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Usability Dilemma: Too Many Online Choices

In a previous post, “The Danger of Too Much Event Marketing Technology,” I briefly explored the challenges of choosing the best technology for one’s event web site. Today we’re faced with so many technological and marketing choices that we don’t even know where to start.  I’ve been caught in the technological choice trap on a number of occasions and it’s not fun. The same challenge of practically unlimited choices also plays out on the user’s side of the spectrum. When users come to a web site they’re frequently faced with so many choices they don’t know where to start or finish. The end result is that users frequently leave a web site without taking any action beneficial to the web site owner.

Analysis Paralysis and Dissatisfaction
Below is an interesting presentation by Dr. Barry Schwartz called “the Paradox of Choice.” He breaks down the virtues and vices of free choice.  Most people assume that freedom of choice can be nothing less than a virtue. Unfortunately, freedom of choice can also make all of us suffer analysis paralysis and create a dissatisfying purchasing experience. If you can’t dedicate 20 minutes to watching the entire video, just watch the first 8 minutes.  It will make you think a little about your own freedom of choice.

The Paradox of Choice

The scenario presented in the video above also plays out in regards to online choice. There are critical questions every web site owner should ask. Are you better off offering the widest variety of product or the best single product for the consumer on your web site?  A similar scenario plays out in the event marketing world. As an event organizer do you offer as many ticket options as possible or a limited number of options?

Goals and Well Defined Paths
One recommendation to web site owners is to consider having a clearly defined set of goals for your web site. In tandem with your web site goals you should also have a well defined path you expect web site users to follow.  If users fall off the path is your web site intuitive enough for them to self correct their course?

The challenges above aren’t always easy to solve. You can at least start with well defined goals for you web site. Most people never set goals for their web site and therefore never find success online. Where do you fall on the issue?

Here are some additional resources:

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JPGs & GIFs: Optimizing Your Graphics and Images

Have you every waited too long for a web page to load up? Did the wait frustrate you? Today I’d like to dig into some old school web site usability advice on optimizing web graphics and images.  Some people might be thinking “this is newbie advice or old news.” I’d ask the question, “are you optimizing your web site graphics?” A quick look at a majority of the web sites online would show most web site owners aren’t optimizing their graphics and images.

Web_page_optimization Way Back When
Back in the day optimizing web graphics was pretty standard practice. Just a few years ago dial up access was the primary way people accessed the Internet. Web page graphics had to be optimized because people didn’t want to wait for pages to load. If a web page didn’t load in a certain amount of time people would abandon the page.  Remember that the average attention span of the typical web user is about 8 seconds. Just because dial up is on the wane, doesn’t mean you can abandon optimizing your web site graphics. In today’s high speed world attention spans are even shorter. This advice is especially important to event web sites. The number of event photos and photo galleries that aren’t optimized on various event web sites is pretty scary.

Optimizing is More Important Than Ever
Regardless of high speed internet connections you still need to ensure that your page loads as quickly as possible. One of the main ways to get your web site to load quicker is by optimizing your graphics. Anything that’s in an image format like .gif or .jpg (.jpeg) can be optimized. In short, optimization involves taking away some of the image’s information to make it smaller and more compact.  You want to significantly reduce the file size of the graphics (not appearance size or dimensions) without the user noticing. 

This Page as an Example
If you’re reading this page on my web site’s home page, take a look at all the graphics by scrolling up and down the entire page. There are at least 10-15 different images. Each of the images on this page have been optimized. I’ve reduced the file size of each graphic by almost 90%. If all of the graphics you see on this page weren’t optimized they would total over 1.5 Megabytes.  By optimizing all the graphics on this page I’ve reduced the load time by 4 - 10 seconds on a high speed connection. A few seconds might not seem like a lot, but people just don’t have online patience anyone.

Your web site users will never complain if your web site loads too quickly, but they will leave if it takes too long to load.  By optimizing the graphics on your web site you can double or triple the speed that your current web page loads up. Optimizing goes well beyond just graphics, it can include video, layout, and programming.  Always strive to make sure you website loads as quickly as possible. Below are some resources for optimizing your web graphics.

Web Graphic Optimization Resources

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Don’t Pollute Your Web Site with Advertising

Before I ruffle too many feathers, let me start with a brief disclaimer.  What follows is specifically directed to people with web sites that don’t generate their primary means of revenue from advertising.  News web sites are a prime example of web sites that use on page advertising as a primary revenue stream. They publish content to attract visitors and pay for expenses with their advertising revenue.

Advertising Pollution
Advertising_Pollution A few years ago I was introduced to a unique term: advertising pollution.  If you want to see or hear advertising pollution just turn on the radio, watch TV, open a newspaper, or get online.  We’re so inundated with advertising that it’s easy to get lost in the almost useless myriad of marketing.  When I was doing extensive usability testing on web sites one of the biggest user red flags was confusing on site advertising.  Test users would ask, “What does this (banner or ad) have to do with this web site/company?”  The test users were frustrated by the advertising. The consensus was, if it doesn’t specifically support the company don’t have advertising on an informational site. High quality information first, everything else should be a very distant second.

