Your business web site may look great, but if it has never undergone a useability study, you may be deluding yourself about how effective it really is. Roulla Yiacoumi reports.
How much money did your business spend on its web site? How much time was invested in developing, programming, and designing its interface?
If the answer is in the region of several thousand dollars and many long hours, then did you also consider a useability study?
Unlike in the dotcom boom days, it’s no longer enough to simply build a web site, add pretty graphics and expect people to come.
Online consumers have more choice than ever and won’t give a second thought to logging off your site to visit your competitors if they can’t find what they’re looking for.
According to Craig Errey, Managing Director of interface design and useability consultancy Performance Technologies Group, a large number of sites are clumsily designed and poorly executed, which leads to consumer frustration and anger.
The problem is that too many web sites are focused on creating a wow’ factor rather than service fulfilment, says Errey. Businesses will spend a lot of money on the technology and graphics, then leave their advertising agency to build the user interface.
User interface and site navigation are arguably the hardest aspects of a web site to get right, which is why useability experts should be brought in from the start of a site design or redesign.
The purpose of a useability study is to test whether your web site works as you intend, ensuring visitors to your site have a satisfying experience.
Ideally, useability testing should not be left until the site is ready to go live. Useability is fundamental to the entire design process, says Errey. Testing at the end is way too late. If the site is launching next week, you’ve probably run out of time and money.
Testing parts of the web site as they are completed minimises any nasty surprises at the end. One of the most common mistakes is to complete a web site before any useability testing is done, says Gerard Searchfield, Creative Director at Taurus Marketing, who has overseen the design of several high-profile web sites, including Toyota , AAMI, and Westinghouse.
A useability study generally involves hiring people to sit in front of a computer to conduct a series of tasks on your web site. These users are generally brought in one at a time and given a set list of tasks to perform, while useability experts observe behind a two-way mirror.
Some sample tasks might include: buy a CD for your niece’s birthday and arrange to have it delivered on the first of May; check the stock price of a company and sell your shares if the price falls below a certain level; and find out when a certain event is scheduled to take place and book tickets.
A user should complete the tasks unaided and be encouraged to speak aloud about what they are doing or thinking as they move through the tasks.
Useability experts will observe how the user is navigating the site. Is the user having a problem locating information? Are there signs of confusion or hesitation? What does the user do when they can’t find what they’re looking for?
There are several consultancies that specialise in useability. They will employ users as per your target demographic and arrange testing at their own facilities. Depending on your site, you may wish to test anywhere between three and 20 users.
Shefik Bey and Toby Biddle are the Managing Directors of testing consultancy UsabilityOne, which lists Telstra, World Vision, and the Bureau of Meteorology as clients.
Bey says that while he is often surprised by the number of businesses that don’t conduct useability testing prior to going live with a site, this is more a case of ignorance than anything else. People don’t know about useability testing, he says. We find that after they test once, they always test.
UsabilityOne always encourages the client to come and watch the useability tests. Clients are often surprised when they sit in on the testing session, says Bey. They find users don’t navigate the site in the fashion they’d expect, they’re not reading the material on the site, and their attention is drawn to other elements on the page.
Errey agrees. Clients are sometimes really surprised that customers don’t get it. It’s because not enough time has been spent at the requirement stage.
Biddle says one of the main problems lies in ambiguous categories listed on a site. Not having appropriate categorisation is confusing. Often, link labels aren’t meaningful and have an internal company focus.
If users don’t know where to find the information, or are in a hurry, they are likely to simply use the search facility on a site.
An open text search facility is critical and should be on every page, says Biddle. Users are familiar with using a search engine to find information. Biddle also recommends going through your site’s log files to find the most commonly misspelled searched terms. A good search facility should be set to recognise these and point users to the correct page.
Sometimes, though, no matter how hard you search, the information you want cannot be found, simply because isn’t there. When did you last visit a site, only to find no phone number listed or even an email address?
