Web Usability ISN'T . . .

If you ask ten different people the same question, you’re most likely going to get ten distinct answers.  Even among the experts it is difficult to get a straightforward definition or explanation of web site usability. Instead of concentrating on defining what web usability “is,” we’ll look at what web usability “is not.”  Two critical components for any web site are accessibility and marketing.  Each is unique and distinctly different than usability.  It is important to know the differences and how each aspect is ultimately important to any web site.

In Mark Pearrow’s Web Site Usability Handbook, he makes several distinctions about what isn’t web usability.  One of the most common misconceptions is viewing usability and accessibility as the same thing.  Accessibility specifically concentrates on making a web site available to as many people as possible.  People with disabilities are an important focus of web accessibility.  Web accessibility allows people with disabilities such as hearing or visual impairment to access a web sites.  Web standards and technology are used to compensate for people's disabilities. Accessibility also delves into the challenges of delivering a web site over a variety of devices.  You can access web sites from PDA's, Smart phones, Laptops, etc. Accessibility ensures that users can get to a web site regardless of the type of device they're using.

Pearrow also points out that “usability is not marketing research.” Online Marketing focuses creating awareness and interest for a product, service, or web site. Usability focuses on making sure that the product, service, or web site is easy to use.  A marketing centric approach might try to guide users along a predefined online path or compel them to purchase something.  Usability ensures that regardless of whatever path a user takes, they’ll find the information easily. 

Accessibility and Marketing are both important to online success.  Yet they shouldn’t be confused with usability, which focuses on making something easy to use and understand.

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Focus Groups versus Usability Testing

This post is for my friend Peter who feels so passionate about focus groups.  Steve Krug makes some excellent points in Don’t Make Me Think regarding the differences between focus groups and a usability test. There are a number of people in the business world that confuse focus groups and usability testing.  Each discipline has its own unique approach, but the type of information collected and methodology are different. 

Focus Groups
Mr. Krug points out that focus groups are “a group process, and much of its value comes from participants reacting to each other’s opinions.” In a previous post, Beware! Dominant Users and Focus Groups, the dangers of a dominate user are briefly explored. This is in contrast to a usability test in which testing is usually conducted one on one. Krug believes focus groups are beneficial in obtaining quick feedback. This involves a better understanding of user needs, wants, likes and dislikes. I believe that focus groups are also great for brainstorming ideas.  An argument is made against focus groups in regards to determining if a web site is easy to use and what requires improvements. This is where usability testing comes into play.

Usability Testing
Usability testing concentrates on making sure a web site is functions properly and where to make improvements.  Krug argues focus groups “won’t tell you whether people can actually use your site.” This is best accomplished with usability testing. The one on one usability testing can help you refine how individual people interact with a web site.  Individual people won’t have their opinions modified by what someone else might think.  That’s the beauty of one on one test.  Users usually don’t surf the Internet in groups.  Individual usability tests also all you to concentrate on finite tasks and details.

Both focus groups and usability testing provide you with valuable information.  Use each accordingly and wisely.

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Where's the Web Site Link? ( I'm confused . . . )

How many times have you clicked on something thinking it was a link?

Focus_dir I ran across the article pictured to the right today.  The article about falling ice from the CN Tower in Toronto easily prompts one to watch the related video.  At the end of the short article the reader is prompted to “Click on the video icon to see the ice falling.”  My first natural inclination is to click on the picture to the right of the article.  I quickly found out that this isn’t the link for the video.      

One challenge is that I’ve trained myself to ignore advertising on the screen.  Many users have learned to tune out anything that looks like advertising, including things that aren't advertising. In this case the video icon is directed above the advertising block on the right.  Did I completely miss the link because it was right above advertising?  Two things made finding the video link difficult: informational relationships and linking to the most logical piece of information.

Informational Relationships
If you’re presenting information on a page to the user keep related items grouped together.  It seems logical enough, yet web developers break from this simple standard all the time.  Think in terms of informational relationships. In the case of the CN Tower article having the video link immediately after would have made the most sense.