Don’t Pollute Your Site
Too many web sites run advertising just to run advertising.  I’m willing to bet if you look at their web stats they probably don’t get enough traffic to generate any decent advertising revenue.  If you have an event web site or a business web, don’t cloud the user’s search for information with advertising pollution.  Visitors come to your web site for information about your event or your business. It’s in your best interest to focus on your user’s needs.

Internal Advertising
There are some rare exceptions to the recommendation.  I am a proponent of internal advertising on web sites. If you have a product or service that can truly help someone, then you owe it to your potential customer and yourself to advertise on your web site. Wikipedia for all its faults is a pretty good example.  They have a donation banner on top to support their operation. To the best of my knowledge they haven’t sold out their page space to unrelated third parties to generate revenue. Ultimately the advertising has to truly help the user.

Make sure you put your information before any advertising on your web site.  You’ll have happier users and most likely make more money.

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Web Usability: How Many Users Do I Need to Test?

When discussing usability testing with business owners one of the first questioned to be asked is “How many people are we going to need to test properly?” Most people assume the more users you have the better your usability testing results. Ironically most usability problems can be identified with a fairly small group of users.  According to web usability guru Jakob Nielsen, you can conduct very effective usability testing on your web site with just five users.

Testing Once versus Repetitive Testing
In Nielsen's article “Why You Only Need to Test With 5 Users,” he points out that you can identify more usability issues testing 3 different times with 5 test users as opposed to testing once with 15 different users. If you only test once, you won’t be able to test any changes or improvements to identified usability issues. By spreading out the testing over a series of sessions you can apply changes and test your new solutions.  From personal experience, it has taken at least 2 different testing sessions with individual users to correct usability problems.  Testing multiple times is also crucial from a marketing perspective. Ask someone with a successful Adwords campaign how many times they test just a single highly effective Adword ad. From an improvement standpoint you’ll get the most return by repeating the simple testing formula of: test, modify, and retest. Consider how well the previous formula worked for Thomas Edison.

More Than Five People . . .
Can you test with more than 5 people? Absolutely!  If you test with more people you’ll get more data, but it is also going to cost you additional money and take up more of your time. If you look at it from a return on investment perspective, is it worth it?  One place where you might need more users as test subjects is if you have multiple niches inside your user demographic.  In those cases you’re probably have to use more than 5 users to cover the various niches.

The bottom line is if you’re considering testing your web site, you can do so effectively with just five users from your demographic.

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Learn From the Past Before Spending On the Future

When it comes to web usability testing you can never start testing too early. Starting early helps you identify positive and negative aspects of your web site before spending the time and money on redesigning or creating a new web site. I recently ran across a case study of a company that decided to forgo any early testing of their current web site and only test the newly programmed web site. The caution flag was immediately raised because they decided to spend months of time redesigning their site without considering if there were issues on their current site. Did they miss something vitally important that now might be carried over from their existing web site?

Always Test Your Previous Site
Some of the most valuable information you can collect during a web site redesign can be derived form your current web site. Every company should seriously consider what can be learned from their current web site before even considering a new web site. A redesign might be a waste of time and money if you just carry over unresolved user issues.

The Numbers Don’t Lie
One place to start is by carefully considering your web statistics.  Web statistics give you a good picture of what parts of your web site attract the most and least user attention.  Such information can prove tremendously helpful for streamlining your web site. On one particular project a careful analysis of the web stats allowed the client to reduce a 150 page web site to a 15-20 page web site.  The statistical data indicated that users spent a majority of their time on just 10 of the 150 pages. A 15-20 page site is far easier for a company to manage and for users to get around.  Their decision was ultimately justified by a significant increase in user traffic.  Analyzing stats will also allow you to gather great information for search engine optimization purposes. Perhaps you’re not considering valuable keywords that drive traffic to your web site?

Likes and Dislikes
In regards to the actual use of your web site, how the user interacts, it is important to also identify your target user’s likes and dislikes.  By taking stock of user likes and dislikes you will ensure the next version of your site operates more efficiently. Let the users decide what works best for them. Don't be lured by the mindset of "We Know What's Best for the User." Ego is the quickest was to kill any business web site.

When it comes to determining a time frame for testing make sure you test early and often. It is very easy to reach a point when redesigning a web site that you can’t do anything about the problem. If the web site is already redesigned and programmed who wants to go back and correct problems?  Make sure you start testing early to avoid such a costly scenario.

