Online Learning Made Difficult

A few weeks ago my mother asked for my help with an online learning course.  I've seen a number of online courses over the last few years.  Unfortunately most of the online courses leave much to be desired.  The online course that my mother was taking ended up being a jumbled mess.  My mother is not a computer savvy person.  She experienced a number of difficulties.  When I tried to help her, I quickly became frustrated.  If you are creating an online course make sure you concentrate on a user centric approach.  Below are some quick points to ponder if you are creating an online learning environment.

Take the time to test you online course with users.  Too many online courses suffer from poor usability.  This creates an environment that is not conducive for learning.  When you are trying to train people online make sure that your emphasis is on learning the course material, not how to learn to use the online system.  There were a number of snags that made learning the system my mother was attempting to use very difficult.

Keep your fonts legible and writing concise.  Even though my mother's online course offered adjustable font sizing, the largest setting was too small to read.  Many online users are in an older demographic.  Concentrate on providing enough flexibility so that both young and old can easily absorb the information.

Always have a support area available and have good contact information.  If I wasn't around to help my mother, I doubt she would have been able to complete the course.  There were a number of features that needed to be explained in more detail.  Offer your users a tutorial to acclimate them to your online learning environment.

Online learning is going to eventually become a great powerhouse, but it still has a long way to go. When you try to teach people online keep everything you do simple and to the point.  Let your users concentrate on learning the material, not on learning a new system.

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The Mystery of Online Customer Satisfaction

In the two weeks since my visit to Epcot, I have yet to experience an equivalent level of customer service.  Customer service is paramount in any business and especially online.  For the purpose of this post I’ll look at customer service from a web site usability perspective. You constantly need to ask yourself “are your users satisfied with the online experience you are providing them?”

One of the most difficult services to provide online is customer service.  In over ten years of developing web sites, I cannot recall seeing a customer complaint that specifically refers to the usability of a site. This has little to do with the level of development or usability used.  If a user is unhappy with their experience at your web site they probably aren’t going to say anything about it.  In most cases they just won’t return to your web site or use your online service.

Users Rarely Indicate Dissatisfaction
Your users might not always be telling you they’re not happy.  Here are some interesting statistics I found in reference to customer service in the offline world.  The data comes from an older report but I believe many of the problems to hold true today :

  • 96% of consumers do not complain about rude or discourteous service.
  • 90% or more of consumers who aren’t happy with the level of service will not buy or come back again.
  • The cost to acquire a new customer versus keeping an old one is five times greater.

Source: Technical Assistance Research Programs (TARP)

When you take this data and apply it to the Internet far few people are likely to complain. It is far easier not to visit a web site than follow up with the company and try to resolve the problem.

A Place To Start
Make sure you go out of your way to ensure your users are happy.  One of the easiest places to start is with emails you’ve collected.  You should be conducting follow up on almost everything you do.  It can be anything from a product purchase follow up to answering a complaint.  Both positive and negative emails are a great opportunity to gain valuable insight from your user. You can make use of automation to collect survey data and other valuable information.  Use that information to improve your online experience.

A Quick Second Chance
There was one very important piece of actionable information that TARP provided.  95% of unhappy customers will do business again with you if their issue is resolved immediately. Your window of opportunity might be narrow and short, but you still have time to do sometime. Use the speed of technology to quickly recover from a customer service issue.

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Simplicity: A Great Place To Start

If you are looking to redesign your site or start a new web site spend some time researching the Internet’s old guard for ideas.  Too many web site creators and developers have this burning need to complicate the web process, “We’re going to do it better!”  The battle cry should be “We’re going to make it easier!” Remember that people like cool, but crave simplicity.  The two simplest yet most popular web sites are Yahoo and Google. You can learn a lot by studying these two giants.

Straightforward HTML text
Both Yahoo and Google are primary HTML text based.  They include some pictures, but they let the content lead the way.  I’ve heard many people criticize Yahoo for being too simplistic in design.  Yahoo’s approach to design might be simplistic, but it is also the most popular web site in the world.  Is your site serving up high quality HTML content?