Making It Linkable
If it looks like a link and it should be a link, make it linkable.  When designing web sites it is very easy to detach form a typical user’s behaviors.  Sometimes a link is put into a page without giving much thought to how a user might interpret the link.  Always look at links from the user’s perspective.

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How Accurate Is Online Information?

How much credence can we give to information found on the Internet?  I know a number of people who read anything online and consider it fact. How many times have you received an email attempting to rewrite history?  You might question the validity of the information, but that isn’t the case with everyone.  The speed of the Internet can be both a virtue and a vice.  Consider the impact of Blogging in the last Presidential campaign.  Some people with their own personal Blogs have become their own news service.  Where does one draw the line between fact and online fiction?

Some educators won’t accept any sources of online information.  They either want it straight from a book or some other accredited organization.  Recently I visited one of my former teachers.  She indicated that their educational standards don't allow students to cite online resources.  If a online citation is provided it needs to be held to the programs standards.  Wikipedia isn't considered an authoritative source.  Wikipedia's validity has been questioned on a number of occasions. Yet it is difficult to search on something without a Wikipedia link appearing near the top of the SERPs.

Several universities and accredited organizations publish their findings online.  Does information found on a .gov or .edu carry with it an acceptable level of validity?

Web users are left with an interesting juxtaposition.  In many cases some of the most innovative ideas can be found online months if not years before appearing in books.  At what point in time do we acknowledge online information as valid or invalid?

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How to Quickly Orient Users

Are you quickly orienting users to the purpose of your web site?

There are a number of web sites that suffer from poor user orientation.  A user loads up the web site and has no idea what the site is about.  Regardless of all the text and pictures found on the page being loaded, users can quickly become lost.  Business sites need an effective way to quickly pass along their purpose and service or product benefits.  In many cases users can be oriented with a web site’s purpose through a tagline.  A short and well crafted tagline can orient users and draw them into your web site.

In Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, he offers some tagline suggestions:

  • Taglines are located above the fold usually next to a company’s logo or identity.  Most users know to look near the logo for some hint regarding the purpose of the web site. Take a look online for tagline ideas, almost every major site has one.  Some companies don’t really need a tagline.  Amazon is a good example.  So many people are familiar with what Amazon does that their reputation alone orients users.
  • Taglines should be clear and concise. There is little benefit to being overly wordy. Try to keep your tagline less than ten words.
  • It is important that the tagline pass along a clear benefit regarding the company, service, or product.

Don’t confuse a tagline with a motto, like “We bring good things to life,” “You’re in good hands,” or “To protect and to serve.” A motto expresses a guiding principle, a goal , or an ideal, but a tagline conveys a value proposition.
Source: Krug, Don’t Make Me Think

If you don't already have one, spend a little time coming up with a good tagline.  Don’t assume you will be able to create something in a few minutes.  Some companies take weeks to create a compelling tagline.  When a good tagline is in place you will quickly convey a powerful message that connects with your target market.

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Don’t Pollute Your Web Site

Advertising is an important aspect for most web sites.  If a web site has decent traffic it can drive additional revenue from advertising.  Some web sites base a significant part of their online business model around online advertising.  If there wasn’t online advertising revenue some web sites wouldn’t exist.  The challenge becomes delivering advertising without interfering with content delivery. Remember that the primary reason users are coming to your web site is for content.  Users are not visiting your web site for advertising.  Are you polluting your web site with excessive advertising?

Sticking it to Ads
There was an article published years ago citing user reactions to excessive advertising.  Some users became so annoyed with advertising that they put stick it notes on their monitor to cover up annoying ads.  An important advertising fundamental from a usability stand point is balancing content and advertising.  Make sure that online advertising doesn’t diminish the content you're trying to present.  It is less of a matter of "how much is too much?" versus "Is the advertising getting in the way of delivering quality content?"

