Making sense of your online experience for more than twenty years

User experience 101: Introduction

“We’ve spent thousands on that website, and its bringing in no business at all. None of our customers seem to use it – we may as well have written it in a foreign language!”

No one should be saying this kind of thing about their organisation’s online presence, yet this problem is depressingly common. Very often the problem is the process used to design the site. Every variable was seemingly taken into account – except the most important one: “What do our customers actually want from our web site?” The solution is a new way of stating the questions that form the basis for web design: a perspective known as ‘user experience’ (UX) or  ‘user-centred design’ (UCD).

Web initiatives are now a commonplace strategy for business and government alike. Increasingly web sites form the centre of organisational communication and marketing strategies. As a result, most of these organisations have got over the thrill of simply having a presence in cyberspace.

Now people are asking the hard questions, like:

  • “What’s our website really for?”
  • “How do we use the web to make our business grow?”
  • “Are our customers satisfied with the experience of using our site?”

In the early days of web/business integration it was often enough to just decide that a website was a ‘must have’. Few businesses actually made the effort to find out whether their customers really wanted a website, and if they wanted one, what they would actually want to use it for. Those days have well and truly passed now!

If you take a look at businesses that have succeeded in using the internet to grow, there are a few common features. These features are the ones now known as ‘user-centred design’ or ‘usability’.

A classic example of an NZ site that succeeds through using the user experience perspective is Trade Me. One of the keys to Trade Me’s success was that they have always put the site user – the customer – at the centre of the equation. The site was designed to easily give customers what they wanted – not what the management team or the web designer wanted them to have.

Many sites present information that the owners think is important, but that ‘real people’ – actual users of the site – find unhelpful: as unhelpful as if it was written in a foreign language.
Other under-performing sites organise their content under poorly-designed headings that aren’t comprehensible at first glance – or have ‘working parts’ that are hard to use. A common design error is to animate the navigation links so that they move around the screen as you try to click them. Some web designers will tell you this is ‘cutting edge’ – your customers will use words that are much less complimentary!

‘User centred design’ (or UCD) focuses on user needs and goals. It will be one of the essential characteristics of future net success. Many studies have shown that for every dollar spent on user experience, businesses have gained ten dollars in increased revenue.

Sites  with ‘good UX’ have a number of key characteristics, including:

  • their navigation is intuitive –  it can be understood ‘at-a-glance’
  • their content is written specifically for online delivery, not simply re-used from hard copy marketing collateral
  • your customers don’t have to ‘learn’ how to use the site –  they can immediately see how to ‘do’ everything they need to
  • ‘usable’ site content is often internationalised, so it can be easily read by those for whom English is not a first language
  • accessibility guidelines are followed, so that all customers can use the site, even those with poor eyesight or low dexterity
  • online help is visible on the screen where it is needed if users do become confused
  • all the site features work properly, regardless of what browser software is being used

Usability consultants, also known as information designers, can design usability into new sites, or evaluate existing sites and make them more usable. A key strategy is to ‘test’ sites with real users. Test subjects are asked to interact with sites and their reactions are observed. If the methodology is right, this can be done cheaply and quickly, with as few as three participants.

Wired Internet Group is one New Zealand web design company that has risen to the usability challenge. Wired has applied the concepts of UCD to the sites of some of its key clients. Wired’s usability consultants have developed a range of services, from full usability testing to quicker and more flexible approaches.

A good first step is to assess the users’ actual experience of using a site by means of an expert evaluation. An information designer reviews the site and uses the information gained from this to interview both the site owners and some actual users. This process reveals what the site owners’ goals actual goals are, as well as what the users’ really need. From this we can see where the two sides’ intentions and expectations fail to match. A written report outlines both findings and proposed solutions to specific usability concerns.

A usability test expands on this approach, the expert evaluation is used to identify ‘usability concerns’ with the target site. The test consists of asking up to half a dozen representative users to try looking for specific information or performing specific tasks while using the site. The usability consultant observes the test with a video camera and notes where groups of users are having trouble or misunderstanding the site. From these observations a report can be written recommending improvements that will enable people to enjoy trouble-free interactions with the site under review.

As awareness of the ‘usability revolution’ spreads through the business and public sectors in New Zealand, demand is growing for web design and review services that match with the objectives of user-centred design. As more and more business is done online, there is less and less room for those websites that seem to be written in a language that customers don’t speak.

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