They Spend Millions on Testing
Yahoo and Google spend millions on testing their sites before releasing it to the public. Recently when Yahoo redesigned its home page it offered users a sneak peak. They always “teased” you with the new design and encouraged feedback.  That feedback was used to further improve their site before launch. Companies should take example of their approach. Don’t rush to launch your web site just to meet an arbitrary internal deadline.  Most users don’t know a new site is going online until it gets launched.  At the same time realize there are no perfect web sites.  Don't get bogged down in analysis-paralysis. 

The Simple Search
You don’t need to look any further than Google’s search page.  To search you enter a term and click search or refine your search with one of the simple category selections. There is no distracting adverting and they deliver nothing but high quality results.  Is the interactive process on your web site simple and easy to use?

Always Something New
Yahoo is an example of high quality content generation.  Almost every time you visit their home page you are presented with something new.  They use multiple sources to bring information to the user. You might not be able to keep up with Yahoo’s frequency of updates, but you can emulate the process.  Ask yourself, how often do we update our site?  New information keeps users coming back.

Page Layout
When it comes to type layout and information architecture Yahoo does a great job.  Look at any of their news stories as an example, clean and simple.  They capture your attention with a headline and then present the article.  At the end of the article you can vote on recommending the story to others or select for a bevy of other related stories. Yes there is advertising.  But advertising is the primary revenue channel for both Yahoo and Google. They at least do it somewhat tastefully.

The old cliché goes “Imitation is the Greatest Form of Flattery.” Why spend time, energy, and effort researching what’s already been researched?  Study examples from the most popular web sites online. There is a reason why they’re the most popular.

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LCU (Least Competent User) Usability Testing

When you conduct any sort of usability test you always want to concentrate on your user demographic.  Users from your demographic are the people that need to be able to understand and easily navigate your web site.  Web sites rise and fall upon the support of their user base. For of our usability studies we also include a group of people from outside the demographic. These outsiders are commonly known as Least Competent Users (LCUs).  In many instances they provide some of the most insightful feedback and suggestions.

Who Are Least Competent Users?
When people first hear the term LCU they usually jump to a false conclusion. Don’t confuse the least competent portion of the LCU acronym to be indicative of a user’s intellectually ability or personality.  The “Competency” refers to the user’s computer or the Internet skills.  Their computer skills are novice at best.  This makes them an ideal candidate to test almost any web site.  One of my favorite LCUs is a family member.

Why Are LCUs Good Usability Testers?
If the LCU understands the purpose of your web site and navigation you're testing, there is a high probability that regular users shouldn’t have a problem with the site.  LCUs don’t tend to get down in messaging or other features that would annoy a seasoned web surfer. Because of their rudimentary approach they don’t need to be within your testing demographic.  You’re looking for them to provide very basic feedback.

When To Utilize LCUs?
We find the best time to utilize Least Competent Users is after completing testing with usability participants from the site’s demographic.  By the time we’ve finished testing with users from the site’s demographic most of our trends have been identified. 

What To Test With LCUs
Concentrate on testing the most basic functions of the web site. 

  • Do they understand the point of the site? 
  • Can they use the navigation to get around the site?
  • If you try to get them lost on the site can they find their way home?

Take them through very simple routines.

Be Gentle With LCUs?
There are times when it is very easy to get frustrated with LCUs.  You always need to remember that Least Competent Users don’t use computers or the Internet on a regular basis.  Don’t give LCUs overly complex tasks.  Have them concentrate on a macro view of the web site.  Encourage them to give constant feedback.  You should reinforce that there are no right or wrong answers.  Tell them the more feedback they give the better. Most people open up to you with a deluge of comments.

If you are looking for great usability feedback, consider a Least Competent User.  You’ll be surprised what you can learn.

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Web Page Layout Suggestions

Recently I’ve been researching a number of web sites.  There are few sites that hit the mark when it comes to delivering a usable and compelling online experience. Today I have a few short musings about page layout.

The first place most users enter a web site is the home page.  It is important to note not everyone will enter your site through your home page.  Ask yourself this question: Are your users able to quickly orient themselves while entering other pages of your site?