Hiding information such as pricing is a pet gripe amongst internet users, says Bey. A business thinks it will make people call up to ask about the price. They won’t. It doesn’t happen.
Tim O’Brien, founder of consulting firm Web Strategy Resources and author of Exploiting the Internet , says hiding information doesn’t make sense. It’s a false economy, he says. You’re showing yourself to the world. You have to accept that it’s a good thing if people want to call you.
But perhaps the most hated aspect of any web site from a useability point of view is intrusive advertisements.
If your web site features advertisements, be aware that some forms of ads are considered unacceptable by most Internet users. These include ads that:
- pop up in front of your window;
- try to trick you into clicking on them;
- don’t have a close button;
- blink on and off; and
- float across the screen.
Jakob Nielsen, considered the world’s foremost useability expert, warns that any business featuring such advertisements risks alienating potential customers. Users not only dislike pop-ups, they transfer their dislike to the advertisers behind the ad and to the web site that exposed them to it.
While useability testing is not cheap, the cost is not prohibitive, says Biddle. There’s a perception that useability testing is too expensive, but it isn’t. A lot of our projects come in at under $10,000. About $20,000 to $30,000 is the mid-point, while at the top end, the cost might be in the region of $50,000 to $60,000.
But don’t wait until it’s too late before calling in the experts. People who engage us are experiencing a lot of sign-offs, says Errey. Call centres service calls that can easily be serviced by a good web site.
Bey agrees, saying that following useability testing for one client, the redesigned web site went from taking 25 per cent of all inquiries to a massive 64 per cent, resulting in huge call centre savings.
A web site is often the first port of call for potential customers. How does yours stack up?
Flight Centre – www.flightcentre.com.au
The Flight Centre web site was a neglected part of the business, concedes Barry Moore, Global E-Commerce Manager, Flight Centre.
He says that following a three-month redesign costing $50,000 to $60,000, the site has been brought up to date with a fresh design and enhanced features.
We wanted to make it dramatically easier for customers to view flights and make bookings, so we’ve updated the booking engine says Moore. Customers can now view and filter flight search results without numerous page refreshes.
The site was previously redesigned more than two years ago, and according to Moore, not updated that much. Testing of the new site was conducted by the company’s own internal research group which sourced independent testers.
More than 600,000 people visit the Flight Centre site each month.
Yahoo Australia + NZ – www.yahoo.com.au
When your business model depends entirely on a web site, the room for error is next to non-existent. Internet portal Yahoo Australia and New Zealand is a popular web site, with about 4 million visitors a month.
We generally do a redesign of our home page about every 18 months to two years, says Ricki Mulia, head of editorial and community. We had comments that our site was too cluttered, so we focused on that and the new site is a lot cleaner. We also wanted to promote more of our unique and compelling content.
Testing was conducted by useability consultancy Ideal Interfaces, which engaged more than 20 users.
One of the interesting things we found was that even though we have a nice bright button pointing to Mail, people still enter Yahoo Mail’ into the search box, says Mulia. Users are becoming more search-centric.
While educational, Mulia admits it can be frustrating watching users during the process.
Sometimes you want to say, No, go down there!’
Dos and don’ts
- When a user comes to your web site, is should be immediately obvious what your business does.
- Freshen the design of your site every 18 months to two years.
- Place contact details on every page of the site.
- Include an About Us section explaining the background of your business.
- Keep the business look consistent. Your web site should reflect your offline materials, such as brochures and business cards.
- Make sure your site downloads quickly so that users aren’t leaving before they arrive!
- Don’t test your site using employees. Use only independent testers.
- Don’t clutter your pages with too much text or pointless images.
- Don’t have sound that plays automatically when loading a page. If you must, at least offer a stop music button.
- Don’t use a mish-mash of colours and styles throughout your site. Have a style guide and stick to it.
- Don’t hide information such as contact details or pricing.