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Back to the User: Creating User-Focused Websites

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In: Articles

By Tammy Sachs

Published on October 15, 2002

Since our earliest interviews with Web users, enormous progress has been made in shaping sites that inform, engage and build lasting customer relationships. Imagine searching for information without Google; finding a rare collectible without eBay, figuring out what ails you (at 3 A.M.) without WebMD, or getting the news you want delivered to your desktop without your favorite online newspaper.

We've all come a long way. That being said, when we observe target users trying out Web sites in our consumer lab, some common problems persist. This article summarizes five key lessons learned from listening to and observing all kinds of users (from teens to seniors to doctors) try out all kinds of Web sites at various stages of development. Our goal: to provide some overarching guidelines about bringing a customer voice to site design.

Lesson 1: If you want to know what people want, ask them.

Many marketers--even of well-established brands--forget the basics of marketing and usability research and treat the World Wide Web like the Wild Wild West, not exploring up front:

Over the years, we have conducted post-launch research for many organizations that launched their sites without conducting any marketing or usability research--a treacherous process known as "Launch and Learn." The outcome: costly revisions implemented after alienating and frustrating untold numbers of customers and prospects.

We have also worked with many organizations that first expose target users to their Web sites in usability testing--after considerable time, money, and emotional investment has been made in a particular site architecture, feature set, and look and feel. This often occurs right before launch when there is little chance for user feedback to be integrated--and at great cost. Sound familiar?

To fast track the development process and infuse initial design ideas with a user mindset, we suggest conducting a few carefully constructed focus groups at the very outset. These are some of the questions we've found that focus group research can help answer:

If done well, focus groups should generate insights that help designers build a robust prototype of the site that comes pretty close to nailing what users want. It is at this point that a site is ready for usability testing.

Lesson 2: If you want to know if they can use your site, watch them do it.

Many marketers launch sites without knowing if anyone other than their developers can use the site to:

Despite all the progress we've made on the Web, how many of us still today experience:

Either these sites have not done usability testing or the testing they've done has not accomplished its goal--to make sure the people who use the site can easily and successfully do what they came to do.

The following are tips for how to conduct usability testing that ensures that your users can--and want to--use your site.

Lesson 3: Your homepage is a 30 second window of opportunity. Don't be shy.

Many homepages are so cluttered that it is difficult for site visitors to figure out basic information such as what the site is all about and who it serves. One of the things people tell us about Google is that the sheer simplicity of the homepage gives users the impression that their search will be successful.

While your homepage may need to contain a great deal more information than Google's, there is a lesson to be learned from their approach.

We've found that if you're lucky, users will stick around and try to figure out your homepage for about 30 seconds. Therefore, their first impressions are critical. Users should immediately be able to:

We find that users consistently correlate where you place "stuff" on the homepage with its importance:

Just like with a newspaper, we as Web site users have been trained to select "in" some information and select "out" others--and we've created strategies for navigating lots of information. It is critical in laying out your homepage not only to eliminate what is extraneous (or can be introduced later) but to put the most important content and functionality in the high rent district!

Lesson 4: People don't read, don't make them.

We figure about 10% of the population at most are true "readers." You occasionally encounter them in usability testing. They read every instruction, caption, copy point, etc. They make informed decisions about what button to click on and what path to take. It is important to note that they are a very small segment of Web users. The rest of us:

In order for your site to succeed, it is important to design for the "non-reader":

Most importantly, when designing your interface, consider that non-readers will not always take the path you intended for them. So, save them from the garden path. Your overall site architecture should be consistent with a clear breadcrumb trail that lets them easily and intuitively get back on track.

Lesson 5: Search and You Shall Find... Hopefully!

In many a usability lab, you give a user a task to find or buy something and the first thing they do is to search for the Search box. That is, if they can't immediately find what they want on your homepage and, for some, even before they've given it a shot, they start typing what they want in your search box.

As such, Search is probably one of the most critical things to get right on your site. Here are some guidelines we've developed based on what users have told and shown us about what makes or breaks the Search function.

As much as people love the Web for the access it offers to a huge database in cyberspace, most people will tell you that their Search experience is, on the whole, a very frustrating one. And, what is worse, when Search fails the user, they often equate the fact that they can't find something with the perception that you don't offer it.

The silver lining here is that you can truly differentiate your site and build a relationship with users by offering a Search function that provides them with the results they seek.

What we've seen consistently over time is that companies--small and large--who bring target users into the development process at key junctures get tremendous payback for their investment. The result:

Most importantly, having users provide information about their needs, expectations, language and logic enables developers to think like users--vs. copywriters, graphic designers or programmers--and, in so doing, create powerful user-driven site experiences.

The concepts from this article are taken from a book by the same name: Back to the User: Creating User-Focused Websites by Tammy Sachs and Gary McClain, Ph.D. (New Riders Press: 2001). Also see Digital Web Magazine's review of Back to the User: Creating User-Focused Websites.

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Related Topics: User-Centered Design (UCD), User Experience


Tammy Sachs is President of Sachs Insights, a qualitative research consultancy whose goal is to bring a customer voice to Web site, software, and interactive voice response design. Tammy leads a staff of skilled strategists and researchers who conduct focus groups, usability research, ethnography, and site assessments. Prior to founding Sachs Insights, Tammy was a researcher and developer at Citibank working on delivery of online banking, yellow pages and shopping, way before the Internet. Prior to that she was a senior planner at Ogilvy & Mather. When not trying to make technology "fit for humans," Tammy searches the globe for antique dragons and listens to old time music.

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