All About Website Usability Blog – Holly Phillips

The coming evolution of usability, part 3
March 1, 2010, 4:19 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Ok – so we all agree that focusing on the entire user experience, not just usability, is a good thing.  But why?  Is there any real return for doing that, or is it just something to make our visitors happier?

I’d argue that elevating your site to a place people enjoy going does indeed provide a financial return.  Take the Netflix example I gave in my last post.  If Jared now sees Netflix as a place to get into hairy discussions about obscure movies, he’s likely to go there more often, likely to try some of their recommendations, and clearly likely to praise the site to others.  And we all know that turning your customers into advocates is one of the best ways to bring in new customers.

Amazon is another great example.  Their customer rating system has one of the best reputations around, and people often go there before they make a purchase.  True, it doesn’t guarantee that people will actually buy from amazon, but it definitely increases the likelihood that once they find a product they want to buy, they’ll check out the recommendations at amazon and then check price and availability while they’re at it. 

So there is a clear financial payoff to including these less tangible elements in our design decisions.  Designing a successful and unfrustrating experience is good, but designing a successful, unfrustrating, enjoyable and engaging experience is where the real payoff will come.

The coming evolution of usability, part 2
February 22, 2010, 4:16 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The question I left you with in my last blog was “how do we advance from a site that’s perfectly usable to one that’s engaging and fun?”  The answer is to broaden our focus and include the elements of enjoyability, engagement, and total experience in our designs.

I heard Jared Spool and Stephen Anderson share the example of Netflix.  They have a feature where they ask you to rate several movies, then they start recommending movies to you that they think you’ll like.  The more movies you rate, the better the recommendations are.  This drew Jared and Stephen in to the point where Stephen said he spent 6 hours rating movies on the site just to see what it would recommend to him.  And Jared said he was so impressed at getting recommendations of movies he hadn’t heard of that he now views the site as a place where he can go to get into a real nerdy discussion of movies instead of just a place to rent movies.  This feature doesn’t make the site any more ‘usable’, but it adds a level of enjoyment and engagement that it couldn’t have gotten by focusing on usability alone.

When we’ve asked people to rate our site and then asked “what would it take for you to rate it a 10?”, we often hear things like “I just don’t give 10’s unless the site really blows me away”.  No matter how hard we work on our navigation system or page layout, we’ll probably never get it to the point where it blows people away.  But if we add in elements that draw the visitor in and provide unique value or fun, like Netflix has done, we have a much better chance.

So yes, we definitely need to work on the basics and remove frustration and failure from the site.  But as we move up that maturity curve we need to start adding in elements of delight, seduction, and enjoyability to the visit.

The coming evolution of usability, part 1
February 15, 2010, 4:13 am
Filed under: customer-centered-design, visual design

A change is coming over the usability field, and it promises to help move websites into a whole new realm of usefulness.  This change is a natural result of the evolution of design for usability. 

In the early days, the focus was on making websites usable:  making pages scannable, ensuring links conveyed the right scent and navigation was clear, making processes clear and straightforward, etc.  In essence, it was all about removing frustration and obstacles to using a site.

But now that we’ve grown as an industry and most sites follow at least basic usability rules, we’ve come to realize that this is not enough.  A user may be able to easily complete his task, but if it’s a hum-drum boring experience he’s likely to be merely satisfied and not happy, delighted, or eager to return.

I’m starting to see glimmers of this realization all over the place:

  • Stephen Anderson calls it “seductive interactions”
  • RJ Owen calls it “the differences between usability and user experience”
  • Forrester signals it by including “enjoyability” as one of the primary drivers of satisfaction
  • We see it in our own research that shows that traditional elements of usability account for only 60% of a visitor’s satisfaction with the experience

The question now is:  how do we advance from a site that’s perfectly usable to one that’s engaging and fun?  The answer to that is really the marriage of interaction design, visual design, and visitor engagement.  And it promises to open the door to a world of new possibilities.

(to be continued in next week’s blog)

Writing for the web
February 8, 2010, 4:43 am
Filed under: Content, scent, usability basics

In usability it’s tempting to focus on navigation, look&feel, search, and other elements of the interface and ignore the content.  But in the end, the content is really what matters.  We have been conducting a quarterly website satisfaction survey for years now, and “content” is always one of the top three dissatisfiers for our customers.  Missing content, confusing content, poorly-written content, mis-categorized content, marketing fluff disguised as real content…the list is very long.

That’s why I was excited to see this great article about improving content on the web by Shay Howe:  Writing for the Web:  The Right Strategy.  It’s worth taking a quick peek at.  Nothing earthshattering, just some good solid principles to follow when writing for the web.  I particularly like his bullets about “writing user-friendly content”:

  • Give users a summary
  • Get to the point quickly
  • Use small sentences
  • Limit one thought per paragraph
  • Use bullet points
  • Use sub headings
  • Do not over use exclamations!!!
  • Drive emphasis with repetition
  • Drop unnecessary adjectives
  • Use details, be specific
  • Use hyperlinks
  • Use a personal tone
  • Be unique
  • Escape content overload

He also advocates judicious use of fonts, colors, and sizes — things we’ve definitely seen in our research that help focus the customer on what you want him to focus on.

All in all a good reminder that even the best IA and UI’s will fail if not supported by appropriate, good content.

