Want Better Web Design? Watch Real Users
I’ve been in web development since 1995. For me, and many of you, it’s easy to forget that people don’t have the computer equipment to use the web sites and Internet applications we build. I’ve always found it interesting that TV show web sites are Flash based and loaded with images and video. It’s as if they are built for an elite group of TV watchers and everyone else doesn’t matter.
At a large family gathering, where family and friends of the family came to eat and relax at the shore, someone asked what I do for a living. When it was discovered that I help companies make better websites, I was bombarded with feedback about their experiences. The most outspoken people were over 50 years old. They were smart, not afraid of computers and had up to date computers and Internet connections. They were more likely to have time to browse. Most of them belonged to online communities.
What bothered them were poor user interface issues. They couldn’t find what they wanted without a lot of hassle. Pages were too busy, too long or too boring. Navigation was the area they all agreed on as being the worst. Drop down navigation menus? Hate them. Shopping cart checkout navigation frustrated them. They weren’t so concerned with privacy as much as they just wanted to get in, accomplish their task and get out without resistance.
Experience the user experience
This summer my husband and I packed our 3 kids and 2 dogs into our motor home for a trip to Florida. As Chief Navigator, I relied on my cell phone for directions. When the GPS chose to work, and after figuring out how to use Google maps on my phone, we were able to follow the tiny blue dot and know what direction we going. When I needed to call ahead to one of the campgrounds we booked for a night, in every single case their web site was a user nightmare. Something as obvious as a phone number and address on the homepage was missing from all of them. Their navigation was not designed for mobile devices. Every task took a long time and incredible patience.
As the head webmaster for my town’s Little League baseball web site, I learned a lesson a few years back. I used to upload team game dates and scores in the Excel spreadsheet format that each coach emailed to me to post on the site. However, several parents wrote to say they couldn’t access the spreadsheet or it took too long to download for them. So I began to offer two versions. One is the spreadsheet converted into an html page and the other is the actual spreadsheet. I label each link so they know which one to choose.
User interface design is for everybody
I began to wonder at the wide gap between those who have been using the Internet for the past 15 years and those who are new to it. When I ask a site owner for their site requirements, they typically don’t have any or they are limited in scope. Most will say, “We don’t care about dial-up users”, but I know for a fact they still exist. Most will say they that accessibility is not in the plan or might be in the future. That decision has cost them another part of the population, including someone who has a broken hand they would normally use to guide their mouse. Nearly everyone forgets to design a site that can be accessed by mobile devices. They don’t realize that Flash and PDF files require a plug-in to work and most cell phones are not enabled.
There was a time when we used to say, “Build it and they will come,” regarding web site design. But those days are long gone. Today’s environment is competitive. In the case of retail sites, even a search on an SKU number can bring up 30 different sites selling the exact same item. Split tests are done for link labels or different layouts. I tend to flunk them. For some reason, I vote against the majority. I’m that tiny percent who liked it the “old” way. I didn’t need snazzy or big. But, because the test results indicate most users wanted snazzy or big, this is what the design team will make. They’ll do this even if those votes came from people who would not ordinarily use their web site.
I’ve long felt we’re missing something with the way we go about user testing. There’s a lot of advice to go out and get 5 random people, show them something and get their feedback. Companies pay for random people. I would rather spend time out in the field, with targeted users who have used the site or fall into the targeted group of intended users. I would prefer to watch them in their natural environment. That would mean being in a motor home, with restless dogs and a kid playing the electronic keyboard while another one is yelling that he can’t concentrate to read and watching the mom struggling to find directions somewhere in South Carolina using a cell phone with a screen smaller than a Hershey’s candy bar.
Understanding the true user experience, for me, means actually going out and experiencing what your site users are going through. Since this is not always a practical option, stand back from your project. Visualize how your friends, family, neighbors, customers in certain circumstances or those with limited incomes, Internet access and computer experience might respond to your design. There is so much we have yet to learn about the real day to day Internet user experience.
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