Just because you can make your site look like Vegas, doesn’t mean it needs to look like Vegas. Many companies and developers feel compelled to cram as much onto the home page as possible.  Users are presented with so many options they don’t know where to start.  How many times have you visited a web site and quickly become lost?  It’s similar to a cover of a book or first impression. Smartly limit the number of options you present to the user. 

Headline Suggestions
There are certain simple steps anyone can take to help their user get more from their web site. One of the easiest ways to draw users into your web site is with a compelling headline on your homepage. Headlines are a great way of quickly orienting your users. It is an invitation to read further if the user feels the content is relevant to their needs.  Frame your headline to appeal to the interest of the user, not your self interest.  Many people use headlines to determine if it worth clicking on a link and reading further.

More Screen Real Estate to Use
Our displays are getting larger and people are using higher screen resolutions.  Several people think that you should maximize the use of your on screen real estate. Because you have the space to use doesn’t mean you must use the space.  Use an appropriate amount of white space around text and images. White space is like breathing room or a margin around elements.  It assists in keeping the page from being overcrowded and helps create a balanced design.  You don’t need to fill up the entire screen with content.

Consistent and Intuitive Navigation

Keep your design and navigation consistent throughout your web site.  Standard places for navigation are horizontally along the top or vertically along the left. One of the quickest places users get disoriented in usability tests is navigation testing.  They read a link title and click on the link based on their expectation. They become disoriented or disappointed because the link didn’t accurately reflect the content. When users click on the navigation they should be taken to a page that reflects the navigation title. Navigation headings should be succinct and to the point.

What Looks Like Advertising
There are very few web sites you can visit without being inundated with advertising.  Several web sites need the advertising to generate revenue.  I recall reading a case study years ago regarding pop ups and advertising.  Some users actually placed stick it notes on their monitors to cover annoying advertisements.  Today many users have trained themselves to ignore ads.  News sites are one type of web site where people seem less averse to advertising. One common suggestion in the usability and design world is to make sure your links and images don’t look like advertising.  Your users might ignore important information.

Make sure your web pages are easy to use and easy to understand. The information you present needs to be relevant to the user and shouldn’t overwhelm them.  You want to create an experience that compels users to return or take action.

Additional Resources:

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A Simple Usability Indicator: The Back Button

How many times have you clicked the back button when you were lost or confused on a web site?

A person's use of the Back Button can give you a very rudimentary indication of a web site's usability.  The back button is the Internet's version of an ejection seat.  It makes people feel safe. If users want to quickly leave a web site they can easily do so using the back button. Jakob Nielsen refers to the back button as "lifeline of the Web user and the second-most used navigation feature." It's a backup navigation feature for every single web site.   

Paying Attention to How People Use the Back Button
I pay particular attention to use of the back button if I'm testing web site navigation.  If the web site navigation is intuitive and easy to use users are less likely to click on the back button.  It is an automatic indication of usability.

A Simple "Back Button" Usability Study
Here is a simple usability study you can do with just about anyone.  Pick a site you are familiar with that has easy to use navigation.  Try to find another web site with poor navigation.  (They aren't that difficult to find, trust me.)  Sit a willing participant down in front of a computer and have them navigate through the two sites.  A friend or family member is an ideal choice.  Sit next to them and tell them what you are going to do.  Stress that it isn't a test and there aren't any right or wrong actions.  Participants give much better feedback when you put them at ease. Pay close attention to where their cursor goes on the computer screen.  It is really fascinating what you can learn just by watching people surf the web.

What can I do with the back button study?  Perhaps you are redesigning your small business or personal web site.  Using the above technique can help you refine or correct your navigation.  The technique can also help you identify other usability problems on the site. It is in your best interest to make your site as easy to use as possible.

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Concentrating on User Centered Design

Users have their mind set on the information they seek.  If you can align your web content with what your users desire you'll be more successful online.  This seems logical to everyone, but few people actually follow through on the logic.

One of the biggest mistakes a company can make online is not providing users the information they desire.  How many times have you visited a web site excepting one thing only to get another? Many companies decided what their content is going to be via committee. Upper level management has meetings and creates a strategy based on their desires.  What they are really doing is imposing what they think is important on the user.  This process rarely proves successful. In many cases it frustrates the user.

Successful web sites concentrate on user centered design.  They focus on providing high quality content and take extra strides to deliver that content effectively.  Theses companies take their egos out of the equation and focus on delivering high quality content to their users.

How do I provide users with relevant content? One suggestion is to take a survey of your users. Setup a simple survey via email.  If you're web site has been up for a while you should have more than enough user email addresses.  In the email, ask users what type of information or content they seek. Tabulate the data and find the top requests.  You'll usually find that what you think the user needs and what they actually want are two different things.  Make sure you provide the user with what they need and enjoy your online success.

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The Mobile Web Experience

Today is a quick overview of my brief mobile web and smart phone experience.   Yesterday I decided to upgrade my LG phone to the Motorola Q.  The first few hours were quite the experience.  I'll delve into some simple points about smart phones and designing for the mobile web.

It all started with holding for customer service to for an hour and a half.  I was having an issue restoring my contact list. For whatever reason they inadvertently hung up on me three times.  In the end, a nice gentleman was finally able to straighten me out.  All I was looking for was an honest answer. Not someone telling me "you're doing something wrong."  It shouldn't be this difficult for a geek!

Here is the big point for today: I've been hearing for years about how the mobile web is going to explode and that everyone should jump on board.  This day is eventually coming, but I think we still have a way to go. 

Companies are pushing "up to near broadband speed." with specialized service. Unless you are standing outside next to the cell tower with perfect atmospheric conditions, you won't be getting anything near broadband.  Only one person from the company I have service with has actually admitted to me that the technology is far from perfect.  And I'm not expecting perfect. But I do expect you to deliver something close to the service you advertise for your company.  There is a good article on 37signals.com that addresses my I've had it up to here with "up to" issue.

There is still a learning curve for me to figure out how to surf the web with my phone. But given my personal experience it should have been a bit easier.  Most sites don't render properly because they weren't designed to be displayed on mobile phones.  I fully understand that.  The easiest sites to access were those sites that were primarily HTML based. 

If you are designing for the web, especially the mobile web, keep it simple!  Use a sub domain: mobile.mywebsite.com or redirect users to a mobile optimized page of your site. It should contain more HTML text that images. I don't recommend Flash or video within your mobile pages. Mobile  Flash content delivery is very archaic. The big companies are pushing their own technologies via their networks for video.  I have yet to see a personal site or small business site that delivers quality video to mobile phones. There is a reason why everyone likes big computer monitors!

The new generation of smart phones are best suited for the power users.  If you are looking to purchase a smart phone they do have their limitations.  Surfing the not mobile web is very tedious. Email and messaging seem to work the best. Do you homework on which phone might best suit you.

The mobile web is still waiting in the wings.  If you don't need a smart phone, I would recommend staying away for a while. Good luck!

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How Web Users Navigate and Read

On the web users have a certain way they navigate and view web pages.  The two most common ways users navigate web sites is either known-item searching or surfing.  When users are on your web site they don't read every word, users scan text.  Keep these facts in mind when creating your user's experience.

Known item searching involves a user looking for very specific information.  This is typical of a user that is doing research on a product or service, or looking to make a purchase.  The process involves use of search engine to find the companies that offer a certain service or product.  Chances are that when a user visits your site they are known item searching.

Surfing is most analogous with going through a web site or series of sites with no particular purpose.  The user might jump from topic to topic and visit a variety of different sites.  It is just like channel surfing on television or the radio.  When they find something that is of interest they might stay around or go elsewhere.  Users who surf tend to be the minority online.

After getting to your site users probably aren't going to read every word. They will most likely scan the text.  The user will pick out keywords and look at dominate elements on your page.  Known-item searching comes into play with this process.  The user wants to find information online quickly and painlessly.  You can assist the user by making your copy user friendly.