High Quality Content

Cnn_ad_cap Focus on keeping the dominate page element the content.  Advertising shouldn’t get in the user’s way when it comes to getting through web site. Web sites that keep the advertising layout consistent site wide are good examples to follow.  Many of the larger new organizations follow this model. There are predefined areas that are reserved as advertising space. Many of the larger portals have gone so far as to label the areas as advertising.

Matching Ads with Site Content
Be vigilant about the advertising you have on your web site.   Does the advertising match the context and theme of a site web?  Users are less apt to get annoyed with advertising if it’s at least related to the subject matter found on a web site or article.  Also be careful to ensure that site content isn't confused with advertising.  Users have modified their surfing habits to ignore anything that looks like advertising. Is there something on your web site that a user might confuse with advertising?

When it comes to advertising and usability, make sure the advertising isn't clouding the message.  Keep the focus on content.

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How To Remember and Use Your Ideas

When is the last time you had a really great idea and a few minutes later it disappears from your memory? For many people this is a regular occurrence.  Our mind is bombarded with thousands of sights and sounds on a daily basis.  To remember a quick idea can be a daunting task.  The shame of the matter is that it’s the small things that can make a big difference.

Back to Basics
Start by finding a pen and a small notepad. Make sure both are compact enough to carry along with you on a daily basis.  Moving forward, keep a pen and notepad with you at all times. When you have an idea, write it down in the notepad.  Don’t discriminate.  Too many people discount their own ideas for a number of reasons. Every idea no matter how insignificant could potentially lead to something great.

Continue reading "How To Remember and Use Your Ideas" »

Promotion & Marketing: How to Get Them To Your Event

This post is specifically geared toward my friends in the air show industry.  Some of the fundamentals can be used for almost any type of event marketing.

Insider Information
When people know you are involved in something like an air show they’ll usually ask you for some type of insider information.  Being involved with the local air show, I’ve experienced this several times over the last few years.  One question that everyone asks, “are the Blue Angels coming again?”  People want to be the first to know something.  In this case the response you give also determines if a number of people will attend the air show.  It's like being let in on a good surprise. One way you can keep people in the loop is with permission based email lists.  A few informative emails can go a great way to building additional trust with the consumer.  If you have already established trust with your consumer, you might be able to hook them with an early offer.

Military jet teams are the focus of any air show.  There have been a few years when local show producers have decided not to hold an air show because of no jet team.  Without a jet team air show producers lose a large percentage of gate attendance. The typical response from the air show crowd, “I’m not going to go if they don’t have the Blue Angels.”  Many people don't realize that each North American military jet team gets hundreds of requests annually.  Each team can only fulfill around 40 show requests per year.  That leaves a number of air shows without a jet team. There are a few shows that have been resourceful enough to overcome the challenge of not having a military jet team.  It is a matter of selling people on the value of the event.

The People On The Outside
When an air show producer is fortunate enough to secure a jet team, they’ve won part of the marketing battle.  One of the biggest challenges any air show faces is the massive amount of people who refuse to pay for a ticket.  The most common excuse I hear is “I can see them from my back yard.”  There are thousands, possibly tens of thousands of people, who don’t attend the air show because they insist they can see something great without going to the air show.  Unfortunately, most of them are missing the best part of the show.

A picture can be worth a thousand words.  If you can combine the right picture with the right words, I believe that can change a few minds.  When people see a jet team from their back yard or the side of the road, they’re not really seeing the show.  The air show takes place a center point.  This is usually located at the airport or where the air show is taking place.  Center point is the sweet spot.  What people see from their backyards and the side of the road isn’t the full blown air show.  They’re seeing repositioning turns and rejoins.  Those are nice, but they’re nothing like the Calypso Pass, Opposing Knife Edge, or a great Sneak Pass.

What's Your USP?
Blues_1 In the end it comes down to a USP (Unique Selling Proposition).  You need to give people a very good reason to open their wallets and give up their hard earned money.  In some cases it is as simple as a picture and a few words. 99.9% of people won't see the picture on the right from "the backyard."  Sell the consumer on the unbelievable experience of being at the show. A picture can be worth a thousand words, if you have a good story to go along with it.

