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The road to a user-centred web design

The road to a user-centred web design

A prime example is Trade Me - the key to its success is that it has always put the site user – the customer – at the centre of the equation.

“We’ve spent thousands on that website, and its bringing in no business at all. None of our customers seem to use it – we may as well have written it in a foreign language!” No one should be saying this kind of thing about their organisation’s online presence, yet this problem is depressingly common. Often the problem is the process used to design the site. Every variable was seemingly taken into account – except the most important one: “What do our customers actually want from our website?”

The solution is a new way of stating the questions that form the basis for web design: A perspective known as ‘user-centred design’ (UCD).

Web initiatives are now a commonplace strategy for business and government alike. Increasingly websites form the centre of organisational communication and marketing strategies. As a result, most of these organisations have got over the thrill of simply having a presence in cyberspace.

Now people are asking the hard questions, like:

• “What’s our website really for?”

• “How do we use the web to make our business grow?”

• “Are our customers satisfied with the experience of using our site?”

In the early days of web/business integration it was often enough to just decide that a website was a ‘must have’. Few businesses actually made the effort to find out whether their customers really wanted a website, and if they wanted one, what they would actually want to use it for. Those days have well and truly passed now!

A classic example of an New Zealand site that succeeds through using the UCD perspective is Trade Me. One of the keys to Trade Me’s success was that it has always put the site user – the customer – at the centre of the equation. The site was designed to easily give customers what they wanted – not what the management team or the web designer wanted them to have.

Many sites present information that the owners think is important, but that ‘real people’ - actual users of the site – find unhelpful: as unhelpful as if it was written in a foreign language.

UCD focuses on user needs and goals. It will be one of the essential characteristics of future net success. Many studies have shown that for every dollar spent on UCD, businesses have gained 10 dollars in increased revenue.

Usable sites have a number of key characteristics, including:

• Their navigation is intuitive – it can be understood ‘at-a-glance’

• Their content is written specifically for online delivery, not simply re-used from hard copy marketing collateral.

• Your customers don’t have to ‘learn’ how to use the site – they can immediately see how to ‘do’ everything they need to.

• ‘Usable’ site content is often internationalised, so it can be easily read by those for whom English is not a first language.

• Accessibility guidelines are followed, so that all customers can use the site, even those with poor eyesight or low dexterity.

• Online help is visible on the screen where it is needed if users do become confused.

• All the site features work properly, regardless of what browser software is being used.

How can we know what users want?

Usability consultants, also known as information designers, can design usability into new sites, or evaluate existing sites and make them more usable. A key strategy is to ‘test’ sites with real users. Test subjects are asked to interact with sites and their reactions are observed. If the methodology is right, this can be done cheaply and quickly, with as few as three participants.

A good first step is to assess the users’ actual experience of using a site by means of an expert evaluation. An information designer reviews the site and uses the information gained from this to interview both the site owners and some actual users. This process reveals what the site owners’ actual goals are, as well as what the users’ really need. From this we can see where the two sides’ intentions and expectations fail to match. A written report outlines both findings and proposed solutions to specific usability concerns.

A usability test expands on this approach; the expert evaluation is used to identify ‘usability concerns’ with the target site. The test consists of asking up to half a dozen representative users to try looking for specific information or performing specific tasks while using the site. The usability consultant observes the test with a video camera and notes where groups of users are having trouble or misunderstanding the site. From these observations a report can be written recommending improvements that will enable people to enjoy trouble-free interactions with the site under review.

“User Experience”: What is that, and how can we get some?

The key to designing websites that work for their actual users, is to get an understanding of who those users are, and what they will want to use the site for.

Central to UCD is ‘user experience’: an understanding of how the site will appear to, and be used by, real people. A picture of the user experience is built on understanding the key characteristics of the intended audience for a site, and the tasks that they will need to carry out while visiting it.

Once they know exactly who will use a site, and what they will want to do, web design professionals can ‘engineer’ a site so that all the navigation, headings, content, and graphical material are optimally designed to help those users carry out their tasks. When a site user can visit a site for the first time, and find all the information they need without confusion, and then carry out all the tasks they need to do without failing: that’s when we can say that the site has a ‘great user experience’.

Creating a great user experience requires more than the traditional skills valued in the era we now call ‘Web 1.0’. Back in the day, skills in HTML programming and the ability to manipulate digital images and typography were seen as centrally important. Now we can argue that all of the following are equally essential:

A team with a great range of talent: Visual design, interaction design, information architecture, writing and web engineering are just few of the different skill sets required to create a great online experience.

