All About Website Usability Blog – Holly Phillips

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.


Takeaways from Patric Hofmann’s “Icons & Images” presentation
January 5, 2010, 4:05 am
Filed under: confidence, customer-centered-design, scent, usability basics, visual design

I just attended a webnar on “Icons & Images” by Patrick Hofmann.  Key takeaways:

When designing an icon, strive for:

  • Simplicity – simplify the design to just the key elements that convey the message.  For example, iPhone uses only 4 buttons in an icon of a calculator, instead of showing an entire calculator face.  Use silhouettes or outlines where possible
  • Distinction – make sure the icons are clearly distinct from other icons used on that same page; use color, contrast, size , and shape to help differentiate.  Again, iPhone does a good job at this:

  • Standardization – use common icons that people already understand (eg envelope for mail; clockface for clock).  The American Society for Graphic Artists and iStock Photos are good places to look for common icons
  • Words – If needed, use one or two words (no more) in conjunction with an icon.  Some users are more text-based than visual-based so words will help, but only if the icons aren’t clear on their own, and if the addition of text won’t add clutter.  One example – a square box with the words “TV” inside is much more instantly recognizable as a TV than the more traditional box with rabbit-ears (which doesn’t mean anything to younger people).
  • Understandability across cultures  – For example, many cultures don’t understand the old-fashioned US mailbox or telephone icons; better to use more common stylized versions.  Never use hand symbols in icons!  They’re bound to be offensive in at least one country or culture (most likely a Mediterranean-bordering nation).  Things like “OK”, happy face, frowny face, etc are much better.  Red circle with a diagonal slash is universally accepted as meaning no or incorrect or prohibited.

And finally, some good sources for icons:


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.

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.