Endeca’s faceted search (from Mark Burrell’s UIE webinar)
January 21, 2010, 4:52 am
Filed under: Search

My last post summarized Peter Morville’s portion of the UIE webinar on Search Design Patterns.  Here’s part II:

Peter Morville’s talk was followed by a discussion led by Mark Burrell of Endeca, outlining the spefics of Endeca’s faceted navigation.  Key takeaways here:

  • Endeca has a UI Design Pattern Library.  From the examples that were shown, the seem to be patterns for the guided navigation portion of the page (for example, vertical stack guided nav, range slider, multi-select)
  • To design a good search experience, you need to understand business goals, user types, goals & scenarios, assets, and modes of integration
  • Think about both the “knowledgeable seeker” and the “uncertain explorer”
  • Faceted navigation isn’t limited to just text descriptions; he gave a good example of a car website ( that allows “browse by type” by showing sketches of body types (sedan, minivan, coupe, etc)
  • Quantitative facets can be given using range sliders, which gives the visitor greater control over seeing exactly what he wants (for example, all plane tickets between $100 and $450)

All in all, a pretty good summary of some of the best aspects and best practices of faceted navigation today.

Trends in Search (from Peter Morville’s UIE webinar)
January 13, 2010, 4:53 am
Filed under: customer-centered-design, Search

Peter Morville and Mark Burrell just gave a webinar in one of Jared Spool’s UIE webinars. Topic: Search and Discovery Patterns.

The premise is that good Search is critical to a website, and using pre-existing design patterns can really help Search be successful. Nothing new in that premise — anyone who uses the web knows how critical Search is, and how frustrating it is when it doesn’t work as expected. But they did give some good examples of new uses of Search. Here are some of the highlights:

  • “Search is iterative and interactive, what we find changes what we seek” – Interesting concept, and helps explain why people’s expectations change as new search methodologies come onto the scene.
  • “Browsing does not scale” – meaning that at some point, listing the navigation topics becomes unwieldy. Not sure I totally agree with this. If done well, you can index a pretty deep site with browsing navigation in a very usable way. (And, as a colleague points out, some might say that “Search does not scale” at some point — especially if you have a wide variety of types of search results.)
  • ” ‘Best first’ is one of the primary search patterns, and is the key to Google’s success” – Can’t argue with that! His point is that the algorithms to determine relevance are extermemly important, and including “social data” can help immensely. (Social data, or social search, involves paying attention to what other searchers think are successful results for a particular search and then using that information in the relevance algorithm.)
  • “Faceted navigation lets people begin the way they normally do, by entering a search term. But then it gives users a custom map for their search term, and gives them a simple next step” – This is key – so many websites have pages that just dump the customer onto them and have no clear next step. Examples given are Yelp, NCSU Libraries, Land’s End, Buzzillions, Amazon. One of the key aspects of Faceted Navigation is that it blurs the line between search and browse – in Land’s End, for example, you can browse down into the site but still see a faceted navigation display on the left side of each page.
  • “We’re finding ways to take the search interaction beyond just search” – example is Songza, which gives search results on the same page as allowing you to actually play the songs.
  • “We must keep questioning how we define search, how we define the problem” – This was, in my mind, the best part of the presentation. They showed several examples of non-traditional uses of Search. For example: Maybe the box is really a place to ask questions, and we should strive to return answers and not results (wolfram). Or maybe search is about helping people to make better decisions (hunch). Or maybe it’s all about understanding and interactive visual results (oakland crimespotting). Or finding similar images (gazopa). Or searching by singing (iPhone music search). “In the future of search, it’s critical that we consider the user experience across channels” – For example, with the iPhone, the search must work on the phone itself, in the iTunes app, and in the iTunes store. Search needs to allow users to move fluidly across those platforms.
  • “Getting search right requires a microscope, a telescope, and a kaleidascope” – A microscope to really dig into the details, understand the search logs, and ensure individual searches are relevant. A telescope to see the big picture and how search fits with navigation, other channels, and trends on the web. And a kaleidascope to see things differently and see how search is a part of many different things.
  • “Search is a hybrid between design, engineering, and marketing. It’s a project and a process, and the problem is never solved” – This is a great quote and a great reminder that the job is never done. Providing great search results requires constant ongoing review of search logs, external trends, refinement using social data, etc.

My next post will summarize the second half of this webinar, led by Mark Burrell of Endeca.

Clarity Trumps Persuasion – always!
January 5, 2010, 4:23 am
Filed under: customer-centered-design, Landing Page design, usability basics

I just attended a great webinar by Marketing Experiments called “Clarity Trumps Persuasion”.  If you’re not familiar with them, Marketing Experiments is a company that specializes in optimizing website landing pages, but the principles they tout are equally applicable to normal web pages.  Their main point:  poorly-designed pages that present visitors with competing objectives end up confusing cusotmers and damaging conversion rates.

A great quote from Flint McGlaughlin:  “The chief enemy to forward momentum is confusion.”  If you don’t have a clear next action on the page, you’re “bleeding revenue”. 

I’ve written earlier about our simple A/B test with a landing page where we applied some of these basic principles and improved our conversion rate by 370% (which directly translates into a 370% increase in ROI, by the way).  But we should all remember that these same principles apply to non-landing pages as well.  Yes, typical site pages may have to serve many purposes (for example, a product page need to serve those who want to find out about the product before purchase, buy the product, and service or support the product after purchase.)  That’s how we often justify having many, many links on a page like this and expecting the customer to figure out what he wants to do.  But that’s in fact the easiest way to confuse and lose the visitor. 

If, instead, those pages had very clear next steps and helped walk the cusomer down the right path, they’d be MUCH more effective.  “Clarity trumps persuasion”.  Indeed – clear pages with clear next steps will always improve customer thruput and conversion rates.