though, and we also use a second, more interpersonal, user-centered approach. This allows users to really explore sites and software while conducting detail-oriented clinical interviews to obtain more qualitative insights.

10. Many critics say that people really go to the web for information, and it's getting harder and harder to find exactly what one is looking for. What simple steps can a web designer take to help people find their way?
Home page layout is vitally important. If your site has five different audiences you are trying to cater to, it is critical that they each have their own area. The home page should be working similar to a concierge; "OK, what's your question? Oh, just step over to that room."

A site that we tested recently illustrates this point well. Nearly every division of a company wanted space on the home page, and as a result it was a cluttered, nearly indecipherable mess. After testing, it was determined that the best course of action was to employ this concierge concept. The new start page essentially asked visitors, "Who are you, and what are you looking for?" So if you came to the site intending to purchase something, you would click on the large "Buy product" link as opposed to reading through close to one hundred small links and hoping you were clicking the right one. This seems simple enough, but again it was a case of the company putting their needs ahead of their target market.

11. How can a site designer break tradition (i.e., nav bar on the left-hand side) and still maintain site usability?
The most important thing here is to ask yourself why you want to break tradition. It can be a difficult proposition. We tested a marketing web site, and they wanted their navigation on the bottom - just to be different! Well, they definitely were. None of the consumers liked it, because the navigation paradigm had shifted too far from what they were used to. What we deal with is what people do and do not find intuitive to use.

12. Do visitors actually use "site maps" or are site maps evidence of a poorly designed site?
Site maps are a good thing. Some people may have trouble with whatever navigation options are offered, and using the site map may be more effective. This is a good strategy to retain as many users and visitors as possible. Also, users who don't use the site map won't be turned off by its presence, and those people who need it have it, and are more likely to continue viewing the site.

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