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A Quick Way to Find the Dominant Web Page Element

In web design and web usability it is often important to know what elements on your web page attract the most attention. The dominant page element attracts the most visual attention on any given web page. Attracting attention can either be a virtue or a vice.  A vice would be when an element is distracting from a compelling headline. A dominant element might distract the user from accomplishing their goals on your web site. The first place to start is identifying the dominant element on your web site.

Blur Your Vision
The easiest way to find the dominate element on any web page is buy de-focusing or blurbing your eyes when you are looking at a web page. Blur your eyes just enough to make the text difficult to read. You don't want to blurb your vision so much that you start to cross fields of view.  While your vision is blurred, pay attention to what element or elements stand out the most on your web page. The part that stands out is your dominant element.

Where is the Emphasis?
Does the dominant element on the your web page that stands out too much or unbalance your design? Overly dominant page elements can distract from your messaging and dilute the effectiveness of your design. Traditionally the most dominate web site elements should be found on top of the browser window or adjacent to your most important messaging. Make sure that your advertising doesn't get in the way of your messaging.

De-Emphasizing
You can bring less emphasis to elements in several different ways. If it's a matter of large imagery, reduce the physical size of the image on your web page. Bold, dark, and vibrant colors can also attract too much attention.  Consider using colors that strike an even balance to your overall design. 

Do you know someone who is a graphic designer or artist? Leverage a graphic designer's critical eye to identify dominant page elements. A graphic designer or artist should be able to give you very straightforward advice on how to bring more or less emphasis to your design.

Make sure you are bringing emphasis to the right areas of your web page.

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Squeeze Pages versus Splash Pages

Usability is an important aspect for any web site. Over the years I've changed my perspective on being a purist when it comes to usability. There are times when you have to ask yourself what's best for your bottom line. Is it more important to make money with your web site or try to make your web site as usable as possible? There are times when usability comes in conflict with effective marketing techniques.  One area of debate is in regards to splash pages and squeeze pages. Both Splash and Squeeze pages present challenges to making a web site truly usable.  Yet, one is definitely more valuable from a marketing perspective. Let's take a moment to consider both.

Splashing Them with Art
Splash pages are usually very graphical in nature and sometimes contain flash animation.  Splash pages are typically an opportunity for graphic designers to show off their artistic talents. A few years ago splash pages were all the rage for web development firms, yet times have changed. Developers started to clue in that users were bouncing from web sites that started with a splash page.  Users come to almost every web site for information not an art show. Compare a splash page with a Squeeze page.

Squeezing Information Out of Them
A squeeze page is a web page that forces people to give up at least their email and first name before they can proceed any further. A great example of a squeeze page can be found at PileCabinet.com. Many usability people would argue that a squeeze page is also barrier to entry. But over the years I've seen the tremendous amount of lead generation and revenue companies have produced by incorporating squeeze pages. One of my friends has collected over 40,000+ email addresses in the last four years with a squeeze page. Squeeze pages are also analogous with landing pages.

One aspect that makes a squeeze page different than a splash page is the promise of good information to follow.
It's like the start of a relationship. The process usually starts with first name and email. After entering their information the user is expecting some pretty good information and follow up. If a company can deliver the information, they raise their level of trust and credibility with their users. Information needs to be put in front of sales pitch. Multi-million dollar businesses online are build upon this concept.

Squeeze Page Tip
If you are going to use a squeeze page make users bookmark the post-squeeze page. This way they can go direct to the information.

Anyone online should consider the advantages of using a squeeze or landing page somewhere on their web site. If you are going to use a barrier to entry on your web site, use a squeeze page!

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High Speed Internet and the Wane of Dial Up

It was only a few years ago when more than half of the Internet users were getting online via dial up connections.  The problem was that many companies started to abandon the notion of keeping web pages small and load times quick as broadband connections became more mainstream.  As of 2007, about 20% of Internet users are still utilizing dial up access to get on the Internet. A full report detailing additional recent Internet usage statistics is available on the Ipsos North America web site.

Back in the day eight seconds was the typical attention span of a web user.  Ironically, I believe user attention spans have become even shorter than eight seconds. Broadband connections have reduced the patience of many Internet users.  If a web site doesn't start to load in a few seconds even I start to get frustrated. One of the fallouts from more high speed users has become bloated web sites with lots of video, graphics, plus unnecessary bells and whistles. In a time of high speed Internet it becomes beneficial not to think like everyone else. Instead of thinking about how much information you can stuff onto a single web page, think about providing just the right amount of information.

Thinking Backwards
There are times when a 'contrarian' mindset can serve almost any web site. A friend of mine runs a series of college humor web sites.  His video driven web site costs him thousands of dollars a month in hosting fees because of the ridiculous amount of bandwidth it requires. He told me he was measuring bandwidth for one of his college humor video web sites in terabytes. One day he came up with the idea of focusing on a picture driven web site. His desire to focus on picture web sites versus video web sites might shock some people. Someone I mentioned the idea to responded with, "everyone is interested in video web sites." Most people think that video is the way to go online. Interestingly, he has far more page views per user than his video web sites and pays far less in web site hosting each month. If I'm not mistaken his profit margin is much higher on his picture web sites than on his video web site.