A clear focus on what is important specifically for this site: Trying to do everything for everyone is sure-fire recipe for failure. The tighter the focus, the easier it is to understand and deliver a great user experience – so be crystal clear about identifying your markets, users and objectives.

A clear and detailed picture of what your typical users will be like: Identify your users, then try to get inside their heads and figure out what drives them. Often it helps to develop descriptions of imaginary but typical users – called ‘personas’. Understand your users, so that you can be their advocate.

A well-planned process: Do your research. Draft a design. Test it with some real users and get their feedback. Then do it all over again as early and as often as possible.

Alignment between the goals of the site’s owners, and the users: Make sure your organizations goals and web strategy are aligned with your customers’ needs and expectations. To do this, you need to have done your research into what your customers actually want. It’s not good enough to just give them what you think they want. Often web designers will create imaginary ‘scenarios’ in which they picture user ‘personas’ interacting with the site.

What’s needed to implement user-centred web design?

Gone are the days when designing a website was left to one person who was ‘good with computers’. Now we know that a broad range of talents are needed, and they won’t all belong to one person. Great websites are made by great teams.

Just like the building profession features civil engineers, architects, interior designers, builders, plumber, engineers and a multitude of other trades, web interface design requires a range of different training. These include professionals skilled in:

• Information Architecture: The art and science of organising and labelling web content to support usability and findability. This includes ‘content design’ or online writing – a specialised skill set in itself.

• Visual Design: Visual Design is concerned with arranging all the elements of visual expression and style to create an experience. It spans fields such as graphic design, typography, layout, colour theory, iconography and photography.

• Interaction Design: The discipline of designing interactive experiences. These require time as an organising principle, and interactive design is concerned with managing a user’s experience interacting with a web interface in ‘real time’.

• Web Development: This is the actual ‘code crunching’ involved in creating the functionality behind a site – often including an interface with online databases, security and access management, and facilitating the easy revision of site content by non-professionals.

As well as using personas and scenarios, as mentioned earlier, user-experience designers also use techniques such as the following in order to produce successful UCD outcomes:

• Sketch out workflows: Use the written scenarios to create potential workflows – or sequences of tasks - and explain what the users will get in reward for their efforts.

• Create wireframes: These are very simple ‘paper’ prototypes designed just to show workflow through sketches of successive screens. The “rougher” the appearance - the more feedback you’ll receive, as users oftentimes don’t want to criticise something that already looks too finished.

• Test: Designers may initially use colleagues to test concepts. Just as long as they are not involved in the project development process. Then they test with actual target users. You don’t need a statistically valid sample – the most critical issues will rapidly be identified within the first half-dozen users.

• A/B Testing: Successive testing may be carried out with different designs. There’s more than one way to skin a possum – so testing different approaches can help us to see which works best. Often the best outcome may be a combination of parts from more than one concept.

Increasingly web design companies incorporate team members who possess all these skills, or they ‘out source’ parts of the job to consultants. One advantage for clients in this ‘out sourcing’ can be that they might employ company A to do the web design, and company B to evaluate the user experience. This works as a system of ‘checks and balances’ rather like an accounting audit.

This is where considerations of ‘well planned design process’ come into play. While web development is fairly new, the architectural process is ancient – and well-established as a model. In a typical building project, before the first block is laid – the following happens:

• The architect identifies the target users, learning more about their needs, desires and budget.

• He sketches some sample designs, maybe making a model or two.

• He shows them to the users, and they give feedback.

• The architect revises the designs adding more and more detail to each revision.

Steps three and four are repeated as often as necessary. The key consideration is that once construction begins, making significant changes becomes very expensive – both in direct material costs and in time delays. So it’s critical to identify the right design as early in the process as possible, while still reviewing the design against built progress as the design unfolds. And while it always seems tempting to shorten the design process, inevitably skipping this cycle of research, design and test inevitably extends the actual construction process and degrades the ultimate ‘user experience’ – whether the project is a cathedral or an airline booking website.

As awareness of the ‘usability revolution’ spreads through the business and public sectors in New Zealand, demand is growing for web design and review services that implement user-centred design. The key to this is in understanding ‘user experience’ – and the way to do that is through careful planning, and the employment of a broad range of professional skills to realise those plans.

Bruce Russell is a lecturer at Christchurch Polytechnic, where he is the programme leader in the Graduate Diploma of Information Design. He consults on user-centred design with Wired Internet Group. Reach him at russellb@cpit.ac.nz and http://www.wired.co.nz/blog/default.asp

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