Online Copywriting Tips:
Writing for the Web, Kilian

  • Group your text in chunks, 100 words in a group
  • Orient users with headlines and subheads
  • Break down information into bulleted lists
  • Don't try to impress the user with your vocabulary
  • Use simple sentences: Subject + Verb
  • Organize information into a hierarchy, use navigation as supporting tool
  • Print out the page to proofread

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Hitting a HOME RUN with Your Web Site

When it comes to web usability, we subscribe to the concept presented by web usability expert Jakob Nielsen on the essentials in successful web sites. In his book, Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity, his concept is summed up in the acronym HOME RUN. Users look for High quality content, that is Often updated, with Minimal download time, Easy to Use, is Relevant to the users needs, Unique to the to online world, and Net-centric to corporate culture.  For the purpose of this article we will concentrate on the HOME portion of the acronym.

High quality content
“Research has shown that web users generally prefer writing that is concise, easy to scan, and objective (rather than promotional) in style. We incorporated these and other attributes into a redesign of web content. Doing so required trade-offs and some hard decisions, but the results were positive. The rewritten website scored 159 percent higher than the original in measured usability. Compared with original-site users, users of the rewritten site reported higher subjective satisfaction and performed better in terms of task time, task errors, and memory.” In Applying Writing Guidelines to Web Pages - by John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen, it is established that well written content is high quality content.  Make sure your website is loaded with high quality content.

Often updated
The reason news sites are visited frequently is because they always have something new to offer. Because there is not as much information to disseminate on company web sites as news sites, releasing new and compelling content is the best way to keep people coming back to your site.  Whould you return to your favorite news site if it didn't update regularly?

Minimal download time
Your web site needs to load in the minimum amount of time. In the past, the average attention span of a web user was eight seconds. If they could not load a website in that time, users were very likely to leave that site. Try to keep your home page and individual pages under 100 KB.  Around 50% of home users have a high speed connection.  Hence, attention spans are getting shorter.  You only have a few moments to get a point across to users.  Make sure the information is at their fingertips.

Ease of use
The more information you can provide the user, the better, right? Not necessarily. Your principle tool for organizing information and making it accessible is your navigation or menu bar. I recommend keeping navigation items organized either horizontally along the top of the page or vertically along the left hand side. Make sure the information and navigation follows a logical progression.  Your navigation needs to make sense to the user.

One of your top priorities on any web site is to keep navigation consistent and above the fold. Some people might ask, “Above the fold?!?!”  This phrase comes from our friends in the newspaper business. If a newspaper is folded in half, the most important headlines and articles are found on the top half. The same is true on the web. In the case of the web, “above the fold” is the all information that appears in a user’s browser without needing to scroll down.

Make your web site easier to use by following the HOME RUN acronym.  It is the easiest way anyone can make their web site more attractive online.

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Benefits of Web Usability

In "What is Web Usability" I briefly defined usability.   Now that you know a little about web usability, let's delve into some of the benefits of web usability

Some of the biggest benefits of usability are reflective of what web site owners seek daily, traffic and conversions.  According to research by Jakob Nielsen, web sites with higher usability increase online conversion by 100% and increase the online visitor count by 150%

Any web site owner should implement some form of usability testing on their web site.  It can be as simple as getting family and friends to surf your site and getting feedback.

Users flock to sites that are simple and concise. During one web site redesign we reduced the total number of pages on a client's site by 85%.  The 100+ page web site had a tremendous amount of information, but people were not accessing all of it.  When we analyzed the server usage logs we were able to find only 5-10 pages had 90% of the traffic.   Looking at usage logs can tell you what the user finds most interesting. After we implemented the findings and reducing the size of the site, visitor traffic began to rapidly increase.

The benefits of a usable site also come into play with E-commerce web sites.  I cannot stress enough the importance of making the shopping experience as simple as possible.  There have been many E-commerce web sites that have failed because they were difficult to use.

