October 9th, 2008 Ellie Childs
At Insight Designs, each month or so we host an In-house Insight, or knowledge share. Everyone in the office gathers for lunch and one of us makes a presentation on something we find interesting that we think the rest of the staff should know about, too. This week, I made a presentation on web usability. And I thought it was worth sharing with the outside world. Here’s an excerpt of my presentation:
Web Usability is important because it alone will determine the success or failure of a website. The visual design should be thought of as merely a means to deliver a message to the user.
There are plenty of sophisticated usability studies out there that involve a plethora of participants. Analysts study their moves and make recommendations for changes based on the mistakes the users made. It would be nice, but we obviously can’t do this for every site we make. However, there are plenty of things we can do to make our sites more user friendly.
For Instance, we can measure a user’s impression of a page using a quick “5-Second Test.” A few years ago, usability expert Christing Perfetti came up the with idea during the development of a site for Fidelity. Site creators wanted to see how users interpreted crucial content pages. The test has been used on many sites since. It’s a valuable test because it’s quick, easy to conduct and renders results immediately. It works like this:
1. Identify a critical page of content on a website
2. Show it to a user for only 5 seconds
3. After 5 seconds, remove the page and ask the user why they would use this page.
For example, the Red Cross would probably say the main goal of their website is to drive donations. So, let’s go to the donations page on the Red Cross site and conduct our own 5 second test.
Think: What would you use this page for? What does it tell you?
In five seconds, users can identify exactly where they need to click in order to make many different kinds of donations. This clear list of links resulted in an increase in donations after the site was launched.
Cons of the five second test.
1. Doesn’t work for the home page. Mainly because it’s hard for the user to identify the essence of a company in 5 seconds. It would be better to use quick task-oriented tests on the homepage. For example, you would take the user to a home page and tell him to “sign up for a newsletter” or “get support for a printer problem” depending on the nature of the website.
2. Our biggest challenge to in-house usability testing is the learner affect. We are all so smart we all have a really good idea of where things are supposed to be and what they do.
Interesting fact: In 2004, about 40% of people visited a homepage and then drilled down to where they wanted to go and 60% use a deep link that took them directly to a page or destination inside a site. In 2008, said Dr Nielsen, only 25% of people travel via a homepage. The other 75% search and get straight there. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7417496.stm)
What can we do to make sure our sites are more usable? First and foremost, we can think about the user. Most usability issues arise from designs that are too complex. Less is almost always more from a usability standpoint. This doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice design.
For example, this shoe site got high usability ratings: http://shoeguru.ca/.
This design would be considered user-centric or product-centric, meaning the design of the site is based on the design of the product, which is clear to the user because there is nothing to fight for their attention. There are only a few navigation options and no dropdowns. There is a clear call to action at the bottom of the home page. Note: there is some debate in the usability world about the use of white text on a black background. This is usually not a good option for a site with a lot of copy. The Shoe Guru site doesn’t have too much copy, so the contrast works just fine.
Call-to-action statements are an increasingly important design element. Users are growing more impatient and don’t like to dig around a site to find what they are looking for. Satisficing. Users don’t tend to make optimal choices. They don’t read sequentially on the web either. Instead they satisfice. This means that as soon as they find a link that seems like it might lead to their goal, they click it immediately. Call-to-actions prey on this instinct by making the choices clear.
By definition, a call to action is a statement on the site that tell the user what the website owner wants them to do. They are often words such as “Buy Now”, “Shop Now”, “Call Now”, “Subscribe Now”. They don’t always include the word Now, but they always convey an action.
In recent months, more people, including our clients, are aware of the impact of a call to action.
For example, I recently put one on Antler Art, Inc: http://www.antlerartinc.com/
I found another interesting one (“Shop Looks”) on J.Crew: http://www.jcrew.com/AST/Navigation/Women.jsp. Instead of just directing users to the product pages, it allows users to browse and buy an entire outfit. Amazon has been doing this for years, but it’s becoming more popular on other ecommerce sites as well.
As web developers, what can we make sure we are doing to increase usability? Since we don’t really have the means to conduct our own elaborate tests, we can do the next best thing use the information others have gathered.
I found a web design usability checklist that covers all the major elements of web usability.
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