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Leveraging Technology Versus Using "Bells and Whistles"

Are you leveraging technology or making use of "bells and whistles?" 
There are plenty of companies who are quick to integrate various forms of technology online or into their web site. Examples are numerous from online audio and video to flash and interactive polling. There are some great technologies out there that can automate a process into a few minutes compared to hours or days for traditional implementation. The leveraging of technology provides companies with a proven return on investment. "Bells and whistles" are nice to have, but never deliver a measurable or advantageous return on investment. It is important to know the difference between leveraging technology and making use of "bells and whistles."

It starts with companies being objective about their use of online technology. A large differentiator between those individuals and companies who are successful online and everyone else comes down to who consistently leverages technology. Consider the example of email marketing with programs like, AWeber, Constant Contact, or 1ShoppingCart.  How many people do you know make use of email marketing services? I personally know a number of companies and individuals who make use of email marketing technology.  For all the companies using email marketing programs,very few use the technology properly and on a regular basis.  For those that fail in their endeavors, you hear reasons like "we couldn't figure out how to make it work" or "it didn't work for us." Frustration replaces objectivity.

Tenacity and Determination
Those who are very successful online leverage technology to it's maximum potential.  They test and track their results on a regular basis. They don't quit because something doesn't go accordingly the first, second, or third time.  The online superstars realize the difference between being perfect and "good is good enough." For those that fail with their online efforts it is usually from a lack of tenacity and determination.

Be Introspective
One way to differentiate between "bells and whistles" and good technology is by asking yourself, "what's cool to have and what is truly useful?" Also ask yourself,"I am maximizing the usefulness of a given technology?" If not, it might be time to move on to something else. The hard part is knowing when to stay with a process and when to get out. In the past it was said "One Man's Junk is Another Man's Treasure." It isn't much different when it comes to technology. Those that take the time to figure it out the right nuances usually end up with most of the treasure.

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Reading the User's Mind and Then Doing Nothing About It

Want to find out what users of your web site are thinking?
The simplest place to start is by looking at your web site log files with an analytics program. Right now, I know that a number of people reading this are saying to themselves "Thank You, Dr. Obvious!" Of course if you look at your web stats you'll get better information on what the users are thinking.  Each user movement through your web site tallies up in various trends for interpretation on web reports.  The process takes a good portion of the guess work out of the equation as it pertains to "what are the users thinking?

Doing Nothing With Good Information
I've seen more web reports than I care to recall.  These reports include everything from a short synopsis of user activity to 75 pages of data that a statistician would drool over.  For all the great analytics packages on the market, some solutions being absolutely free, most companies don't take the time to implement web strategy changes in accordance with their web stats.  At web stat review meetings  everyone is "amazed and really interested in all the findings." After a review meeting most findings fall to the way side or nothing gets changed.

Linking Your Statistics with Goals
I discussed the challenge of web stats falling to the wayside with my friend Matt from ITMonkey.  He shared some of the same concerns and suggested some very practical advice. Matt said it starts with "creating realistic and measurable goals that you can reference against your web stats." You need to go beyond the standard metrics such as visitors, page views, average time on site, etc. Some simple goal oriented suggestions include the following:

  • If your goal is to increase the usability of your web site, your web statistics are a great starting point for any usability testing.  The history of your site gives a historical retrospective on who, what, when, where, as it pertains to users. You can also test new strategies against old trends.
  • Web statistics are a great bridge into establishing or refining a Search Engine Optimization campaign.  Again use collected keyword data as a starting point.  Are your new keywords as effective as generating traffic?
  • Are links you've recently traded or purchased to your web site providing you with an appreciable return on investment?
  • If you have an advertising campaign you are running in the traditional media use your analytics software to track the effectiveness of your marketing.  There was one campaign that was run earlier this year that actually showed a better return on investment from Pay Per Click Advertising versus radio advertising.

Companies need to go beyond just reading web statistics for all the obvious reasons.  Look deeper and tie the statistical data to measurable goals over time. Companies are getting a pretty precise map of what their web users are thinking and doing, but what's the use of a map that you never reference?

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What You See ISN'T Always What You Get . . .

When it comes to web usability there are number of methods and techniques used to ensure that a web site is easy to use and understand.  One particular area of usability is ensuring web site compatibility with the greatest number of computers possible. Software developers have created features for web development applications to aid developers in creating compatible web sites.  Two of the most popular web design applications, Dreamweaver and Frontpage, are considered WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get).  What you see while programming the page is suppose to be close to what you should get after the web site is posted on a server.  In additional to the WYSIWYG environment most web development software has a preview function.  The preview function allows web site creators to view a page on their local machine in the web browser of their choice. For all the technology in place to assist web designers in creating compatible web sites something always goes awry. 

