Keeping web eyes on the prize

01 Sep 08

Just like any form of media, rules have evolved around communicating on the web. 
Some companies do the craziest things with their websites. Things no sane person (who expects to stay in business) would do with a real bricks-and-mortar retail shop.
Imagine spending thousands on advertising to get new customers into your shop, only to start needlessly irritating them. It would be crazy to have a large, hard-to-open front door that completely blocked any view of the shop interior. It would be bizarre to have the product labels so small a magnifying glass was needed to read them. It would be unthinkable to have the most profitable products buried right at the bottom of a bin so customers needed to dig to find them.
Yet you've probably experienced similar irritations browsing websites. But unlike a physical shop, it only takes a click and less than a second to visit a competing website. No one can afford to lose customers that way. But there are well understood, easily implemented and well documented standards for web design. You ignore them at your peril!
Search Engine Optimisation is the science of getting more users visiting your site. Usability is the science of getting those users to stay on your site and not visit your competitors.
Page layout research
Researchers at Wichita State University conducted a usability study on 140 volunteers. They were asked to place five cards on a 5x5 grid to show where they would expect to find the Back To Home, Internal Site, and About Us links, along with the Site Search Engine and Advertising.
Despite the low-tech approach, when these results arecombined into a composite web page, we get the resultbelow. This , which shows an ideal generic website from a user’s point of view. If your website doesn’t fit this general structure, you have to ask yourself: "Is there a really good reason for doing things differently?"
Good site layout
Take a look at the Trade Me site and you’ll see that it conforms pretty closely to the expected layout. Trade Me has plenty of money to spend on inventing fancy new site designs, and yet it has produced a variation on an expected theme. It has to ensure it’s easy for people to use, as (when you get right down to it) what does Trade Me actually consist of? Essentially some servers, an interface, some databases and a well-known brand.
If users found it too difficult to use the site, Trade Me would be in trouble within about two weeks.
You don’t have to spend lots of money to make things work smoothly either. Fishpond is a Kiwi-style Amazon and its website also sticks to a familiar design. Note that tabbed navigation wasn’t included in the Wichita test but both Trade Me and Fishpond have them in a standard place.
User goodwill
You may argue that small non-conformities only annoy a user in a small way, but the effect can be cumulative. Think of the goodwill of your users as water in a glass and every time your website annoys them, pour out a little of that goodwill out. If you keep pouring out that goodwill, then eventually the water is going to reach their individual ‘low point’ and they’ll leave your site – possibly never to return. Each user has their own low water point and it is dangerous to second guess them.
It’s also dangerous to think usability can be ‘handled’ at the QA stage of a website build. The best time to start ensuring your website is user friendly is at design, particularly as the return on investment can be huge.
It should not be unusual for $1 invested in creating a user-centred design to return $100 later. That’s a brilliant ROI.
Below are 10 things you can check on your website to get a feeling for how much they might be annoying – or pleasing – your customers.
1 The squint test
If someone squints at your website so that no particular details can be made out, they should still be able to recognise the major blocks of information. Remember the layout study? Well, each of those areas should be obvious without having any foreknowledge of your site. Spot the blocks in this blurred version of a well known website.
2 The three big questions
There are three questions users want answered in a hurry and it’s amazing the number of websites that don’t succinctly answer them. You must say:
1.    Who you are
2.    What you do
3.    Why they should do business with you
When you have answered those questions, tell the user how to start doing business with you.
3 Do web pages fit on an 800x600 pixel monitor without horizontal scrolling?
Current statistics show that only around 10 per cent of us use a screen of this size or smaller. So why bother about them? There are an estimated 1.5 billion internet users out there, so that is a potential 150 million people you could be annoying right there. And despite displays getting wider, the number of words that can be comfortably read on one line still remains the same, so an 800 pixel wide screen is a good upper limit for width.
4 Is your homepage (and its associated graphics) under 50KB?
Last year, the number of Kiwis accessing the web via broadband finally overtook the number on modems. They are still only 55 per cent of users, however, and – other than being a poor reflection on our telecommunications situation – that means 45 per cent of internet users in New Zealand will have to wait approximately 10 seconds for a 50KB page to load. Those 10 seconds may be four seconds longer on average than you have before a user jumps off to the next site.
5 Does your logo link back to the homepage?
This is a basic rule that is still broken. Even if there is a homepage menu item or tab right below your logo, users still want to click on the logo to reach the homepage.
6 Are there text-only links at the bottom of each page?
Along with the About Us links mentioned earlier, the bottom of a page is the fall-back place to find links that aren’t apparent in the main navigation area. In addition, the Copyright notice, Terms & Conditions, Privacy notice and other administration links are also commonly found at the bottom. For example, Trade Me has an abundance of extra information at the bottom of its pages.
7 Is there good contrast between the text and the background?
A number of designers love using grey text on a white background to look ‘funky’, but anyone over a certain age or with not-so-great eyesight will find the text hard to read. As content is the main thing users want on a website, it’s foolish to make that content hard to read. You can pour out lots of goodwill water if this one is wrong.
8 Are links clearly defined and different from the content text?
Users need to know what is a link (and clickable) and what is not, so disguising links as plain text is shooting yourself in the foot. Similarly, making plain text look like a link is confusing and if a user tries to click on it and nothing happens, they will feel like they’ve been tricked. Take a look at Amazon. Its links are exactly the blue underlined text users expect.
9 Is your content written specifically for the website?
On the web reading patterns are different to reading off paper. Website readers generally don’t like to read much at all and ‘scan’ for keywords and sentence fragments of interest. Sentences need to be short and to the point. Paragraphs also need to be short – and remember, bullet points are your friends.
10 Does your site display properly on all the major browsers?
It’s amazing the number of websites that display incorrectly or illegibly if you’re not using just the right version of Internet Explorer. Just over 50 per cent of users are using IE 6 or 7, and about 40 per cent use Firefox or Safari. You don’t want to irritate 750 million users into leaving your site because your web design breaks on browsers other than IE.
Summary
These 10 points are just some basic tests that can be used to gauge how your websites fit in with user expectations." If your site passes all 10 – congratulations! You’re in the minority.
The sad fact is that far too many sites needlessly irritate users by doing things in non-standard ways due to ignorance or trying to be too clever. If in doubt, nothing beats getting an expert review or some user testing and these needn’t be prohibitively expensive to do.  

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