Introducing user-centred web design

Part 1 in a series of four articles introducing user-centred web design

“We’ve spent thousands on that website and it’s bringing in no business at all. None of our customers seem to use it – we may as well have written the site 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. Quite 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 website?”

The solution is a new way of stating the questions that form the basis for web design: a perspective known as “user-centred design” (UCD).

Web initiatives are now a commonplace strategy for business and government alike. Increasingly, websites 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 just decided 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, and what they would actually want to use it for. Those days have well and truly passed.

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 now known as “user-centred design” or “usability”.

A classic example of a local site that succeeds through using the UCD perspective is Trade Me. One of the keys to Trade Me’s success was that the company has 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 the owners think is important, but that 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 they move around the screen as you try to click them. Some web designers will tell you this is cutting edge, but your customers will use words that are much less complimentary.

UCD focuses on user needs and goals. It will be one of the essential characteristics of future net success. Many studies have shown for every dollar spent on UCD, businesses have gained $10 in increased revenue.

Usable sites 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 limited 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 users’ experiences 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’ actual goals are, as well as what the users really need.

From this we can see where the intentions and expectations of both sides fail to match. A written report outlines both findings and proposed solutions to specific usability concerns.

A usability test expands on this approach, with the expert evaluation 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 to 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 business is done online, there is less room for those websites that seem to be written in a language that customers don’t speak.

The second article in this series will look at the concept of user experience. As well as explaining user experience in more detail, the article will outline what skills are needed to embody it in good web design.

— Russell lectures at Christchurch Polytechnic, where he is the programme leader in the Graduate Diploma of Information Design. He consults with Wired Internet Group. Contact him at russellb@cpit.ac.nz

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