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Event Promotion: Getting More Out Of Your Print Ads

One place web site references show up all the time is in print advertising.  If you open a magazine it is difficult not to find a number of ads that contain a company’s web address.  The problem is that most advertisements don’t leverage a company's web site.  Listing your web site within your advertising isn’t enough.

Extending Your Brand
In many cases print advertising might be the first time a person is exposed to your product or service.  One of the most important things you can do with your print advertising is to encourage people to go visit your web site.  This falls into the realm of web centric marketing.  Use your web site as an extension of your print advertising.  The amount of information you can pass along via your web site is well beyond what you can do with traditional print ads.

Give Them A Reason To Visit

Provide the reader a compelling call to action that drives them to your web site. Below are some ideas you can include in your advertising along with your web address:

  • Get more information online …
  • Visit our web site for great coupons
  • Buy online for additional discounts
  • Signup for a FREE (Report, Audio, Sample, etc.) at our web site
  • Become at member of our discount club …

Print advertising is an important step in any marketing campaign.  You can get a much higher return on investment if you figure out compelling ways to get people to visit your web site.

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Web Usability ISN’T Buzzworthy

Usability is a concept that every web user embraces. Who doesn't like an easy to use web site?  Combine an easy to use web site with some smart Internet marketing fundamentals and most companies have a decent chance of being successful online.  The problem is that the term usability confuses many people. 

Why Isn't Web Usability Buzzworthy? 

Unless you’re in the technology or web industry it is doubtful that many people can comprehend “web usability.”  When someone asks me “what do you do?” I reply with “web usability consultant.”  Their response is either “what?!?” or “I’ve never heard of that before.” Those words are almost instantaneously followed by a look of confusion.  After a brief explanation, some people might understand the basic premise of usability consulting.  Ask ten different people inside the web industry to define web usability and you'll get ten different explanations. I’d argue that in order to be buzzworthy people need to at least understand the basic term.

Then There Is Being Blunt
Here is the ironic part. If the description is diluted down to “I help companies make sure their web site doesn’t suck,” (an ode to Vincent Flanders) people know exactly what you’re talking about.  Is it professional? Absolutely not!  Do people instantaneously understand what you are talking about? Yes.  There are other words and explanation that someone could use to describe web usability, but it seems like the blunt approach is the most effective.  The blunt description is easily understood by upper level management to the casual web user.    

The problem of a good buzzword is problematic in other Internet segments. “Linkbait” is a term that many people in the SEO industry are trying to change.  Linkbaiting involves compelling people to provide a backlink to a web site or certain web page.  Unfortunately the term sounds like something bad or nefarious.   

The term concept of usability is great, but the term is far from sleek or catchy.  If people don’t easily understand the term “usability” how is anyone suppose to buy into the benefits of usability?

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Getting Massive Marketing Insight from The Classic Marketeers

Buried Treasure
A few months ago I uncovered some advertising history at my local library.  A number of recent books on copywriting and marketing make reference to a list of advertising legends. John Caples is usually mentioned as a must read for anyone interested in learning more about copywriting or advertising.  The librarian had to go into the old stacks to find Caples’ books.  After spending time reading Caples you can see where many of today’s authors adopted and modified classic teachings.  Modern internet marketers have adopted many of their time tested techniques and found great success.

Timeless Techniques
Look at some of the timeless techniques the Internet has adopted from the newspaper industry.  One timeless technique is a powerful headline.  Headlines are a time tested chance to grab the reader's attention.  Great advertising headlines have transitioned into compelling email subject lines.  If your subject line isn't compelling, the email probably won't get opened.  The fundamentals haven’t changed in hundreds of years because they work.

Users are still driven by content.  If pictures and multimedia are all the rage, why do so many people still read novels that only contain words?  People still visit the library and take out books.  How many novels have you read in their entirety online? 

