Building Usable Websites (Part 3)

Website and software application usability is a classic intangible, hard to measure and even harder to sell to clients or management. Ironic, as I think it safe to say that at this stage in the game there are few sites that would not benefit from a usability survey and a bit of tweaking. Nevertheless, some companies have taken the cue and great usability case studies are beginning to emerge.

Banking giant HSBC’s Hong Kong operation went through two usability projects recently with excellent results. The lessons learned are applicable to other regional or global sites.

HSBC, like many other financial institutions, offers a variety of online content, including applications for new services. By using forms online at the HSBC website you can apply for a variety of services, from travel insurance to home mortgages. HSBC was unhappy with their online conversion rates. Conversion rates for Travel Insurance applications, for example, hovered at around 2%, a relatively low figure for the industry.

HSBC faced two basic challenges: Getting people to take the affirmative step of setting the application process into motion, and having done so, creating an easy-to-use online application process.

HSBC brought in an outside consulting firm to help with the assessment of their site. The consulting team began by attacking the prominence issues, that is, how to make site visitors aware the services existed. A simple change in home page layout did the trick. A direct sales message combined with an “Apply Now” label was all that was needed. The larger challenge was how to get the users through the application process.

Online forms are a consistent source of problems for users. The way forms are built often make it hard for users to complete them, much less to provide accurate information.

Long forms are a sure turnoff for many users. Only the most motivated individuals are likely to complete a long form online. Firms frequently make the mistake of transferring an offline process straight on to their website, with no consideration of whether the traditional paper and pencil format is appropriate for use with a browser. The simple fact is online forms are more time consuming and more difficult to complete properly than their traditional physical counterparts, and this difficulty grows exponentially with form length. Forms that are pages long in particular are an anathema.

The difficulty of completing lengthy forms can be compounded by systems which fail to persist critical data – that is, forget data when the user moves from one page to another. Most frequently this occurs when a user tries to “go back” to edit some detail or correct an error. Oftentimes, the user finds the data they entered on that previous page has disappeared.

Equally frustrating is bad validation. Validation routines are designed to check the data input into a form to see if it meets certain basic requirements, for example, checking to see that all the required fields have been completed, or that an email address is in proper format. More than a few sites have poor validation routines, which make it hard for users to find the problems they need to correct, or even worse, delete data and force the user to re-enter.

In the case of HSBC, they found good improvements in form processes by following the basic principles above. If you want travel insurance, do you want to spend a long time completing a detailed form? Not likely. The HSBC form was trimmed down significantly. If you are interested in a mortgage, are you likely to have all the information you need at your fingertips to complete a lengthy application form? No. The HSBC online mortgage was converted into an inquiry process handled offline by a sales team able to respond to the wide variety of variables that go hand-in-hand with a complex lending transaction.

The results of these changes: The conversion rates for online travel insurance applications jumped from the low 2% to a remarkable 22%. Online mortgage inquiries went from 9 to 10 leads per month to 178 leads in the first month. Great results from application of basic usability principles.

While most sites are unlikely to see such clear-cut improvements, the fact is that usability analysis can provide solid refinement of any site’s online processes. If your website involves transactions of any sort, don’t scrimp on usability analysis. Take the time and do it right, it will come back to you in improved results and goodwill.

Special thanks to Hong Kong usability firm The Kingstone Group for the case studies used in this column.