It Looks Different on This Computer
One of the biggest “Doh!” moments is when you check your web site online and see something completely different than what was tested on your local machine.  This happens regularly to the best developers on Earth.  Most web developers could write books on the horror stories associated with “I previewed the page before I posted it to the server.”

The Ultimate Test
Regardless of how sure you are that a web page is programmed correctly, you always need to test and test relentlessly.  The ultimate test of a web site’s compatibility should be when a web site is uploaded to a server.  You should never consider what you see on your own computer an accurate representation of a given web.  Always test from the server that is going to be hosting your web page.  Below you’ll find a brief list of checks you can perform to ensure compatibility.

Simple Web Site Compatibility Checks:

  • Check your web site in multiple browsers.
  • Check your web site in browsers a few releases behind.
  • Check your web site on multiple platforms (Mac, PC, Unix).
  • Clear your browser cache before checking an updated web site.
  • Is the design broken or inconsistent?
  • Does all the critical functionality work (Forms, E-comm, Interactive Elements)?

Always double check your web site, as often as possible, but at least once every few days.  The most important time to check is immediately after a page has been updated.

A Dose of Usable Reality
One common piece of usability advice is testing a few browser versions behind the current release.  The reality of the situation is that you can be vigilant in checking your web site in previous browser versions but that isn’t enough. Users bare a certain level of responsibility in ensuring their browsers are up to date. 

The mobile revolution is also making things increasingly difficult from a compatibility and accessibility aspect.  Developing a web site for a typical user versus a mobile user is a distinct discipline.  Each version of the web site is different for individual platforms.

Web site compatibility is important to strive for, but often difficult to achieve. You can reasonably ensure web site compatibility by testing for proper functionality and testing often!

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Type, Audio, and Video

In “The Most Powerful Form of Advertising” the argument is made that copywriting is the most powerful form of online advertising. Depending on the type of web site and the information being presented, the written word might be the most effective way of presenting information.  Words are clean, simple, and to the point.  “What about multimedia?” Multimedia is wonderful and has its place on the Internet. Yet multimedia can also complicate things and add a tremendous amount of cost to any web project.   

Content Driven
Visit some of your favorite web sites. What is the balance of words to multimedia? One of my favorite web sites “Abandon & Little Known Airfields” is composed entirely of text, html links, and pictures.  The web site contains a tremendous amount of historical information on abandon airports across the United State. There aren’t any flashy graphics, audio, or video, just really interesting information.

Books versus Movies
There is something about the written word that cannot be replaced with audio, video, or other forms of multimedia.  Consider some of your favorite books.  Many books become motion pictures. How many times have you walked out of the theater and said to yourself, “I enjoyed the book more than the movie.” Words have an interesting way of setting off our imagination.  Regardless of how good the cinematography or specials many movies can’t match the impact of ink and paper.

On the Internet the user is always looking at the quickest and easiest way to access good information. One of the easiest ways to get information to the user is by using nothing more than words.

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Online Objectivity Paves the Way to Online Success

Someone asked me the other day “why do so few companies find success online?” There are so many different answers I didn’t know where to start.  On a whim, I came up with an answer that has crept up in almost every single web project I can recall.  My answer to “why do so few companies find success online?” is “companies lack online objectivity.”  Companies cannot take their own vested interests out of their web site.  They focus more on their own needs as oppose to their user’s needs. This isn't to suggest that a company shouldn't strive to meet its online goals.  Companies get tripped up in the process.  They try to serve themselves first before serving their market. How many web sites have you visited a web site with each sentence starting with “Our … My … We?” Successful companies maintain a high degree of online objectivity.

Online Objectivity
Here is a simple usability fact: Users aren’t interest in a company that tells them about the greatness of their product or service. Users want to know what a company is going to do for them.  The focus should be on meeting the user’s needs.  This can be accomplished by listening or interacting with them. Those companies that practice a high level on online objectivity are more likely to succeed online. If you want to ensure success online make sure you’re meeting your user’s needs before your own. The great thing about the Internet is that you can collect feedback quickly and inexpensively.  Below are a few suggestions of ways to meet user needs.

Ways to Meet User Needs:

  • Post Transaction Follow up
  • Feedback Forums
  • Email Survey
  • Online Survey
  • Usability Testing

Those companies who keep the focus on the user at all times are far more likely to be successful online.  The most difficult thing to overcome online is a company’s own ego.  Putting the customer’s ego in front of your ego is a big step with big payoffs.