Split testing your ads. With the Internet and the ability to track performance via analytics, it has never been easier to split test your ads.  Today’s savvy web entrepreneurs are using the split testing methodology

Learn from the Past
Just like advertising and marketing there are certain techniques that work well for web sites.  Some of the most successful web sites integrate time tested director marketing techniques.  If you get a chance spend some time learning from the classic marketeers, look to David Ogilvy, John Caples, Victor Schwab, and Claude Hopkins.  Many of today's top advertising consultants have mastered and revised the works of legends.  For a more modern viewpoint look to people like Bob Bly, Dan Kennedy, Joe Sugarman, and Gary Halbert.  There is so much you can learn from the past.

What can you learn from marketing history and integrate into your web site?

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Are You Opting-In Above the Fold?

Tamar Weinberg over at Techipedia posted an interesting question, “Should the Subscribe Button be Above the Fold?”  In her post she asks two important questions:

“I am curious to know whether the placement of the “subscribe” button on the top of the page has actually yielded more conversions than if it was in the middle of the page. I’d also be curious to know whether people fall victim to searching in the wrong textbox or if I am the only zombie to do such a silly thing.”

Email Subscription (Opt-In) Above the Fold
I would argue that there is enough room above the fold to give proper attention to both a search box and an email subscription opt-in.  Screen resolutions are going up and users are getting bigger monitors.  Web designers are getting more work space.  At the same time, just because there is more room doesn’t mean you need to abuse it.  Don’t forget about the importance of white space.

Subscription Placement
In terms of placement of a subscription box, I’ve read several recommendations on placing the subscription box into the upper right corner above the fold.  Offer the user good information and try to tempt them with great information.  From a usability standpoint one could argue that an opt-in box isn’t supporting good usability.  The Internet Marketer would probably take the stand that people who aren’t interested in additional information won’t enter an email address.  I’m torn between usability and marketing in this case.

There are a number of web sites that make use of adding a subscription text link to the end of each post.  If the author delivers quality content to the user, the web site owner might be more successful with asking for personal information after a good post.

Confusing Search and Subscription Boxes
Though I can’t recall falling victim to filling in a subscribe box with a search query it does bring up an interesting point.  The question should force any web designer to carefully think out the placement and presentation of search and subscription entry boxes.  Make sure your user won’t get confused by either selection.  Sometimes it's easy to take such simple things for granted.

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Keep Your Text Columns Narrow

Today I ran across a few web pages with wide text columns.  The experience reemphasized a simple usability principal anyone can follow. It is in your best interest to keep text columns on your web site narrow.

Wide Text Columns
Imagine reading a newspaper in which the text column ran the entire width of the page. A full width column would make newspaper reading extremely difficult.  Now imagine the same scenario on your computer screen.  Our eyes already get tired much easier from reading off a computer screen.  Wide online columns are difficult to read.

Higher Resolutions and More Information
With screen resolutions getting higher and more monitors becoming wide screen the challenge is going to be presenting information effectively. There are a number of web sites that are designed for screen widths of 1024 pixels and higher.  How much information can you display onscreen at one time before a user gets lost?  In the coming years it will be interesting to see if users can keep up with the trend of higher resolution designs.

A History Lesson

We can look to history to give us a time proven example for column width. Pick up any newspaper and take notice of column width.  Each news story is broken down into narrow columns of text.  Have you ever seen a newspaper where the text column ran the full length of a page?  Narrow columns have been used for hundreds of years.  There is good reason for this. It is far easier for us to read and comprehend text that is in narrow columns.  The same standard can be found in the magazine industry. 

Make it easier for users to read your site, keep your text columns narrow.

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Testing Web Usability and Not Leading Your Questions

Have you ever been asked a leading question?  It’s one of those questions that are phrased a certain way to get a certain response out of you.  The last place you want a leading question to show up is during a usability study.

