How usable is your web site?
I got to thinking about the notion of usability in web site
design after three independent events this week. First was
a call from one of my neighbors new to the Web. He was in a
panic when his search for something yielded over 2000
hits: how was he going to find anything? Then a recent
article in the usually excellent Web Review by Keith
Instone caught my attention. Keith tracked several users by
sitting behind them as they navigated about the Internet
Travel Network's site. Each user is given a series of tasks
such as buying a ticket and finding out information such as
the name of the Lexington airport. Finally, I had spent
some time with Microsoft's Expedia buying tickets for the
summer family travels.
Up until this week, I was very high on Expedia. I liked it
the most out of all the travel sites that I have used to
purchase tickets. For example, Expedia uses email
intelligently to send not only quick purchase
confirmations, but updates about changes to my itinerary
and also travellers' advisories based on my destination
country. But that all changed this week as I tried to book
tickets for the family vacation. I had to make two lengthy
phone calls to complete my purchase.
First was the call to American Airlines directly to track
down the cheapest fare. One portion of the trip was going
from New York to Los Angeles, a route that has zillions of
possible carriers and flights. The choices overwhelmed
Expedia's fare algorithms and only by calling American did
I find that by taking a noon flight I could save about $100
per ticket. I have found that if call in off-hours and
am patient and polite, the phone reservation agents will
spend the time to help you out, whether it is to find the
best fare or best route. Then was spending over an hour on
hold with Expedia customer service when I didn't get email
confirmation of my ticket purchase due to some glitch. And
I won't get into details about not being able to access the
site due to "network problems" nor how slow it is over a
In Keith's article, not one of his testers got the lowest
fare by the way. But I digress. This essay isn't about
booking travel via the Internet, but figuring out how
usable your site is. Here are some things to consider.
Does your site have contact information that is accurate
and complete? Many web sites lack the basic contact
info such as postal address, phone and fax, and email on
their home page. If you can't track them down outside of
cyberspace, do they really want your business? Not to flog
Expedia, but only until you get to the ticketing screen do
you see the phone number to call them. Don't hide this stuff
under five levels deep in a back corner. Be proud of the
fact that you are easy to find.
- How hard is mundane factual information to come by? If
you have every tried to track down the current version of a
product, its price, or what operating systems it runs on,
you know it can be a frustrating experience. You would
think things like this would be fairly easy to find, but I
can't even tell you how many sites completely lack these
basics. And how many press releases (whether they are
printed or electronic) lack this stuff as well? Make
someone who isn't the webmaster responsible for keeping
track of this information and keeping it up to date too.
- Searching. There are two parts to better searching.
First, as my neighbor found out, is making things easier to
find from the various search engines. This is more art than
science, and I have periods where I am good at typing in
the right keywords and periods where either nothing turns
up or else thousands of irrelevant articles appear. I don't
know why this is the case.
Second is to improve searching on your site itself,
assuming that people have arrived at your front door. This
I can talk about: How good is the search function, and how
many screens does it take you to get to it? Are there any
instructions on how to enter multiple keywords (whether you
separate them with commas or spaces, surround terms with
quotes or whatnot) nearby the big search button? Can you
restrict it to particular areas of the site (such as the
press area, or by date of the document)? I don't always
want to search the full site. For example, Microsoft has a
huge site but a fairly good search tool to find something
of interest, especially if you already know the title of
the document you are looking for.
- Breadcrumbing. Can you get back out of the site the way
you came by using the browser navigation features (history
or back buttons)? Sometimes, you want to move from one
section of a site to another without having to go back to
the home page. If you don't have any navigation icons on
your particular page, then you should be able to use your
browser to move around. Maybe, maybe not.
I used to think that it was important to put navigation
buttons and frames around each page on a site. Now I am not
so sure. But the layout and design of your site should be
fairly obvious to someone no matter where inside they land.
You might want to check your logs and see the most frequent
starting spots and then examine those pages to see if users
can figure out where to go.
- Good tables of contents and indices. What separates a
good reference book from a bad one is good indexing, and
being able to find something quickly. How many of us have
read the entire encyclopedia? But reading individual
articles is another story. Web site designers need to
realize that not everyone is going to start at the front
door and proceed in an orderly fashion through the site.
Most of us want to get in, grab a few pages (probably print
them out) and get on with our lives. Keep the number of
screens and sub-screens for contents and site organization
down to the bare minimum. And put links to both the TOC and
an index on your front page, so that others can quickly
Now all of these things should be common sense, but it is
amazing how many sites lack most if not all of the
elements. A good place to read more about usability is
Alertbox, written by Jakob Nielsen of SunSoft.
And if you want me to do a usability scan of your site,
drop me a note and I'll be happy to put together a
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entire contents copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc.