Web User Experience

Why What People Think of Your Website Doesn’t Really Matter

Posted on June 19, 2010. Filed under: Web User Experience | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

I’m noticing more clients say they want a user-friendly website.

That’s good — it means more people realize it’s important to know how well a site works for end-users.

But understanding what makes for a valid usability test? Well, that hasn’t caught on as much.

Even attractive websites have usability problems

This came to mind following a presentation I attended earlier this week, where a web design shop showed off a new site they’d built for a local non-profit corporation here in Philadelphia.

This new website is much bolder and better organized than the old one. It’s sharp, all right.

Even so (in my opinion), there were potential usability issues; especially with certain labels in the primary navigation. During the question and answer period I asked if the design company had conducted any usability testing, and if so, how that went.

People who are too close to your organization do not provide objective feedback

Turns out, there was no budget for usability testing. The non-profit organization had, however, asked employees and stakeholders what they thought of the site and the response was overwhelmingly positive.

That’s hardly surprising. As noted, the new site looks sharp. But sending out a link to a website and asking people what they think of it is not a usability test.

Also, neither employees nor stakeholders are primary end-users here. Interested parties, yes — but not the main people the site was built for. They’re insiders who know too much about the organization and its product offering to offer impartial feedback. Their opinions hold limited weight.

The true test of a website is how it works for end-users

Then too, opinions only count but so much.

Because, when you do usability testing, while you may ask participants what they think of one thing or another, the real test comes from seeing how people engage with the site. You want to know:

  • Can users figure out, on their own, what everything means?
  • Can users find the information they’re looking for? How do they react to that information? Does it live up to or fall short of expectations?
  • Can users accomplish specific tasks? Or do they get stuck along the way?
  • Are users satisfied with their overall experience with the site?

It’s test. Not of the participants, but of the site.

Even when testing real end-users, what people say they want to do, and what they wind up doing, may be different. Intent does not always match action. The only way to truly know how someone will use your website it to watch them in action.

There’s a reason it’s called usability testing

If you have the funds to hire an outside consultant who understands the ins and outs of usability testing, go for it. They’ll give you an objective read of how your site works.

If budgets are strapped, take matters into your own hands.

For pointers on how to go about it read my post: The DIY Guide to Web Usability Testing.

And remember, while it’s helpful to know what people think of your site, there’s a reason it’s called usability testing. You’re observing how well the site works when in use.

– Deni Kasrel

What are YOUR thoughts about this post? Comments welcome.

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Top 6 Usability Tips For Website Design

Posted on January 26, 2010. Filed under: Web User Experience | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

This is a guest post by Ruben Reyes, President of Lyquix, Inc. a Philadelphia-based  IT and web development company. Ruben works hard to help prevent poorly designed websites from ever seeing the light of day and I’m pleased he was kind enough to write this article outlining six important usability tips. Read up and learn from someone who deals with these types of matters on a daily basis.

1. You Are Not The Typical User

This is the first thing you should acknowledge and embrace. Usually, designers, marketing managers, and business owners make design decisions based on their own taste and browsing style. The end result is a website that works well for the person that made the decisions but not necessarily for the audience at large.

The answer is testing. You don’t need to spend a lot of money or make it super scientific. Just find people that have absolutely no interest in your project, like your neighbor who doesn’t understand what your company does, or your aunt. If they look at your website and they don’t get it, you’ve got a sign that it is not evident enough. Ask questions about what people think and LISTEN, don’t be defensive or try to explain. Ask them to perform some simple task; like find out who is the Operations Manager, or how long has the company been in business or what is the phone number, and OBSERVE if the process is smooth or cumbersome.

2. Understand How Users Behave

Users don’t like to read. When presented with a crowded page, or a long article, people just scan it quickly looking for that tiny piece of information or the next link.

Users won’t even scan the whole page: as they read through text they are evaluating if a particular sentence or link seems good enough, and take it. What this means is that people don’t make optimal choices, they just pick the first “good enough” option they find along the way. So if there is a better option a few lines after one that is just “good enough,” they are not going to get to the better option (at least not on the first try).

Users don’t understand how things work or are intended to be used. They just stick to whatever works for them. When I said that they don’t like to read, that includes instructions. You might be surprised how people use your website in ways you never intended it. Have you seen people that type the address of a website in the Google or Yahoo search box? Or that double-click on links? Or that make 10 clicks to get to a page that they can reach in one click?

3. Make Things Obvious

Have you been to a website looking for the company office address and find a link that says “Global Presence”? It makes you wonder if that is the page you are looking for. When something is obvious you don’t have to think to understand it and decide if that is what you want or not. The more people have to think to understand your website, the higher the energy, frustration and time required for them. The principle is simple: if something is difficult to use people will avoid using it.