If you are facilitator usability test of your web site or another web site make sure you aren’t leading the test user.  Leading is very easy to do.  Leading comes as a result of asking a question that already contains bias.  The question, “don’t you think the navigation is difficult to use?” is an example of a leading question.  Another example of a leading question: “Don’t you think that background color is inappropriate?”  Biased questions can have a negative impact on collecting good data.  You can skew the test user’s opinion either intentionally or unintentionally.  The end result is that your usability testing data and trends become inaccurate. 

How Do You Prevent Asking Leading Questions?
It is all about how you frame your questions. Always think ahead before you ask your questions. Make sure you aren’t loading the questions with any sort of bias.  The usability test facilitator should be as highly objective. 

Stay away from leading questions you can answer with a “Yes” or “No.”

  • Do you like this color? 
  • Isn’t that a great picture?
  • Don’t you think the navigation is difficult to use?

Ask questions that require the user to think or interact with the page to find and answer: 

  • What are you’re likes and dislikes on this page?
  • What services does company X offer?
  • How would you go about contacting company X?

Follow The Feedback
In some cases you can turn the user’s feedback into a follow up question.  If a test user indicates that something on a web page is difficult to use, ask them for additional feedback. Like and dislike questions are a great way to bride into additional questions.

Give Them a Scenario
Use scenarios to examine the usability of a given page or web site. Have the test user move through the site with a predefined goal.  One scenario can be having a test user try to use an online calendar to find specific information.  Get the test user lost in the site and have them navigate back to the home page.  Think of simple scenarios to test the usability of the web site.

If you can keep your questions and scenarios highly objective you’ll get better data.  Better data will assist you in creating an easier to user web site.

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Why Test A Company Web Site Outside The Office?

Have you ever tried to get a consensus on something amongst various departments in a company or small business?  A number of companies that create their own web sites utilize internal usability testing for reviewing their site.  They pool their testing users directly from the company.  The information collected can become a liability to the company.

Different Viewpoints
In Steve Krug’s, Don’t Make Me Think, he illustrates the various viewpoints different departments can have on a web site.  Many graphic designers skew their desires toward visual design.  Web programmers can be very application driven.  Then bring in management and you have yet another viewpoint.  Pretty soon you have a multitude of ideas fighting for attention.  The web site gets pulled in every possible direction with each new opinion.  In many cases, the end result is that the user gets left out.

Why test with users outside your organization?

Web usability testing should be highly objective. You need to start with identifying users that fall inside a web site’s demographics.  If you are looking for participants to conduct a usability test look outside of your organization.  Users outside of your organization are less likely to have organizational bias.  Look towards people who aren’t in the Internet at the professional level.  It is very easy for one web developer to find faults in another web developer’s work.

Leverage the Testing Data
The data collected by testing with users outside of the organization is great for leveraging inside an organization.  If there is an internal company dispute over something on the web site outside user testing might help in identifying a solution. The data and presentation is based on user opinion. Users are the people who are going to be using a web site on a daily basis.

In several years of usability testing the feedback from outside user testing has been extraordinary. It has prevented more than a few embarrassing moments.  This includes small things like grammar and spelling mistakes.  It’s the small things that can prove to be embarrassing online. Use testing to make sure you're putting your best foot forward.

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Web Usability - ALERT! Dominant Users and Focus Groups

There I was … sitting in a room full of decision makers for a web site review meeting.  The review meeting was the culmination of months of work. On one side of the table was our development team and on the other side of the table the client’s team.  The review was conducted one page at a time in order to be meticulous and not miss anything.  After a few minutes of reviewing the site there was a distinct change in atmosphere.  The senior representative of the client’s team started making a series of comments and suggestions regarding the web site.  His subordinates acknowledged almost every single remark he made with a nod of agreement or vocalized their support.  He could have said anything and the client’s team would have accepted the suggestion without question or comment.  I sat there in disbelief as one bad suggestion followed another.  Most of the client’s suggestions were the complete opposite of good web design.  The suggestions that were implemented diluted the quality of the web site.  It was my first experience with a dominate user focus group.

