Tag Archives: usability

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.

Building Usable Websites (Part 2)

Over the last few years, usability practice has begun to take on a new maturity. Systems have become more formalized, practices more standardized, and in the process certain principles have risen to prominence. To get you thinking about what it means to create usable applications, here’s a list of six basic principles which should be applied when you are building software-based systems.

(1) Consistency & Reuse

A good system will reduce the need for users to rethink the system by consistently reusing external and internal systems and behaviors.

A good way to approach building computer applications is to stick with the conventions of the computer platform. People are familiar with buttons, scroll bars, combo boxes, etc., so use them. You don’t have to render everything as a stylized graphic to have an attractive site. Buttons, for example, should look like buttons and should bear labels users have seen before. There is no good business reason to re-invent the wheel, simply because you can. Once a convention is applied, do not vary from it without reason and when you vary from it, make it clearly different. Reinforce your conventions throughout the application and you will find that users are able to navigate and move easily.

(2) Tolerance

A good system cuts down on terminal errors by building in tolerance for foreseeable misuse and reduces the cost of errors by allowing users the option to redo or undo the offensive action.

While supporting “undo” can be challenging on the Web, it is not impossible and should certainly be a part of any key process, like a multi-part form, or a shopping cart. One of the frustrations most commonly cited by users is the loss of data on forms when they go “back” to add information or correct an error. Make sure your programmers build sites that persist data to allow for effective “undo” and re-do”.

(3) Feedback

A good system will keep users informed of changes in state or condition, or of errors, in clear, unambiguous language, informing the user of the range of options available (if any).

When the Macintosh first appeared (128K!) I rushed out and bought one. While I loved the interface and the usability of the device, it completely fell down when it came to error reporting. When my little gray box would crash, it would produce a frowning face and spit out an utterly useless error code in the form of a meaningless string of digits. There was no clue why it had crashed, or what could be done. (Users eventually learned that the liberal application of a straightened out paper clip to the obscure reset button was their only recourse.) Apple has finally gotten that fixed, but it took them years (and cost them lots of frustrated users).

(4) Jakob’s Law Of The Web User Experience

Users spend most of their time on other sites, so that’s where they form their expectations for how the Web works.

Well, that statement may be a truism, but it’s worth repeating. From a business perspective Jakob is right: We should be building things people recognize and can navigate without difficulty. There is a reason why Amazon, Yahoo, Excite, eBay, and all those other large sites share common elements – the interface is familiar to users and works with the wide variety of computers and browsers in the market. If you want your site to be accessible to the widest audience possible, learn from the Big Boys and follow their approach.

(5) Organize Purposefully

Group like things together; separate unlike things in a meaningful manner; keep all the necessary tools and materials visible; don’t clutter the interface with extraneous information.

Seems obvious, but so many sites I visit are a visual train wreck. Frankly, I am not interested in spending 5 minutes trying to find the button that takes me to where I want to go. Clean out the extraneous junk – remember, what doesn’t add to your message detracts from it.

(6) Keep The User Focused

A good system allows a user to answer these three questions at any stage in the process: (1) Where I am? (2) Where I should go next? (3) How do I get back to where I was?

While this last principle seems to be limited in application to processes, say a shopping cart, in fact it should be applied across your site. New users will thank you, and experienced users will use the system more efficiently. You will find that if you adhere to this final simple principle, users will describe your system as “intuitive” or “user-friendly”.

Hopefully these points will give you a starting point for your own usability analysis. In the next installment in this series we will look at the value of usability in dollars and cents.

Building Usable Websites (Part 1)

The study and application of usability principles in software is a new dimension of the discipline known as human factors engineering. Human factors revolutionized the way people built products and processes in the last century, and unfortunately in the early days of the web, was a virtually forgotten discipline. Now, as Internet and software applications insinuate themselves into our lives, the human factors approach has taken on a new urgency and is back in the forefront; this time wearing the name “usability.”

Usability is all about how people interact with software driven systems and how to make those systems better suited to their all-too-human users. When you hear people describe a piece of software as “user-friendly” or “intuitive”, what they are really saying is that the software exhibits good usability.

Usable applications are not created by accident (well, not usually!), but are rather the by-product of an iterative process of trial and error based on experience and real world feedback from users. Site planners often think in terms of metaphors that can help people draw functional or visual similarities between existing familiar systems and the new interfaces. One of the most common of these interface metaphors is to compare the computer screen to the dashboard of a car. All the necessary information and controls should be right there to allow you to navigate to your goal. The dashboard metaphor is a useful one, but by no means the only one. The root of the interface we all think of as Windows (or Mac) is a desktop metaphor.

These metaphors are strong primarily because they are familiar to most people. This is typical of good business-oriented software systems: They should match systems in the rest of the physical world. If they follow familiar conventions, they will speak the users’ language and should behave in a manner which is consistent with the users’ expectations (an “intuitive system”).

More adventurous developers are pushing the envelope, giving users less obvious metaphors or completely fresh systems. While it is true that the boundaries are essentially artificial ones and that designers can and will continue to take us into new and innovative spaces, there is a point of diminishing returns. As with many other areas in the business world, there is a point at which the management needs to keep things focused on the end goal – that of providing a usable application that requires little or no training, does not impose a support burden, and helps users get the job done.

We have all experienced websites that are too clever for their own good, leaving you guessing what in the world you are supposed to click on to find what you want. These sites, at least from a business perspective, are wasted money.

The challenges faced are considerable. More than a few projects have launched without sufficient attention paid to the usability aspects of the projects. Once released to the users, companies may well find that clients struggle with aspects the management never dreamed were problematic. Sites may well under perform. Opportunities may be missed and complaints and support costs begin to rise.

While usability is admittedly not rocket science, the fact remains that it is both necessary and more difficult than most people would assume. Designers face a conundrum: How to make a system that is simple enough for first time users to navigate without training or support, yet powerful and sophisticated enough not to frustrate experienced users who may already be familiar with the system.

Unfortunately, business unit leaders and project managers rarely make the best sources of information on a project’s usability – they are just too close to the project to be objective. The best approach is to get the project in front of a group of users as early in the process as possible to watch how people who have never seen this new system respond to it. This user testing is usually done with a limited deployment of the site in a controlled environment or with simple reviews of prototypes. One-to-one testing is not uncommon, but by far the most frequent technique involves assembling a small group of typical users for a focus group. In my experience, these focus group sessions never fail to surprise. Things you never thought were issues surface as people look at the work with a fresh set of eyes and few preconceptions.

In Part 2, we’ll take a look at some of the basic principles that have emerged that can help you make your website or software application more usable.