"E-commerce sites lose almost half of their potential sales because users cannot use the site. In other words, with better usability, the average site could increase its current sales by 79% (calculated as the 44% of potential sales relative to the 56% of cases in which users currently succeed)." - Jakob Nielsen

Ensuring web usability also saves you time and money.  Usability testing allows you to determine if you are investing budget into technology with no ROI.  Too many companies dilute their message  with "bells and whistles."  Users are looking for a straightforward message that isn't hidden behind intrusive technology.  From the time perspective, you won't be investing effort that isn't beneficial to you and your company.  You are providing the user with the most direct message in the shortest period of time.

When you make your site easy to use, visitor traffic and online conversions go up. Easy to use web sites leave the user with a higher sense of trust and credibility for the site.  Trust and credibility are significant motivating factors to online buyers.  Keep your web site usable and reap the benefits.

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Web Usability: The Importance of Balancing Content and Graphic Design

In the web development world, supremacy battles are waged between visual designers and those who create content.  Visual design is the work of a graphic designer.  When I talk about "content," I am specifically referring to text or the written word.  Unfortunately, when a good balance isn't maintained, it is the user of the web site who ultimately loses out.

Information
It is said that content is king in the online world.  Relevant high quality content is the one universal that every user seeks.  In today's video blogging and picture sharing world, it is more difficult to find high quality content.  Content becomes the first thing compromised on a web site. This is because of the need to post anything online regardless of quality.

In Robert Bly's book, The Copywriter's Handbook, an excellent point is made about content and graphics.  Mr. Bly points out a web site should be able to stand on its own without any graphics or pictures. 

You can't do much online without the following text: click here, buy now, login, search, etc.

Does it Make Sense without Graphics?
To illustrate the point, do this short exercise:
Go to Google.com and search on your favorite web site.  I'll use "Yahoo" as my example.  When the results page appears, don't click on the link.  Look at the description of the page you are searching.  Under the link to the page and description, you should see a line like this:

www.yahoo.com/ - 74k - Cached - Similar Pages

Click on the Cached link for your results.  Doing so will bring you to a page showing when the site was last viewed by Google's spiders.  Within the block of text that comes up there should be a link for, "Click here for the cached text only."

Finally click on the cached text link.  This will display the page without any graphics. 
Can you understand  your favorite web site without any graphics? 

Graphic Design
"Don't I want my web site to look good?" My answer to this is a resounding yes!  But, you need to be careful and not go overboard with graphics. Users enjoy visiting visually appealing web sites.  Visual appeal goes beyond just pictures on a web site, it encompasses all aspects of graphic design.  This includes, but not limited to the following elements: navigation, pictures, typography, etc.

Does your web site portray a consistent look and feel?  A uniform design and layout complements and reinforces user comfort and appeal.  Yet, many graphic designers confuse visually useful design with the opportunity to showcase their artistic skills.  The need to be artistic has little benefit or value for the client or users.   

A few years ago Flash driven web sites (all Flash and no HTML) were all the rave.  It was a time when multimedia and graphics were in overdrive.  Today there are far fewer Flash driven web sites.  Users have shown that they won't tolerate web sites with irrelevant visual design. The same thing applies for irrelevant content.  An appropriate use of pictures, animations, and graphic elements should complement and support the transfer of information.  The best graphic designers are those that strike a good balance between visuals and information.

Strike a Balance
Your web site should balance visual appeal with information. Effective web sites achieve a balance between useful information and a rapidly loaded aesthetically pleasing design.

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What is Web Usability? And Why You Should Care . . .

When I tell someone that my specialty is “Web Usability,” the response is usually a confused look.  To most people web usability is a foreign concept. Yet, usability is a critical component of any successful web site.

What is web site usability and why is it important to my web site? Web usability focuses on making web sites simple and easy to use. If a web site is simple and intuitive, people enjoy their online experience. If the web site is complex and convoluted, people can't use the web site effectively.  How often do you return to a web site that is difficult to use?

Ignore the Experts, Listen to Your Users
Contrary to what many “experts” might tell you, it is not the web site developers who should be determining the content of your website.  The users of your web site should determine your content. Users dictate the online path they wish to travel and what information is important to them.  Many web sites become extinct, because developers believed they knew better than users what type of content should be included on the site.  Developer and Artist centric design still runs rampant in on the Internet.