Use it - Don't Abuse It
Because you have the bandwidth doesn't mean you need to use the bandwidth. Some of the most financially successful web pages I know of weight in under 100K.  That's smaller than most individual photographs contained on newspaper homepages. These light weight web sites are the epitome of simplicity.  Yet for most companies they're too simple to emulate. The best part is that they are driving millions of dollars of revenue for the companies running them.

Even though high speed connections are hear to stay, it's still tremendously beneficial to create web sites that load quickly. I have yet to receive a complaint about a web site that loaded too quickly.  In the predominately high speed Internet one of the best things any company can do is keep its' site "lean and mean."

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What Web Developers Can Learn From Facebook

A few months ago, some friends convinced me to join Facebook. It is in some ways similar to other social networking web sites such as MySpace and Multiply. For those that don't know, Facebook is a social networking web site that allows you and your friends to share stories, pictures, and other forms of user generated content. Facebook marks a return to the simpler side of the Internet. Like other social networking web sites, Facebook emphasizes user driven content. From a web design aspect, Facebook is an ode to the simple roots of the early Internet, plenty of text and picture content. There are a few lessons on content that any web developer can learn from Facebook and integrate into their own web projects. The biggest lesson to be learned comes in the form of relevant content.

High Quality Content Versus Relevant Content
From a content perspective Facebook becomes an interesting contrast of high quality content versus extremely relevant content. For years I've always been a big proponent of high quality content. But with social networking web sites the emphasis focuses on very relevant content. Consider the following choices, which would you choose to view first?

  1. A potentially great story or amazing photograph by someone you don't know.
  2. A story posted by a friend with decent pictures.

Most people I know would choose number 2. Too many web developers and web site owners have content on their web sites that doesn't interest their visitors. You see it all the time with companies that provide great offline services. They aren't able to effectively connect with their target market because of a lack of relevant content.

There are also other strengths that web developers can integrate into their own projects.

Facebook's Strengths:

  • Hyper Relevant User Content
  • Very Simple Content: Predominately Pictures and Text
  • Near Instantaneous Updates
  • Quick Load Time
  • Integration of the Traditional Web with the Mobile Web
  • Advertising that doesn't overshadow content

Facebook does an excellent job of bridging traditional PC based web browsing with a quick loading and compact mobile phone applications.  Their mobile application is almost entirely text based. If you use the mobile phone interface, you can select the type of content and information alerts you receive.

For all its' strengths one of the biggest challenges I faced was learning to use the interface.  I wouldn't classify Facebook's user interface as being highly intuitive or extremely simple to use.  Since the service is so heavily driven by content it forces me to ask the question, "Is the user interface THAT important?"

The tremendous growth of Facebook's membership speaks for itself. The network and its' growth is built upon the premise of interacting and sharing information with your friends.  Facebook does a great job of reminding us to focus content supported by decent design. It drives home the point that content is still King on the Internet and graphic design is Queen. If you have a few minutes it's worth signing up for an account and networking with friends.

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Questions You Need To Ask Regarding Your Web Site

Last week, during a local marketing meeting, a thought occurred to me.  I was in a room full of 25 savvy marketers/business people. I thought to myself "why not ask the meeting attendees some simple yet important questions regarding their company web sites."  It was an informal survey and the results ended up resonating an important point.   My first question was, "Do you have a company web site?"  Almost everyone in the room raised their hand. Two questions later only three people had their hand still raised. Out of a group of 25 people only 3 (12%) had a web site that supported their business.  I believe there are three simple yet important questions any business owner could ask themselves to identify if their web site is supporting their business. The questions that follow are the same questions I asked the meeting participants.

The Important Questions To Consider

  • Is my web site helping to generate revenue for my company?
  • Does my web site generate quantifiable sale leads for my company?
  • Does my web site save my company money on a regular basis?

Ideally, "Yes" should be the answer to all the questions above. A truly effective web site, at a minimum, should answer "Yes" to at least two of the questions.  Many people will answer yes to the questions, but give very nebulous information to support their answer. A "Yes" response should be followed by supporting data, "Yes, we generated sales leads with out web site, and here is how we accomplished that . . ."

A Difficult Path to Travel
It isn't easy to create a web site that you can answer yes to the three questions above. It took me years to figure out how to create a web site that generated leads, creates consistent revenue, and saves money on a regular basis. I'm still in the process of creating a web site that does all three things. Every company with a web site should strive to create a site that measurably saves money, generates leads, and increases revenue. "Because everyone else has one" isn't a good reason to have a web site.

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