Additional Resource:

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Web Usability Versus Internet Marketing

More Than Usability
The importance of web usability cannot be underestimated.  Yet it is important to recognize it takes a lot more than just having a usable web site to be successful online.  Usability primarily focuses on making things easy to use and understand.  Regardless of how easy a web site is to use it also needs to have consistent and increasing visitor traffic. Traffic generation falls under the category of internet marketing. Marketing concentrates on product or service awareness and as part of the sales process.  It is important for any web site owner to make use of both usability and marketing.

Marketing isn't always Usable
There are some techniques direct marketing techniques that directly contradict sound usability principles.  One such technique is the use of pop ups.  For years pop up windows created usability issues.  Yet from a marketing perspective pop ups are great way to collect email addresses. Email addresses can be used to drive a marketing campaign for a product or service.

Bridging Usability and Marketing

One distinct area where web usability and internet marketing are complementary is when it comes to user testing.  User testing is crucial for both disciplines.  In web usability testing you collect data to identify positive or negative trends.  Those trends are used to enhance an improve a web site or online process.  Testing is also used in the area of marketing to improve advertising performance. Internet marketers frequently use Split testing to improve the performance of various marketing pieces: PPC ads, sales letter, or headlines to name a few.  The importance of testing needs to be placed on objectivity.  It is very easy to throw overshadow "what the boss wants" as opposed to what people are saying.

There are a number of marketing techniques that don't conform with good usability standards. The most profitable web sites find the right balance between web usability and marketing.  From experience I’ve seen web sites that give deference to marketing, sacrificing usability, and doing tremendously well on the financial front.

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Others Do the Work, You Save Money

In the Think Big, Start Small post I suggested the idea of an online field trip to find web site concepts that might be applicable to your own web site. Some of the most successful web sites borrowed their ideas from some other site. For whatever reason, people have a pressing need to reinvent the wheel on the Internet.  It costs money to reinvent the wheel.  In many cases you can find a web site that is doing reasonably well, borrow some of their ideas and do even better.  The process allows almost anyone to save time and money on their web project. 

Looking At The Competition
A few years ago I headed up a usability study for a local private school that services the deaf and hard of hearing.  Part of the usability study focused on looking at the client’s competition and similar topical web sites.  The information derived from analyzing other web sites was tremendously helpful.  It allowed the client and the developer to integrate user approved concepts thereby reducing project time and cost.

Direct Marketing Methodology
The same methodology is used in the direct marketing field on a regular basis.  Most of the great copywriters encourage their students to collect junk mail.  Companies pay top dollar to create advertising campaigns that most people classify as junk mail.  If you can clue into the successful campaigns (those that run often) you might be able to integrate some of the ideas.  It takes time but is well worth the effort.   

Where to Start
The process is very straightforward. Find web sites that offer a similar product or service to your own.  Those will be the sites that you’ll look to gather information from. Take into consideration the factors such as user demographics and the size of a site as it relates to your site. 

You can conduct the testing on your own or make use of family or friends.  Consider looking to users outside your organization to conduct testing. People outside the organization traditionally have less bias as it related to your company or product.

Likes and Dislikes
Ask people to identify their likes and dislikes on the competing or similar web sites.  Make a list of your findings. Are there any ideas or concepts that you might be able to improve upon?

It is important to emulate as opposed to creating an exact copy. There are still copyright laws that need to be observed.

You can save a significant amount of money and time on development costs by emulating others.  There is nothing wrong with taking someone's idea and expanding it or modifying it.  It is the essence of the Internet.  Almost everyone is a copy cat.

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Two Click Usability and SEO

A number of web sites unintentionally bury their best content.  In some cases users might completely miss the most important content a web site has to offer. This usability challenge can also have a significant impact on e-commerce web sites. Companies and web site owners need to ask themselves: “Is the content on my web site easy for users to access?” Less clicks can also help you with your search engine optimization efforts.

Below are some simple suggestions for making sure you best content is getting to the user:

The Two Click Suggestion
One usability suggestion is making sure important content is no more than two clicks away.  Users should be able to access most of your pages without having to click more than two times.  The ‘two click’ suggestion is also applicable for search engine optimization purposes.  Most spiders will only crawl web sites so deep before they stop.

Let the User Decide
Another helpful way to determine what content is most important to the user is by looking at your log files. Think of your log files as an informal voting system.  In many cases the users choose pages or article that a web site owner wouldn’t have considered important. Use the log files to your advantage.

Questions to Ask:

  • Are there individual pages or article that get a comparatively large proportion of requests?

  • Are there pages or article you believe to be important that are being missed by users? 

