All About Website Usability Blog – Holly Phillips


Start at the end
July 30, 2009, 4:56 am
Filed under: taxonomy / naming, usability basics

When designing a new website, don’t start with the homepage.   And don’t start by listing all your content and then organizing it into buckets.  Why?  Customers don’t care about your homepage or site organization – they care about getting their task done. 

They care about finding the lowest-cost left-handed hammer that you carry.  Or finding out how much weight that kayak can carry before it sinks.  Or what the best digital camera is for their Hawaii vacation.  That’s where the designer should start — with a clear understanding of what the customers want to do at the site.  And then work backwards from there to design the site around successful completion of those key tasks.

When designed around content, a site might have links to “product manuals”, “application notes”, “parts” etc.  When designed around successful customer endpoints, the same site may instead have links to “installing your product” or “comparing models”.  True, customers can probably succeed in either taxonomy, but the later will more quickly resonate with what the customer is trying to do and will therefore instill more confidence that they’re on the right path to getting their answer.



Watch your words
July 23, 2009, 4:55 am
Filed under: scent, taxonomy / naming, usability basics

There’s a great quote in Alice in Wonderland that’s eerily applicable to website design: 

“Speak English! I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and I don’t believe you do either!” – Eaglet, talking to Alice in Wonderland

We run across this in websites all the time:  the company uses terms that they assume their customers know and understand.  But over and over again in direct customer research we hear customers complain that they don’t know what this acronym or that abbreviation means.  Even seemingly “common” terms like RSS continue to be unrecognized by even the most technical customers.  In interviews, once the term is explained, the customers usually say “oh yeah, I’ve heard of that.  I like it!”  but also that they’d never even consider clicking on it because they didn’t know what it was.

I’ve also seen manufacturing divisions use their internal product names on their website in the assumption that their customers know what those names mean.  Here again, even the most regular customers refute that and plead for the company to use common terminology.

Why make things harder for your visitors by using internal language?  At best it will slow them down, at worst it will turn them off.  Our goal should be to make our sites easier to use; using common words goes a long way towards doing that.



Amazon should know better
July 16, 2009, 10:33 pm
Filed under: usability basics

I love Amazon, both as a great store and as an example of some of the best usability advances around.  That’s why this one area bugs me so much. 

Go to Amazon’s homepage and try to log in.  Here’s what you see:

Amazon log-in

Amazon log-in

Hmmm.  There’s a nice sentence telling me to “Sign in to get personalized recommendations.”  But the words “sign in” aren’t a hyperlink, and there’s no link called “sign in” or “log in” anywhere to be seen.  To make matters worse, there IS a link for new customers.  But I’m an existing customer – shouldn’t it be just as easy for me to log in?  Maybe they care about new customers more than me.

In any case, I’ve used this page dozens of times and always resorted to clicking either the new customer “start here” link, or the “your account” link in order to log in.  They both work, but it sure isn’t obvious and irks me every time.  I just discovered that the “personalized recommendations” link also leads to a log in screen.  But I’ve avoided that in the past because I didn’t really want recommendations – just wanted to log in so I could buy my stuff.

Amazon, shame on you.  You clearly know how important it is to provide good scent with linknames, and clearly understand the value of repeat customers.  If only you’ d make the words “Sign in” in that first sentence into a hyperlink, you’d immediately remove all this confusion and frustration.  And confusion and frustration are the last things you want to put between your customer and a sale.



The existential questions of the website visitor
July 9, 2009, 4:53 am
Filed under: confidence, usability basics

Freshleaf media has a great short article about the 5 existential questions a site visitor has when they try to use a site.  (See the complete article.) 

  1. Why am I here? 
  2. Where the hell is…?
  3. What do I do next?
  4. What’s going on?
  5. Where am I?  Where did I come from?

One great way to use this is to ask yourself these five questions whenever you’re looking at a page on your site.  They’re equally relevant for your homepage, ad landing pages, gallery pages, product pages, checkout pages — ie, for every type of page on your site.  Visitors should ALWAYS be able to quickly know where they are in your site and what to do next. 

Next time you want to design or review a page on your site, step back and ask these five questions.  You might be surprised at how hard they are to answer.



New (and for now, free) remote usability testing tool
July 2, 2009, 8:59 pm
Filed under: remote usability testing, usability testing

I just found out about Loop11, a new (still in beta) tool for doing remote usability testing.  Not sure what their long-term business model is, but for now it’s free.   Check it out!



What’s confidence got to do with it?
July 1, 2009, 4:54 am
Filed under: confidence, scent, usability basics

What’s confidence got to do with a website?  Everything!  The more confidence your visitors have when they use your site, the more likely they are to be able to quickly and easily do what they want to do.

Confidence takes many different flavors, but the two biggest ones are confidence that you won’t abuse me, and confidence that the site works the way I think it should.

  1. Confidence that you won’t abuse me.  None of us would ever set out to abuse our customers, but many site policies do exactly that.  Customers are especially wary of sites they haven’t visited before and are looking for reassurance about some of the most basic privacy/respect issues.  Some good practices are:
    • State your email policy (no selling of email, no spamming, no sharing with others). 
    • Make sure pages that ask for secure information are https pages (yes, people look for that ‘s’ in the url). 
    • Don’t call a customer who provided his phonenumber on the site unless he’s agreed (a controversial policy, especially in tough economic times when every company wants to maximize their leads — but will go a long ways towards building trust with your customers.) 
    • Make sure your prices online are the same at checkout as they were on the product pages, and don’t pull any surprises.  
  2.  Confidence that the site works the way I think it should.  Not the way the company thinks it should work.  The more predictable a site’s behavior, navigation, and content are for a visitor, the easier it is for that visitor to quickly find what he needs.    This is why consistency across a site is so important — the customer only has to “learn” your site once and can then use that learning to navigate throughout the site.  Some best practices here are:
    • Make sure your links clearly state where they go.  If a link called “women’s shoes” goes to all shoes, or women’s sale shoes, customers lose confidence and start to doubt whether they’re clicking on the right links.  A link called “related products” is less likely to be clicked on than “women’s shoes” because it doesn’t have as strong a scent — ie, the customer isn’t as confident about where that link will lead, so is less inclined to click it.
    • Don’t use duplicate links (in most cases).  If having one link to “support” is good, two must be twice as good, right?  Wrong.  Duplicate links slow the customer down and force him to wonder whether the links are the same, whether they go to the same place, and why it’s on the page twice.  In some cases link duplication makes sense (eg if customers are equally split as to whether “uesr guides” should be found under “library” or “technical support”, it’s better to put that link in both places).  But for the most part, duplicate links on the same page cause confusion and lowered confidence in your customers’ minds.
    • Ensure similar links/buttons/calls-to-action/processes behave similarly.  If a button called “checkout” takes you to the checkout screen from some pages, but to an upsell screen from other pages, customers will lose confidence that they understand how the site works. 
    • Ensure similar pages function similarly.  If some gallery pages allow sorting or comparison and others don’t, customers’ confidence in their ability to predict how to use the pages will decrease.

Confidence is a big topic and this list only cracks the surface.  They key is to ensure your design reinforces customers’ thinking that this is a safe, good, professional website and that they can easily predict how to get around it.  A confident visitor is more likely to be a successful visitor (or at least to persevere a bit more in the hopes of being successful), and a successful visitor is a happy (and hopefully repeat) visitor.