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December 15, 1997

Fixing Web-site usability

How to let visitors to your Web site cut through the document maze

By Lynda Radosevich

Randomly surf the Web, and you will find many amusements and perhaps some interesting facts. But try to find the hard information pertinent to your job and chances are you will end up frustrated.

The fact is, most Web sites stink when it comes to gathering useful information. In a recent usability study of nine highly regarded Web sites, including those of Fidelity Investments, Disney, and travel-services site Travelocity, most of some 70 test users could not find specific information they were instructed to find a majority of the time. Scientists at User Interface Engineering, the North Andover, Mass., think tank that conducted the study, only asked for information that they knew existed on the site.

The lack of usability does not stem from insufficient resources. As Jared Spool, principal investigator at User Interface Engineering notes, bookstores contain more computer books than cookbooks. A large portion of the computer books are on Web design, and most of them agree on Web design fundamentals.

Meanwhile, Forrester Research says that high-profile content sites that cost $893,000 annually to operate in December 1995 cost $3.1 million to operate today and will cost $6.3 million in 2000. The financing and expertise are available.

However, the problem lies in faulty intent and poor testing. More often than not, companies design Web sites with their marketing and business objectives in mind, rather than their customers' needs. And even if they do think of the users, they often base decisions on common-sense design rules and skip usability testing.

As the results readily demonstrate, common sense doesn't work. The Web is unlike any media to have come before it, and the old principles don't apply, experts say.

"There is perception that print and Web are very similar; that good design for print is good design for Web. We found that was not true," says Spool, who also co-authored Web Site Usability: A Designer's Guide.

Another explanation for the fact that so many sites are so difficult to use is that the Web's barrier-to-entry is very low. Any company with an Internet account and determination can put up a site easily.

"It's like having 90 percent of radio stations being karaoke," says Steven Nelson, vice president at Clear Ink, in Walnut Creek, Calif., which designed sites for Apple, Oracle, Ascend, and Southern California Gas. "You still get your site, but you have to sort through all the karaoke."

TOTALLY UNCOOL. Building usable sites, as opposed to "cool" sites, has never been more important. Increasingly companies are counting on the Web to provide customer service, make sales, and manage business and employee relationships. Today, a customer's initial point of contact with a company often is through its Web site. That first impression sticks.

Also, some companies aren't getting their money's worth out of their high-priced Web sites. Disney reportedly spent $10 million on the initial launch of their site (http://www.disney.com), and has since then spent more on the revised versions, Spool says. But Edmunds, which publishes information and magazines for car buyers, spent less than $10,000 on the launch of their site (http://www.edmunds.com) and did it on a weekend. Yet Edmonds' site did as well as Disney's site in usability testing.

"If you have limited resources, which direction would you pick?" Spool asks.

And considering that Web sites are becoming more complex -- the average Web site has 6,300 pages, and by the end of next year will have 15,000 pages, Forrester estimates -- the need for creating more usable sites becomes even more apparent.

Before understanding how to create usable Web sites, companies must understand what wrong with what is out there.

By now most Web-site architects have heard that large image maps and fussy layouts are out. In fact, a user backlash against first-generation sites' overzealous design has prompted the leading Web design companies and their customers to adopt clean, sparse, simple-to-use layouts. (See http://www.spiralmedia.com and http://www.clearink.com as examples.)

Nonetheless, many seemingly right but actually wrong Web-design principles persist. For instance, in its usability study, User Interface Engineering found that white space, a staple in good print design, hurts a Web site's usability.

RETHINKING DESIGN. Other counter-intuitive findings include that users are more successful at following longer, more descriptive text links than shorter, less informative ones; navigational graphics aren't helpful because users explore text links first and don't wait for graphical links to download; users shun nonstop animations; however, they will gladly wait to download informational graphics, such as a picture of a new car model.

Also, convention says that users hate to scroll beyond the "fold" (the bottom of the screen), but the testing found it made no difference whatsoever.

Another revelation will come as an unwelcome bit of news to some Web builders. The sites that employed the increasingly popular "shell" strategy construction -- in which programmers create a generic site structure and navigational hierarchy, and others plug in content later -- confused users. Shell sites do not work because the links are so generic, users rarely get what they expect, Spool says.

Perhaps the most surprising of User Interface Engineering's findings is that onsite search engines confuse and frustrate users more than they help them.

"If users looking for information do not use a search engine, they're 50 percent more likely to find the information than if they click on the search button," Spool says.