Using Anchor Links in Each Page
You can use HTML anchor links within each page to point related pages on your web site.  If a user is interested in the related information they might be apt to click on the link.  Keyword targeted HTML anchor links also help search engines to better index your web site.  If you can't integrate HTML anchor links into your body content, consider placing them at the bottom of each page.

Getting Big With Blogs
One web site format that offers a surprising amount of versatility and usability is a Blog.  A Blog's hierarchy is a great way of organizing web sites that have a large number of individual pages. Blogs are usually categorize by topic area and in most cases archived by date.  A Blog format isn’t for every web site, but that doesn’t mean you can adopt some of the information architecture related to categorizing content.

Blogs also have Search Engine spiders have a much easier time crawling Blogs because HTML links.  If you choose the right keywords and topic areas, you stand to get better indexing in the search engines.

It is in the best interest of almost every web site to keep content as easy to access as possible.  When good content becomes difficult to reach it makes it tremendously difficult to create a sticky web site. It is not only good for the usability of your web site, but it is also good for your bottom line.

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Web Sites That are Always Under Construction

Construction How can a web site annoy a user in 5 seconds or less?  By presenting the user with a page that contains the words “under construction.” During the pioneering days of the Internet it was almost impossible to run across a page on a daily basis that didn’t say “under construction.  Thankfully most companies have abandoned the practice of tagging their incomplete pages with the “under construction.” Yet there are enough sites that contain those infamous words to dedicate a post to the issue. 

One area where the under construction plague runs rampant is on personal web sites. If you do a search for “under construction” in Google and you get 52 million results.  There are a few steps any web site can take to overcome the usability issues created by always being under construction.

Users Seek Immediate Content
The problem with most under construction pages is they don’t present the user with any compelling content.  There might be the occasional “stop back soon for updates,” but users rarely go back to the site.  Remember the user’s mindset when they surf the Internet.  If you can’t provide users with information they’ll find it elsewhere.  User attention span is measured in seconds.

What Can Be Done
In many cases you don't need to use an under construction page. Any changes on a web site should be done near instantaneously or in the background. Depending on the versatility of your navigation consider disabling individual web pages or sections that don’t contain any content.  Consider posting a temporary page with some content.

Try not to leave pages blank. From an SEO standpoint pages with little or no content have almost no search value.    As opposed to presenting the user with an “under construction” page, present a temporary page with some relevant content.  Some content is far better than no content. Give the user a sneak peak of what is coming or use the page to build some anticipation.  Just make sure the anticipation isn’t carried out for too long.

Be sure to include good contact information if you’re using temporary home page. What a page lacks in content can be made up with an offer to communicate. Encourage users to contact you if they have any questions.  Keep the emphasis on customer service.

The Internet is always under construction.  Posting a sign to point out the obvious doesn’t help users. Keep the emphasis on presenting the user with some content or the ability to assist them in some fashion.

Additional Resource:

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When They Have To Hit Submit

Today I’m going to briefly approach the submit button from a trust and credibility standpoint with some usability added to the mix.  It is possible for one simple thing like the submit button to have a noticeable impact on a web site.  There are many times when a developer will take for granted the placement and implementation of a submit button.  This article stemmed from a client expressing their opinion on the poor implementation of an online form during a recent review meeting.  There are certain factors that can be addressed to make it easier for a user to submit.

Placement

The placement of a search or submit button can impact click through rates for form submission.  Regardless of the logic of placing a submit button at the end of a form, the bottom might not always be a logical place.  In some instances it might be beneficial to think logically before thinking visually in regards to submission button placement.

Where does the information go?
One question that comes up during usability studies that involve submission forms is “where does the information go after I hit submit?”  Users are particularly sensitive when they are filling out personal information.  Let the user know exactly where their information is being sent. 

Privacy Policy
Another piece of information you should nest near the submit button is a privacy or SPAM policy.  Make users feel more comfortable by ensuring the user that their privacy and data will be safely protected. Also letting them know they won't be inundated with email might give them more incentive to submit their information.

Give Feedback
After the user hits the submit button let them know that the information has been successfully sent.  This can be as simple as a thank you or acknowledgment page. If you have an autoresponder setup let the user know to check their email.  There have been a few instances when a client inadvertently broke an online form.  The issue wasn’t detected until a few weeks later.  Users are usually the last to know if a form is properly submitting information.   

Is there an alternative option?
There are instances where an online form might stop working.  In some cases the web site owner isn’t aware of the problem.  Always provide the user with an alternative method of submitting information like email or via telephone.   Keep that information near the submit button.  Let the users know there is an alternative.

Always be away of the small things you can do that have a larger impact on the user.  The ability to submit information is an important interactive element to many web sites.  Keep the process simple and provide the user with feedback.

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