Using Focus Groups
There are a number of people in the Internet development industry who make use of focus groups.  One specific use of focus groups is for web usability testing.  The above scenario is a perfect example of a dominate user focus group. It involves user testing of a web site, not idea generation.  In the scenario one person’s opinion influences or overshadows everyone else in the group.  Dominate users can have a negative impact on collecting good data and thus diminish the impact of the testing group.

One on One Testing
Focus groups for usability testing can be highly effective if you abide by one simple suggestion, break up the group.  When testing a web site make use of individual testing sessions. Sit down with your test user and go through a web site one on one. It is more time consuming, but the data you collect is significantly better. Users are much more likely to voice their opinion in an individual scenario as opposed to a group. 

How many times have you been reluctant to ask a “silly” question in a group or make a suggestion?  That reluctance changes when you get people one on one. It takes a little additional time to get test users to open up.  For all the usability tests I’ve conducted, I have yet to come across someone who has been reluctant to open up.  When users do open up you usually can’t take notes fast enough.  The feedback collected will be significantly better.

If you are considering doing a small usability test on your web site stay away from focus groups in the traditional sense. Use individual sessions to collect your data.  It is more time consuming, but the quality of data collected increases significantly.

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Are Your Online Forms Usable?

It is difficult to go online and not come across an online form. From short to long, online forms are everywhere.  My most recent experience required me to fill out a long form just to watch a video clip.  Where is the justification in taking five minutes to fill out an online form to watch a two minute news video clip?  Before using forms on a web site spend some time thinking through the process from a user’s vantage. 

Questions you should ask yourself:

  • Is the form easy to use?
  • Has the form been tested?
  • Am I building enough trust to compel someone to fill out my form?

Ease of Use
Keep online forms short and easy to use.  Shopping carts are a perfect example.  Users abandon shopping carts because of poor usability factors.  Check your web log data to make sure people aren’t bouncing out during checkout.  Shopping cart forms can be too long or cumbersome for users.  Always think from a user’s perspective. Let the user know if the item is actually in stock before filling out any information.  Use an indicator bar on each page to show checkout progress.  Disclose shipping options up front.  Users can be quickly turned off by high shipping rates.  Make the checkout process as painless as possible.  If it isn’t a shopping cart keep the form short and too the point. Only ask for minimal information, name and email.  Asking for more without user trust is very difficult.

Test Your Forms
Always test online forms with your user base.  Take a few people from your demographic and have them go through your online form.  Take note of where users are encountering usability problems and make applicable corrections. The benefit of usable forms speaks for itself.  More users will fill out more forms if they’re usable.

Build Trust
A number of web sites are now requesting you to fill out personal information to watch video or listen to audio.  Trust and credibility are large factors in determining if users enter their personal information.  Most people are reluctant to enter any personal information.  Can users really be blamed? Everyone has felt the effects of SPAM.  SPAM is beyond annoying and a waste of time.  The user needs a very good reason to give up personal information.  One of the easiest ways to overcome this hurdle is with a privacy statement and promise not to SPAM.  Let people know exactly why you need their information.

The bottom line on forms is this: build enough trust with the user to have them fill out an online form.  When you’ve established the user’s trust, make it an easy process to collect their information.  The Internet is an interactive medium, keep that interactivity usable.

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Business Problems and Customer Service

Everyone can recall examples of good and bad customer service.  Recently I witnessed the demise of a promising business. There were numerous factors that lead closing the business. Customer service was one of the largest issues.  In this case customer service took the form of a lack of communication with patrons.  Last Friday, I went to visit a business I kept a membership with for the last five year.  The doors were locked and a sign posted indicating they’re out of business.  I knew that the business had been having difficulty and that it would possibly be sold or closed down shortly.  Yet, the closing came with no advanced notice to most of their other patrons.  If you are experiencing an unusual challenge with your business let your clients or patrons know about the challenge. 