For this reason you should avoid using fancy terms to denote simple things. Avoid acronyms, especially the ones created by your company. Avoid technical terms that people outside of your profession will not understand. Make buttons look like buttons, and links look like links.

4. Visually Prioritize and Organize

In some cases you need to have pages with lots of information and options. Usually that’s the case for the Home page since it is the entry point of your website. Here is where a GOOD graphic designer can help. Use graphic elements to ensure that there are clear priorities: what is the most important, what is navigation, what is secondary information. Font size, colors, images and movement are tools that can be used to draw the attention of the user to an area of the page. But be aware: you don’t want to get too creative – after so many years people have grown accustomed to expect certain things to be placed in specific locations or look in certain ways. If you put your menu on the right and start underlining text just to be original you will confuse visitors.

5. Avoid Unnecessary Words

If users only scan, don’t want to think, don’t make optimal choices and have very little tolerance to anything that seems difficult or time consuming, then why would you present them with long and useless copy? Avoid unnecessary words in each sentence, avoid unnecessary sentences in each paragraph. Eliminate all the flashy and self-congratulatory language and get straight to the point.

6. “You Are Here”

Websites can be an ocean of pages and information. Unlike in the physical world, we cannot associate things that are located right or left, or 1 mile down the road. However, it is still possible to organize your website in a way that makes sense to the user and enables them to draw a mental map of connections that they can use to navigate easily.

For every single page, make sure that users can easily understand where they are standing. Show the title of the page, highlight in what section you are located, make links to parent pages or the sequence of pages you followed to get there (breadcrumbs), and of course, have links to related pages.

Additional resources

If you want to learn more about usability, here are some great resources:

Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition, by Steve Krug

Designing Web Usability, by Jakob Nielsen

AlertBox, www.useit.com/alertbox/, a newsletter on web usability by Jakob Nielsen

So what do you think of Ruben’s top 6 usability tips? Do you have tips of your own to share? Comments welcome.

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The DIY Guide to Web Usability Testing

Posted on November 29, 2009. Filed under: Web User Experience | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Usability is a simple word that’s tough to pin down.

If you define it as “capable of being used” the implication is, you can either use something, or not. Pretty cut and dry.

Ah, but there’s more to it. A car, for instance, can operate perfectly fine; or it can start and stall and start up again. While you can still use the vehicle, it’s hardly an ideal ride.

Same goes for a web site — your preference is for a smooth experience.

But how do you know if your web site is a well-oiled machine rather than a clunker? Not by looking, that’s for sure.

You are not the target audience

Having what appear to be the right elements does not ensure your site offers an ideal user experience; as in, it’s easy to use and intuitive.

The sticky wicket here is, because you created the site, it all makes perfect sense. Your judgment is clouded by already knowing what everything means and how everything is supposed to work.

News flash: You are not the target audience — web visitors ultimately decide if a site works. If they stall out, they’re apt to go elsewhere.

The do-it-yourself method to web usability testing

You can spend a lot of money to hire someone to conduct usability tests of your web site where techniques may involve sophisticated labs and analysis. That’s great if you can afford it. Budgets, however, often don’t allow for the expense.

Still, it’s important to do some kind of usability testing prior to launch. You didn’t put up a site just for show, right? You want it to deliver the goods; tell your story, sell your product or service; in a way that’s meaningful and satisfies website visitors.

The good news is, you (yes, you) can do a decent job of usability testing for low or no cost. You don’t even have to test a lot of people. Patterns in response arise after questioning five to eight individuals.

Notice I said individuals. The best way to do this is one person at a time; where the participant is comfortably sitting at a computer while you’re observing how they use and perceive the site. Groups or even two people at once are not as accurate because one person will influence the other(s). It’s not intentional on anyone’s part, even so, that’s what happens. One at a time, got it?

Also, if you have a few target audiences, or personas, as is now the popular parlance, test five per persona. Each group has different expectations — you want to see if the site satisfies these varied wants and needs.

When soliciting volunteers — yes, many will do this for free, just ask — indicate you’re looking for feedback on a web project. As opposed to saying you’re doing usability testing. Testing implies there are right/wrong answers and the word usability is not commonly understood.

The key is to ask open-ended questions

To prepare for testing create a set of questions. You can have a pre-determined order, however, you are also reacting to feedback, so be flexible — better to ask questions in a way that makes sense for how your test is going rather than stick to a rigid scheme. The main thing is to reiterate there are no right or wrong responses, and you must ask non-leading open-ended questions.

So, rather than, “Do you think this is a good design?” go with “What is your impression of this site?”

The response may or may not have to do with design. That’s fine. You’ll find out what people think from a variety of perspectives  — extremely valuable information. This will also open up other avenues for questioning.

If, after asking, “What is your impression of this site?” the reply is, “I like it.” Then you go, “Why?”   On the other hand, if the response is “It’s confusing,” ask “How so?”