Hitting a HOME RUN
When it comes to usability, we subscribe to the concept presented by web usability guru Jakob Nielsen.  His concept is older, yet still holds true today.  In his book, Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity, Nielsen’s concept is summed up with the acronym HOME RUN. The most successful sites have High quality content, that is Often updated, with Minimal download, are Easy to Use,  Relevant to the users needs, Unique to the to online world, and Net-centric to corporate culture.

HOME RUN is a simple methodology, yet highly effective. Make sure you hit a HOME RUN with your web site.

Additional Resource:
Jakob Nielsen's UseIt.com

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Flash is Growing Up ...

It is nice to see that Flash has finally grown up.  One of the biggest advantages that came with Flash  was the enhanced ability to do video.  YouTube.com delivers hundreds of millions of videos with Flash.  A number of top news sites deliver streaming video with Flash.

Being a proud pundit of web usability, I always encourage some restraint with clients who "need" Flash on their web site. Recently, a client requested Flash on their site.  We tried to tactfully talk them out of the idea, but were unsuccessful.  They spent over 30% of their web budget on a cool Flash masthead.  It looks great.  Was it worth the investment?  In my professional opinion, I would say "No." We presented the option of using Javascript to accomplish a similar outcome, with little or no additional cost, but they insisted on Flash.  The client invested a significant amount of money that won't bring them an appreciable ROI. 

Being cool with your web site isn't always desirable. After a few visits, the novelty of a cool web site starts to wear off.  Look at web sites that don't have all the bells and whistles.  There is nothing cool about Google, Yahoo, or any of the top news sites.  Yet, they are the most popular sites on the Internet. Top Internet sites provide high quality content, mostly in HTML text.  Always remember, users seek content, not cool.  If you want to be cool, strike a balance with useful.   

My issues with Flash is how people use (abuse) it.  If you are going to use Flash, use it in moderation.  A few video files or online presentations are a nice addition to any site.  I don't recommend designing significant parts of your site's architecture around Flash, especially navigation.  Make sure you have plenty of HTML text.  Search engine spiders eat up HTML text.  The same spiders don't do well with Flash.  The lack of HTML text makes it very difficult for them to interpret Flash.

Flash definitely isn't going away, so if you are going to use it, use it wisely.

Additional Resource:
Flash: 99% Bad

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Web Site - Browser Testing

Have you ever been to a site that didn't display properly? A simple mistake web developers commit is failing to rigorously test web sites on multiple browsers and platforms. Numerous web sites get out to the public without being properly tested.  The end result is pages that don't look right.

Why should I test?

I run across web sites on a regular basis that don't render properly.  This can create havoc and significant frustration for users of your web site. A site might load properly in Firefox.  Yet, if you load the same site in Internet Explorer a blank screen appears.  In more severe cases, a web site can instantaneously crash a browser.

Test your site in as many browsers and operating systems as practical. Below you will find a list of browsers and operating systems to test.  Ask family or friends to help.  Most people have friends who use the listed browsers and operating systems. Send out an email with a link to your web site.  Attach a screen capture to illustrate how the site should look. You should be able to tell if there are any issues in a short period of time.   

Test in these browsers:

  • Internet Explorer
  • Firefox
  • Netscape
  • Safari
  • Opera

Test on the following Operating Systems:

  • The Windows Family of Operating Systems
  • Mac OS
  • Unix and Linux (If you have some who uses these)

If there are issues, have your testing participants document what software version they are using and what occured.  Their feedback can be in very simple terms, "I'm using Firefox 2.0, when I try to load the video on your site it doesn't play." Pass the information to your web developer or IT department.

More people are getting PDA phones with Internet access, you might want to consider testing for the mobile user.  If you decide to test your site on mobile phones, consider the test an experiment. Don't get overly concerned if you site doesn't render as expected.  Most sites won't display properly unless they are built to be displayed on mobile phones.  The sites that fair the best are those built with significant HTML text.

You won't be able to guarantee perfection for ever user.  The browser and operating system variables are endless.  But, you can test your site with a few users to ensure the greatest compatibility.

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