Regardless of the business situation, good or bad, keep the customers informed.  There are a number of instances when things are going bad and businesses aren’t forthright with their clients.  Most businesses won’t acknowledge problem until it is too late.  If you’re in a sticky business situation, let your customers know about the situation immediately.  You don’t have to divulge minute details. But at least acknowledge that there is a problem and a resolution is being implemented or planned.  It is always in your best interest to keep customers informed.

When customers start to speculate or become uncertain about a product or service they’ll start to look elsewhere for their needs.  This is exactly what happened in the situation I witnessed.  When people heard rumors about the business possibly shutting down they started to look elsewhere.  The customer’s loyalty became strained and they started to lose faith in the company.  Without customer support overcoming challenges can become significantly more difficult.

I’ll point back to an important statistic from a previous post: “95% of unhappy customers will do business again with you if their issue is resolved immediately.” (Source: Technical Assistance Research Programs) The problem was never acknowledged or resolved immediately. 

It is in your best interest to always keep your customers informed.

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A Web Centric Marketing Example

West_herrA Web Centric Marketing Example
On my way home from the air show conference I decided to stop in Buffalo, New York.  During a stop at the Walden Galleria shopping mall I noticed the pictured advertisement.  It is a large indoor banner advertisement hanging in the middle of the mall.  The banner ad is a decent example of web centric marketing.

It has a few elements that help it stand out from most of the other advertisements I viewed.  It was the largest advertisement in the mall.  Because of its size it was difficult not to notice. Regardless of size it was positioned in a good location, right in the middle of a high traffic area.  Your almost forced to look at it because of size and position.  I doubt anyone goes to the mall with the intent of purchasing a new or used car.  But, shoppers might have the notion of needing to make a car purchase before or after visiting the mall.

Other elements that stand out on the pictured advertisement:

  1. The headline, which is arguably the most important element of any advertisement, is at the top.

  2. The person who I believe is the owner of the auto dealership is the person pictured. The individual pictured is also the dominate element of the advertisement.  This draws attention.  Around the person are a series of various car company logos.
  3. Below the picture and logos is the company's logo and associated tag line. This component establishes brand awareness.
  4. If you are interested in learning more about what West Herr has to offer they give you a web address.  The address is the smallest sized font on the advertisement, but it does stand out.  If someone is interested in more information, they can visit the web site.

The key to web centric marketing is getting people to come to your web site to find out additional information.

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Point, Click, and Follow - Usability

After a plethora of usability studies you start to pick up on some of the finer details. Each day there are great technologies that emerge and make usability testing increasingly more accurate. It isn't always easy to make something simple, especially on the Internet.  One tremendously helpful piece of technology is eye tracking software. The software produces overlays of individual web pages indicating which areas get the most attention. Check the Importance of Organic Search post for an example of a heat map. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the budget to utilize high end eye tracking equipment to improve the usability of a web site. There is a simple alternative.

Usability Eye Tracking Done Inexpensively
The underappreciated mouse can give you great information about what the user is thinking. It is
analogous with body language.  You can learn a lot from watching the user's mouse actions.  Where is the cursor going on the screen and what is it doing?  The mouse pointer is an on screen discovery tool.  If a user is unsure of something they'll usually hover over an on page element (links, images, and other interactive elements).  Take note of user mouse pointer behavior.

Try it Out
Sit down with a friend or family member and take them through a web site of your choice. Watch their mouse pointer behavior. If a user gets confused about navigation they’ll roll the mouse over areas on the page to see if they’re clickable. Mouse pointer movements go up during active interactions and navigating. Users will point and click on various areas of the page to discover interactive elements.

One exception to the tracking is when the user is reading or skimming information on the page. If a user is reading the cursor is usually at the side of the page.

If you do sit down with a user and test your site, encourage them to vocalize their experience. You’ll find that they use the mouse to point to various elements are important or confusing. Make note of their feedback.

When taking someone through a simple usability test, always note the simple things. You can learn a lot from simple things in life.

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