More good questions:

  • What do you think this site is for? Why do you think so?
  • Who do you think would use this site? Why?
  • What kind of product/service do you think is being offered? Why?
  • What do you think this button/link is for?
  • What do you like best/least about the site?
  • If you could improve one thing about the site what would it be?

Don’t take it personally

Take notes. Stay objective. Remain neutral regardless of feedback — never argue with, praise or help the participant. Do not explain why something is the way it is. You’re looking to extract information. If a person asks “What’s this for?” respond, “What do you think it’s for?

You can ask participants what they think a particular button or link is for, to discern user expectation. If a person thinks a link will lead to something it does not, ask why they think it will go to there. This helps refine nomenclature. Even seemingly obvious words may not be clear to your audience.

When trying to determine if web architecture offers a logical path, or looking to see how users would likely complete a task, ask “How would go about doing/finding “x”? (fill in “x” as applies to specific circumstance). Closely observe the process and make note of areas of difficulty — here’s where you’ll want to make adjustments before the site goes live.

Test early, and preferably more than once

It’s ideal to catch problems early on, before too much coding is done. In fact, for truly low budget early-stage tests use Photoshop versions of web pages.

If you can manage a series of tests, all the better. Use static pages to start, get feedback, make adjustments and re-test to see how the changes fare. Hold off on the actual development (coding), until you feel you are close to the end-result, or at least as far as you can go until you need to test out a series of process flows.

It’s good to know what’s right, and even better to know what’s wrong

While it’s nice to hear what’s right with your site, it’s equally important, if not more so, to learn where things fall short. Where are the trouble-spots, design issues and misinterpretation of intent?

Now, go forth and test. Know in your head to welcome responses that point to problems. Discover glitches and make fixes. After all, once the site goes live, hang-ups and stall-outs represent lost opportunity.

For additional resources visit:

Usabilty.gov: Your guide for developing usable and useful Web sites

Useit.com: Jakob Nielsen’s Website

Usereffect blog

– Deni Kasrel

Is this information helpful? Do you have experience with do-it-yourself web usability testing? How’d it go? Comments welcome.

Related article:

The Most Overlooked Step To Website Success

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The Most Overlooked Step To Website Success

Posted on November 23, 2009. Filed under: Web User Experience | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Have you ever linked to a web site only to leave right away because it was cluttered and confusing?

It happens all the time. Why struggle through a disorganized mess when it’s easy to hop off and head to another destination that offers the same services?

Just like in real life, clutter on the web presents lack of focus. What’s less obvious is how a visually appealing website can suffer from the same problem.

Hidden problems with hierarchy

Visual confusion occurs when too many elements on a page carry the same weight visually. There’s no clear starting point, or hierarchy. So a visitor’s eyes dart about the page and more or less fight to figure out where to land first.

In another situation, your company name, tagline and main navigation are positioned atop your homepage; where you want users to see it right away; yet this isn’t necessarily how someone experiences the page. If, for example, your logo and main navigation are muted in design as compared to a right-hand sidebar sporting an array of eye-catching graphics, the visitor’s focus is pulled to those jazzier images. Their eyes glance over the top of the page such that it may not even register. Your main message is instantly diluted.

Good-looking design does not guarantee optimum user experience

It’s like when you go into a furniture store and see a chair that’s sharp and stylish yet is uncomfortable to sit in. You pass it up and search for something that both looks and feels right.

Your website can be much the same when form trumps function. A bugaboo here is that a nicely laid-out page does not immediately present itself as problematic — it looks fine to the naked eye.

That’s where usability testing comes in. The testing reveals hidden problems that hinder your site from working at peak level.

A costly step to overlook

It perplexes me how a business can launch a website without first seeing how the site is perceived and used by target audiences. This type of testing is an undervalued and overlooked step to website success.

Meanwhile, the same company takes pains to put a lot of effort into search engine optimization of keywords, tags and other elements of coding. So great; you figure out how to rank high in search results, only to misguide those eyeballs when they reach your lovely site.

Repeat after me: Usability testing is not a luxury

There are companies that specialize in user experience. Depending on the depth and purpose of your site you may want to fork out the dough to bring in an expert. Many web developers offer this service, too. I advise at least going the latter route. Particularly when you’ve got lots of forms an/or e-commerce going on, it can be money well spent.

If purse strings don’t allow paying for usability testing, take matters into your own hands. It need not be a costly complex process.

And to prove it, my next post will offer tips on how you can conduct usability testing for low or no cost. Stay tuned.

-Deni Kasrel

Have you, too, noticed web sites that look good but lack focus? Do you think more sites can benefit from usability testing? Comments welcome.

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How Your Website Can Soar Above The Rest

Posted on October 20, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized, Web User Experience | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

dancers (man lifting woman) Big Stock Photo

What’s the difference between a good website and a great one?

