Make your websites usable says specialist

If you want your website to attract visitors and buyers, you may need to employ a usability specialist.

Though common in the US, usability specialists are relatively rare in Australasia. Tom van Bodegraven of Masterton thinks he may be the only one in New Zealand.

Even though website development can cost $500,000 or more, van Bodegraven says Kiwi firms rarely employ someone to scrutinise sites from the user's point of view. Yet this is critical, he says. In March, Network Ten and Village Roadshow in Australia closed their joint $44 million youth portal Scape with the loss of 110 jobs.

"From a user's perspective, slow download time of the Scape homepage was a major concern," said Australia's IT Graphics magazine in April. "Additionally, the site did not have a clear focus as to its purpose. It was a mishmash of styles and ideas."

Van Bodegraven operates website design company Bindu Design, but finds he is increasingly working full time on usability testing. He has a background in graphic and web design. He is mainly self-taught, but has completed a six month usability course in Holland. Van Bodegraven also completed two tests for US sites, working from home and charging around $US7000 for each.

Testing the usability of a site involves employing several "subjects" to look at it, who will be asked questions on ease of use, what they liked or disliked and use of language (for example, plain English or global English, for those who speak English as a second language). One-to-one tests take a few hours and van Bodegraven then produces a report for the client.

"It brings conflict. Specialist web designers generally guard their expertise. They do not want to be told by anyone. If you are called in as a usability expert, you are seen as the person who spoils things and makes things boring," he says. However, too many gimmicks on websites, such as overuse of Macromedia Flash, tends to turn off users.

Developers often realise this, giving the common option of "skip Flash intro", he says. Other complaints include hard-to-find contact details and "annoying" pop-up windows.

Van Bodegraven is looking to establish courses in New Zealand, as existing web courses, he says, do not consider usability. Such courses are appearing in New South Wales and he is providing course outlines for institutions in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Dislikes

* Flash intros.

* Pages that take a minute to download.

* Insufficient contact details.

* Pop-up windows.

* Hectic and overcrowded design.

Likes

* Easy and intuitive navigation.

* Uncluttered layout and fast-loading graphics.

* Information presented in bit-sized chunks.

* Quality content - not too much or too little.

* No more than four screens of text per page.

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