The problem with full-text search engines is that users don't understand how to use them. It's not unusual for a visitor to type in a very broad keyword, such as "travel," which returns a plethora of useless links. Also, search engines do stupid things. When testers of Smithsonian magazine's site (http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu) typed in the word dinosaur into the search engine, the first article returned was about the American steel industry. Still, search engines are extremely popular, and users revolt if they cannot find one, Spool says.

BEING WELL CONNECTED. These examples point to a key challenge in building a usable Web site, creating good links and navigation mechanisms.

"The tools don't help you create navigation tools on a Web site, but the bigger problem is that the information is not always organized intuitively," says Murray Maloney, technical marketing director at Paris-based tool vendor Grif and a member of the World Wide Web Consortium. "What site designers need to begin to understand is that there are often several different paths that could lead to any given page on a Web site."

The most intuitively usable Web sites are those in which the developers determine what information users are most likely to require and strive to make it readily available.

"A lot of businesses could do well just by saying, what are the top ten things people call us up and ask, and if nothing else, have a site that just answers those top ten questions," says Clear Ink's Nelson.

A couple of tips include the following: From the home page, information should not be more than two clicks of information, and the underlying structure of the code should use metatags that identify key words to search spiders.

Also, developers should keep the download times to a minimum.

"Usability research shows that page download has to be faster than 10 seconds for users to keep their attention on the site," says Jakob Nielsen, an engineer at Sun Microsystems and author of Designing Excellent Web Sites: Secrets of an Information Architect.

When it comes to graphics, experts remind designers to adhere to the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle.

"You can do a lot with simple design that looks good but doesn't get in the way of finding information," Clear Ink's Nelson says.

LET MOM TEST IT. Still, no matter how well-conceived a site may be, visitors will rarely use it as anticipated. For that reason, the only way to ensure a site is usable is to test it with users who have nothing to do with creating it, experts say. Unfortunately, Nielsen estimates that only 20 percent of Fortune 1000 companies do so.

"Most Web designs are internally focused, meaning that they aim to please the company's own staff, and especially the executives. Thus, evaluation consists of showing a design to the vice president of marketing, and if he or she likes it, then it's OK," Nielsen says.

Nonetheless, that 20 percent marks an improvement compared with a few years ago, and more companies are wising up to usability testing.

"We may hit 50 percent by the year 2000," Nielsen says.

Before conducting tests, successful Web site developers set up the right environment. When Constantine & Lockwood, a usability-testing company, in Rowley, Mass., conducts Web-site tests, the process is very structured. They set an agenda, determine beforehand how much of the site will be reviewed, and define usage scenarios, which can be representative cases or special instances. They also divide the inspection into phases, starting at the home page.

"Ask for the users initial reaction, because you only get to have an initial reaction once," says Larry Constantine, principal consultant at Constantine & Lockwood.

GARBAGE DETECTION. Demonstrating their technique in a session at the October Web Design & Development Conference `97, in Washington, Constantine and his partner Lucy Lockwood instructed attendees to shout "garbage" every time they noted a design defect in a test site. Defects could include links that sent users down the wrong path, blinking graphics, cryptic menu bars, etc. After overcoming their initial shyness, the attendees turned mean, shouting "garbage" liberally and loudly. By the end of the session, the testers had a long list of defects to consider.

To encourage users to speak up, Lockwood and Constantine prohibit Web-site builders from explaining or justifying their designs.

"The reviewer needs to protect the user, because usually when the user doesn't get something the designers and programmers jump in to explain," Lockwood says. "Then the user feels stupid and shuts up."

Also, Lockwood believes the users are not the final authority, and testers should not make promises.

In setting up a test environment, companies also strive to recreate the technical environment of the typical user. For instance, if users have 28.8Kbps connections, so should the testers.

Finally, experts warn companies not to confuse market research with usability testing. Market research determines what it will take to make people buy something, but typically it does not address whether they will be able to use the product, Nielsen says.

"Normally [usability testing is] not necessary: If you are testing a new potato chip, then everybody knows how to move the chip from the bag into their mouth," Nielsen says.

But interactive systems such as the Web are another matter altogether. When Sun was working this fall on a redesign of its home page, site creators tested six designs with six users, leading to a specific design direction. They then tested three prototypes of different variations of the direction that was chosen, completed another redesign and testing of a single design, and tested the final version with five users. The redesigned home page will be launched around press time, Nielsen says.