It can be a fine line, but one you want to cross.

Recently, when discussing this very topic, I used ballet as a point of comparison.

Yes, ballet can relate to website strategy. Here’s how:

Shiny dancer

Earlier this year I went to a show by BalletX, a Philadelphia-based company. I’ve seen this ensemble a number of times and generally enjoy the performance. This one had an extra spark, much of it fired by a guy named Matthew Prescott.

Matthew was a guest artist and, wow, did he shine.

Not that Matthew was a showy dancer. He just had a wonderfully natural ease of movement combined with superb technical ability.

Now, everyone who dances with BalletX is a high-end professional. Still, Matthew stuck out like a beacon. He was exciting to watch.

No matter what, make it look easy

Matthew showed off his wide smile throughout the program, even when lifting a ballerina high above his head. And sure, she was a flyweight, but really; raising a grown-up body, no matter how light, is tough to do with grace and a grin.

Also, Matthew was keenly attuned not only to the dancers he maneuvered about, but to the audience as well. Everything he did outwardly communicated, “I’m doing this for you.”

So, what does this have to do with strategic web communications?

How to make your website shine (without being showy)

You can have an attractive website with well-written content and that surely goes a long way. But when you’re outstanding it makes a big difference. That’s how you get from good to great.

Here are ballet-inspired pointers for making a website soar:

  • Shine without being showy. Resist the temptation to have lots of bells and whistles. Unless you are an actual purveyor of bells and whistles, these are distractions rather than attractions.
  • Even if your service or product is difficult to execute, make it seem easy to accomplish. Your instinct may be to show all the effort, but the customer just wants to know you’re a real pro.  Of course, if you’re in a technical industry, certain customers will want detailed information on your process. It’s fine to have this available. But don’t make it a focal point on the homepage. Drop it down a couple tiers. The best first impression is of your exceptional value proposition. Convey this in clear compelling fashion.
  • Your site must operate flawlessly from a technical standpoint. All actions need to execute smoothly and without delay of process. On the web, performance (not patience) is the preferred virtue.
  • Every aspect of your site — design, navigation, text, functionality, search engine optimization — must focus on your audience. Your organization does not exist to serve itself and neither should your website.

– Deni Kasrel

What do YOU think of these tips to make a website soar above the rest? Can you think of other aspects that make the difference between a good website and a great one? Share your thoughts. Comments welcome.

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Deliberately Pointing Out Changes To Your Web Site Can Enhance The User Experience

Posted on July 22, 2009. Filed under: Web User Experience | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

With the web, the only constant is change. The pace of improvement and innovation is such that a web site or web application that remains the same for even a couple of years may be considered out-of-date.

If you’re involved with the web you must buy into the “change is good” mantra. Of course this does not mean that all change is good (oh, did I just hear someone mention Facebook’s Beacon fiasco?).  Still, in the scheme of things, if you’re involved with the web, you’re into change.

But it is also important to consider how change can affect users, who may be perplexed by the sudden appearance of something new on your site.

Allow me to use an analogy: Say you own a car that you drive on a regular basis and one day a new knob just pops up on your dashboard. You have no idea what it’s for, and maybe there’s a label on it, but in any case, it’s all new to you. So you think, “Whoa, I never saw that before. How’d it get there and what the heck is it for?” The new knob, however useful it may prove to be, distracts you from the task at hand, which is driving the car. This can lead to an accident. Not a good thing.

Making changes to a web site or to a web-based application is similar though not the same. Becoming distracted by the presence of a new link is presumably not hazardous. Yet it can be disorienting. A new feature that appears out of the blue in a space where users otherwise know the lay of land may cause a person to become confused and/or think they have faulty memory.

So you might want to consider taking a tip from Google email, which alerts users when changes appear.

Goggle lets users know Tasks is a new function

Google lets users know Tasks is a new function

In mid-July of this year the word “New!”  popped up in red next to a link for Tasks on the left-hand side of the client interface. This serves two purposes: First, it reassures any potentially confused user that “Hey, you really haven’t seen this link here before.” Also, calling attention to what’s new transmits a subliminal message that Google is constantly adding functionality to make things better.

All of this directly relates to an improved user experience. Which in simple terms means visitors should not need to deliberately think about what they are doing on a web site because it’s intuitive by design.

As Jared Spool, a well-known user interface engineer notes in his article Designing Embraceable Change, “We must take care to ensure that we’ve considered the process of change as much as we’ve considered the technology changes themselves.” FYI, I recommend reading this article, especially if you are making major changes to a site.

So yes, change is good. And surely not all changes need to be pointed out in red. Still as many a mom might say, it’s a nice gesture.

Remember, anything that throws a user off is a reason for them to leave your site – and perhaps seek out a competitor.

– Deni Kasrel

What do YOU think of this post? Comments welcome.

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