All About Website Usability Blog – Holly Phillips

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:


Marketing Sherpa’s “Surprising Wins from 2009”

If you’re not familiar with Marketing Experiments or Marketing Sherpa, you should check them out.  They specialize in landing page optimization and A/B/multivariate testing, and share a lot of their findings.  They just had a short webinar “Surprising Wins from 2009:  Using insights from an uncertain economy to drive 302% growth.” 

A few key takeaways:

  1. Even if you’re a design expert, you STILL should test.  These folks know all the tips and tricks to optimize a page and get the highest clickthru possible, but even they admit that they can’t always predict the outcome, so you should always test (specifically, A/B or multivariate testing).
  2. When demand is soft, make your value rock solid.  Figure out what it is that sets you apart from your competitors and communicate it.  Communicate your value with statements that are instantly credible; use quantitative statements rather than qualitative ones.
  3. When you have fewer resources, have your page do more.  Consider asking different questions to better be able to analyze the quality of the leads (thus letting you possibly pass fewer but more qualified leads to your sales force.
  4. When customers are overwhelmed, change your focus.  One example used a popup overlay with name/email capture and “start your free xx” call-to-action, overlaid over the original homepage.  This resulted in 64% conversion improvement.
  5. Measure what matters.  Connect your results to the company’s bottom-line results — eg convert ‘# leads’ to ‘increased revenue’ or ‘increased profit’.
  6. Test radically different strategies.  Don’t just test minor wording or layout differences – you may miss the bigger opportunity.
  7. Competitive analysis is vital.  This will help ensure your PPC ads and value propositions stand out.
  8. It’s never too late to start gaining value from testing.  Again – test, test, test

They also reiterated a few good design principles for eeking out the highest clickthru possible:

  • use a dedicated landing page instead of sending people to a page on your site
  • remove unsupervised thinking – make it clear what the main objective of the page is
  • reduce friction and anxiety (long forms, confusing terms, asking for private data)
  • place testimonials close to call-to-action (best way to alleviate any anxiety)
  • clarify the value proposition and ensure continuity (carry the value proposition through from step to step, have a clear headline that reinforces whatever the offer was that led to the page
  • have credible content and include credibility indicators where appropriate
  • ensure a clear and compelling call-to-action action button (eg “get free access” instead of “click here” or, worse yet, “submit” ).  And focus focus focus – don’t have 6 alternative calls-to-action — have one
  • understand and use the typical eyepath (eg don’t put the call-to-action or primary information in the secondary right-hand area of the page)

Card-sorting tool for remote team brainstorming
December 21, 2009, 4:13 am
Filed under: usability basics

Most of us at one point or another in our careers have been involved in team projects that used a brainstorming / affinity diagram / clustering approach to attack a problem.  The typical process is to get everyone in a room, have everyone write their ideas on individual yellow post-it notes, then stick them on the wall and have the teammembers group and re-group the post-its until they end up in some mutually-agreed-upon set of groups.  This is a great technique that can work very well.

But what if you can’t get your team all in the same room?  My current team is spread out all over the world, and it’s a rare luxury to get us all physically together.  Yet we still have the same type of projects that need a team to sort through lots of items and make sense out of it all.  My solution:  Online Card Sorting.  While not a typical use for card sorting, it actually worked perfectly.

After the team did phone/webex brainstorming (capturing the issues in an Excel spreadsheet visible to everyone), we had over 200 ideas.  I then imported these issues into the online (and free!) Websort , created a new sorting project using these items, and shared the “survey” with the team over webex.  We moved each item individually into “piles” that made sense to the team, rearranged as needed, and then named the resulting piles.  Voila!  We had the equivalent of stacks of yellow post-its and team consensus without ever being in the same room (or Country, for that matter).  Certainly a lot cheaper than flying everyone in for an “old-fashioned” face-to-face meeting…



Where’s the banana?
December 15, 2009, 4:01 am
Filed under: Landing Page design, usability basics, visual design

Landing pages are destinations for marketing campaigns — the pages that your P4P ads link to.  These pages may or may not be accessible from your core site, but they’re still critical opportunities to capture and keep your visitors.

One of the most important things a designer can do on a landing page is to ensure there’s a clear call-to-action.  After all, if you’re spending money running P4P ads or sending customer emails to drive people to your site, why would you want to just dump them onto a page and let them try to figure out what to do next?  It’s much better to know exactly what you want them to do, and make that clear and easy to do from that landing page. Including a clear call-to-action has been shown to dramatically improve the conversion rates of landing pages.

Seth Godin calls this clear call-to-action the “banana” – the un-missabile primary visual element on the page.  This is the key action you want the visitors to take — download a demo, request a quote, view a document.  Whatever the goal of the marketing campaign is should be reinforced with the design of this landing page.

In my busines, I often hear people wanting to run campaigns “just to raise awareness”.  That’s fine, but even an awareness campaign still needs to have a clear action for the customer.  If you merely drop them into the middle of your site with no direction, you’re losing an opportunity. 

So next time you’re thinking about landing pages — or any page on your site, for that matter — make sure you provide the banana.