CONTENT CONTROL. Testing helps the developer create sites that are easy to navigate, but if the information isn't relevant and up-to-date, the site's usability is shot. But companies often place their emphasis on the initial development and launching of the site, and forget to allocate enough attention, time, or money to the ongoing maintenance, says Clear Ink's Nelson.

"It's like buying a car, spending all money on the car and not having any money left over for gasoline, oil, or car washes," Nelson says.

For instance, KGO, a California radio station, boasts on its Web site (http://www.kgoam810.com) of its up-to-the-minute news. Yet in early November, the home page flashed the word "September."

In addition to keeping information timely, companies can make sites more usable by providing personalized content. Amazon.com, in competing with Barnes & Noble, offers agents who recommend books based on what a user has bought recently and on what other people who liked a chosen book liked in addition to it.

K2 Design, in New York, uses a "cookie trail" tracking mechanism to follow users' navigation path and display the pages they have visited first when they come back to the site, says John Balestrieri, vice president and director of technology at K2.

Also, technological considerations and limitations also strongly affect Web-site usability. For instance, the visitors' browsers and PC platforms are different, and a site can look quite different to diverse users.

To manage that diversity, Clear Ink designs each site to work with the peculiarities of multiple browsers.

"Netscape and IE [Microsoft Internet Explorer] support different sound-embedding tags, so we'll design the page to support either," Clear Ink's Nelson says.

Another technological consideration is the use of frames, which despite their ability to improve navigation increasingly are becoming a no-no. The reason is that for every frame and every object embedded in a frame, a browser must make an additional HTTP call, adding to the download time of a page. Keeping page download time to a minimum is key -- K2 tries to keep a page between 30K and 40K including everything -- so frames are out.

"I thought frames were really cool when they first came out, but I hardly use them for anything now," says K2's Balestrieri.

Because the Web is so new, and so fast-changing, Web site creators within corporations and the design firms they use can easily get distracted by cool technologies and their own need to hype themselves. But that does not fool most users, who visit sites to gather useful information, so judicious use of design elements and new technologies, along with rigorous testing is paramount.

"`Because I can' is no longer a good reason for doing something" Balestrieri says.

Senior Editor Lynda Radosevich specializes in Web-related issues.

Top 10 mistakes in Web design

1) Using frames

2) Gratuitous use of bleeding-edge technology

3) Scrolling text, marquees, and constantly running animations

4) Complex URLs

5) Orphan pages

6) Long, scrolling pages

7) Lack of navigation support

8) Non-standard link colors

9) Outdated information

10) Overly long download times

Source: Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., Sun Microsystems Engineer and author

Sorting out dueling technology

Emerging technologies -- including Java, Dynamic HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, and Extensible Markup Language (XML) -- can be a boon to Web-site usability, if deployed properly.

At a recent session at Web Design and Development Conference `97, experts from Microsoft subsidiary Dimension X, NetObjects, Microsoft FrontPage, Lotus, and Macromedia sparred with each other about when it was appropriate to use Dynamic HTML verses Java to enhance a Web site. Although they had different opinions, a rough consensus emerged.

Dynamic HTML can help developers' dynamic layouts by downloading changeable content in one shot and by animating text or images anywhere in a page without using plug-ins, which users may not have, or without using GIF animations, which are complicated to script.

Java can be used more generally for dynamic processing than Dynamic HTML, but it is limited to operating in a box on a Web page. It makes sense for applets that require hard-core computation. Also, Java can dynamically load data or code off of the network, so it's good for highly interactive demonstrations.

"There's a role for both," says Dennis King, product manager at Lotus.

Meanwhile, developers say style sheets are important because they let developers specify style sheets for devices that have different capabilities, such as PC browser, Web-TV, or printer output.

And XML, which will likely come of age in Microsoft and Netscape's next-generation browsers, will help in navigation and comparison shopping by providing content-specific metadata tags.

The hitch to using these technologies lies in the visitor's browser environment. Netscape Navigator 4.0 and Internet Explorer 4.0 support these technologies differently, and older browsers don't support them at all. So developers have to program different options for different browsers.

But XML, which experts expect to take off on an industry-by-industry basis, will work based on the momentum of people using it. If four companies in the plumbing industry adopt the same XML tags for industrial pumps, and one doesn't, that one will be left out, says John Balestrieri, vice president and director of technology at K2 Design, in New York.

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