12 Nov How Usable is Your Web Site?
“Users should not have to ask:
How do I?
Where am I?
What is this?
Why did they call it that?”
— Patrick Bieser
MILWAUKEE, WI. – Visitors to your company’s Web site had better not have to work very hard find what they are looking for, according to
Patrick Bieser, founder of Northwoods Software, Inc.
“Web pages must be obvious and self-explanatory,” Bieser said. “They (users) should ‘get it’ without thinking.”
Bieser spoke at the November meeting of eInnovate, the networking group for IT professionals in southeast Wisconsin. Bieser is a long-time Web and technology entrepreneur, and with Northwoods Software, has completed work for companies including Briggs & Stratton, Children’s Hospital, Manitowoc Company, Metrix, B.C. Ziegler and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee – as well as small and medium-size firms.
“I was at McDonald’s the other day – I go to McDonald’s quite frequently,” Bieser said, revealing a fact his trim frame would not suggest on its own. “When I pulled up to the window, the woman leaned out with my meal in one hand and my drink in the other. My car was a ways from the window and she had short arms. I was twisted around trying to get both of my arms out there so I could take both items. Neither of us could reach.
“Normally at McDonald’s, they hand one item out the window at a time. If this woman had been through usability training, this might not have happened.”
A minor faux pas at a fast-food drive through, however, is more easily remedied than an inelegant Web site, according to Bieser. Hence the need for usability testing before a site goes live.
“If you have things on your Web site that do not quite connect, people will just go somewhere else,” Bieser said. “Usability testing is important because it costs 75 percent less to fix things before the launch.”
Testing is important, Bieser said, because Web designers are not good judges of how a site will be perceived by users.
“Web designers are more like power users,” Bieser said. “We are immersed in this stuff all the time. Sometimes it’s hard to be simple and to boil a Web site down to its essential components.”
Fortunately, according to Bieser, usability testing need not be expensive. It can be accomplished by having a few employees or associates navigate the site and take notes on elements that confuse them. Videotaping the testers can also be useful, according to Bieser.
Bieser’s Dos and Don’ts for Web Sites
Make it functional. “Users are goal-oriented,” Bieser said. “They don’t come there to read your mission statement.” Brevity and emphasizing one thought per paragraph will help users cut through the clutter.
Make it easy. Let people know where they are within the site and make it easy to find things. “Users are easily frustrated. They are easily disoriented,” Bieser said. “Web sites have no beginning and no end, and it can be confusing particularly if people are dropped into the middle of the site by a link.” Helping people find what they want is key, according to Bieser. “Fifty percent of the visitors to a site will immediately go to a search engine,” he said, stressing that the position and appearance of the search engine should be obvious and intuitive.
Don’t provide instructions on how to use the site. “If you need to write instructions, it is not obvious and self-evident.”
Make home pages uncluttered and fast to load. On the home page, offer five to seven core tasks that allow people to self-select material and functions deeper in the site. Group your corporate information in the corner, out of the way. Group utilities near the top of the home page.
Avoid cute marketing lingo and content that has the look of an advertisement.
Chuck Rathmann is a freelance writer and contributor to Wisconsin Technology Network. He can be reached at email@example.com.