Reminder of usability basics: NNG and Gomez’s “10 Mistakes your website is making”
December 7, 2009, 4:55 am
Filed under: usability basics

Nielsen/Norman Group and Gomez recently presented a webinar on “10 mistakes your website is making – and how to fix them”.  While there’s nothing really new here, it’s a good refresher on the basics of usability.  Here’s a quick summary:

#1: Not recognizing that users don’t read; they scan
– “F” pattern
– 1st Two are important (2 words, 2 sentences, 2 paragraphs, etc.)

#2: Not balancing your and your user’s priorities
– E.g. Registration or request for customer info that gets in the way or is not a value add to the customer

#3: Ignoring Standards
– Search box location
– Emerging standard of having mouse-over for “quick look” of more details w/o leaving current page

#4: Using wrong images
–  Image must add to content, not just attempt to look good
– Image must be clear, right size
– “Approachable” image – real people, looking at camera

#5: Not speaking your user’s language
– Use meaningful names that distinguish items from customer perspective (not rely on descriptions to do this)
– Use of customer-provided product reviews can add ‘user language’ to the site

#6: Blocking Progress
– Don’t have extra steps that are not needed
– Don’t force users to leave a flow to get more information (or make them worry what will happen to the process if they need to leave the flow to get more information)

#7: Saying too much or too little (at one time)
– Don’t use terms that are not clearly standard (“large”, “fast”, etc)
– Suggest using ‘layers’ of information to keep from overwhelming user

#8: Not taking a walk in your user’s shoes
– Watch for issues that exist for users that happen outside your firewall (ISP issues, using images or page elements from different servers and not accounting for this)

#9: Not checking your work twice
– Check how site performs in different web browsers

#10: Not preparing for success
– Ensure highest possible user loading is considered so a spike in load does not crash performance levels
– Highest traffic often happens at most critical times for site to be up and running.

The huge difference between .1 and 1 second, part 2
November 21, 2009, 4:29 am
Filed under: confidence, visual design

My last post referenced an astounding finding by Jakob Nielsen about the difference in perception between a 0.1-second page response time and a 1-second response time.  So why do I think this is such a big deal? 

Let’s put this together with a few other things that we know about website visitors.  We’ve found in other usability research that visitors (at least ours) like to be in control.  They want to be the ones to decide when to initiate a chat session, or when to talk to a salesperson.  We also know that they like to see all their options, and not feel that any information is being hidden from them.

So, let’s say that we have two different tabbed page designs — Design A has a .1-second page response time when switching between tabs and Design B has a 1-second response time.  According to Nielsen, our visitor will feel that he’s in control with Design A, and that he can access all of the information because it’s all “on the page”.  On the other hand, with Design B, he’ll feel that the computer is in control and is meting out the information to him.  The user is much more likely to prefer Design A because of these factors. 

This insight can help us make coding decisions, such as whether to load the information on every tab upon first entry to a page, or to load it only when the tab is clicked.  This can thus make the difference between a satisfying and unsatisfying final design, even if they both look identical.  Food for thought…

The huge difference between .1 and 1 second, part 1
November 14, 2009, 4:09 am
Filed under: confidence, visual design

Jakob Nielsen’s Oct 5 Alertbox describes the difference in user expectations about timeframes on the web.  While he discusses instances where users are willing to wait 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week, and even longer for specific types of results, the really interesting thing is his finding about the perception of response times of 0.1 second vs 1 second.

On the surface, it would seem that there shouldn’t be much difference in user satisfaction to have to wait 0.1 second vs 1 second for a page to respond.  It’s not like that extra 9/10ths of a second will significantly contribute to the time available to read a page.  But the interesting finding is not that one seems appreciably faster than the other.  Instead, it’s the subjective impression given by the time:  Nielsen found that a page that responds in less than 0.1 seconds feels as if you made something happen, whereas a page that takes 1 second to respond feels as if the computer is doing something to create the response.

Why is this so interesting?  We’ve watched users interact with webpages that have very similar designs at different sites.  In one case, both pages had a tabbed-structure on the lower half of the page, where clicking on one of the tabs kept the upper-half of the page constant but changed the lower-half of the page.  On the first site, the new tab was brought up immediately (less than 0.1 seconds), and on the second it was brought up in about 1 second (we of course alternated which sites the users saw first).  Users didn’t comment on the speed, but instead commented about how they preferred the first site because “you don’t have to go to a whole new page for each tab, like on the second site”.  In reality, neither design was taking the user to a new page.  But in the perceptions of the user, the second site was slower specifically because it had to bring up a new page.  Ie, the slower page implied that the computer was doing something, whereas the faster page implied the user was controlling the action.

This perception of having to bring up a new page then led to comments about the second site “being harder to navigate, since you have to go to all these different pages”.  The first site was deemed easier to navigate since “all the information is right there on the same page so I never had to navigate around” — even though they actually did navigate to the different tabs.

To me, this finding is incredibly insightful and helps explain how seeminly tiny time differences can have profoundly different cognitive impacts on website visitors.