The most important thing a webpage can do is be crystal clear about exactly what you can do on that webpage.
The best word to describe people when they are on the Web is "impatient." They are particularly impatient when they arrive at your website for the first time. They are asking themselves the essential question: "Is this a website I can actually do something on quickly and easily or is it just marketing?"
I had heard the following phrase from customers many times: "This is just marketing. I don't have time for this." On the Web, people are developing banner ad blindness, but they are also developing marketing-speak and communication-spin blindness. They see marketing as stuff that gets in the way, content that is annoying and unnecessary.
MarketingExperiments (site) is a really excellent research organization. It recently stated that the first seven seconds a person spends on your website are crucial to success. "Millions of dollars are won or lost in these first few moments a visitor spends on your site," it writes. It goes on to state that everything it has learned about website optimization can be summarized by these three words:
Clarity Trumps Persuasion
According to MarketingExperiments, there are three essential questions all pages must answer:
"The chief enemy of forward momentum is confusion," Marketing Experiments states. "One of the ways to overcome this inherent confusion is to hit the Back button." The Back button is to a customer what a soother is to a baby. It's very comforting to hit that Back button and get away from all that confusion.
""Clarity" tops the list of the key principles of design thinking identified by the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council," Alice Rawsthorn writes for the New York Times in January 2010. Rawsthorn references John Maeda and his concept of "thoughtful reduction".
The Web reflects a shift to service and, more particularly, a shift to self-service. To succeed in self-service you need a genuine understanding of and relationship with your customer. And you must also strive to give them a fast, simple experience.
I've just spent the last week in Seattle, the home of Starbucks. I've been told that Starbucks are investing millions in replacing their espresso machines. These machines are in perfect working order, so why are they replacing them? They want machines that are not as high, so that the server and the customer can more easily see and interact with each other.
The customer remains invisible to most web teams and that is the single greatest reason so many websites under perform. Understanding, relating to and developing empathy for your customer is one of the greatest drivers of clarity in communication and design. A lack of understanding of customers and a focus on the internal needs of the organization is at the root of most confusing, complex and verbose websites.
Get to truly know your customers and you are on the road to clarity.
One day the mobile interface will influence everything from the way we collaborate, communicate and design. According to Gartner’s five social software predictions for 2010 and beyond, the mobile web will change the way we think about user engagement, work spaces and the PC-based web.
Number four on the list focuses on the design of PC-based collaborative applications. More specifically, the prediction says:
Within five years, 70% of collaboration and communications applications designed on PCs will be modeled after user experience lessons from smartphone collaboration applications.
In other words, the mobile web will influence the user interface of the future. While at first glance, this may seem unusual, we are reminded that soon there will be more than 300 billion phones in use worldwide. Mobile devices, by design, are for communicating and collaborating at anytime, from anywhere.
As smartphones become more sophisticated and user-friendly, Gartner expects “more end users to spend significant time experiencing the collaborative tools” on these devices. If Gartner’s predictions are accurate, the implications on design and usability will be significant. We examine a few of them.
At present, the way a website looks on a mobile device is secondary to the larger screen they interact with on the desktop. Soon, however, (if not already) designers and developers will have to build sites separately or primarily for the mobile web. This means, that technology departments will have to actively testing on all advanced smartphones as well as established platforms for consistency and accessibility.
The mobile interface may change the way people work. As more applications are designed for mobile users to actively engage and collaborate, organizations may need to design tools that employees and customers can access more readily than a landline phone and with more features.
Gartner points out that “for some of the world, [mobile apps] will be the first or the only applications they use.” It used to be that a website was an organization’s window to the world, and thus the most important part of a user’s interaction.
It may be that a user’s first interaction with an organization or product is through a mobile device or application, making it essential that companies start simplifying interfaces so that they are consistent across platforms or build multiple entry points to guarantee they are accurately represented.
Of course, a lot can happen in five years. The Gartner predictions serve as a reminder to think ahead. To remind oneself of the evolutionary nature of user behaviors can help organizations, designers and developers anticipate changes and build for the future, not the present.
2010 is proving to be about user experience. Even in the past few weeks, we have covered the trends and needs associated with improving usability online, from web design to promoting transparency.
With the upcoming MX: Managing Experience conference that will focus on usability and user experience best practices, we'd like like to revisit the three key variables Jared Spool once indicated as being critically important to the field.
In San Francisco from March 7-8, MX: Managing Experience will work to improve customer experiences on the web, mobile and more. The featured keynote at MX is none other than Jared Spool, founding principal of User Interface Engineering. Spool, a contributing writer for CMSWire, has spent much of his life researching usability and experience design.
While he will no doubt captivate the MX audience with insights about usability, we’d like to revisit the three key variables Spool once indicated as being critically important to the field. He wrote about them in 2008, but they still resonate and remind us that while emerging trends may confound us, applying tried and true methods can help us all develop new solutions.
These three crucial questions can shed light about how you and your team work to address issues of vision, feedback and culture. Spool says “teams that answer these questions well are far more likely to create great experiences than the rest of the pack.”
While we all work towards a goal, it’s imperative to make sure that everyone not only understands the goal, but is also able to articulate it in such a way that illustrates how the user will interact and complete the transaction.
Looking ahead five years ensures that the actions go beyond the “immediate reactive requirements and starts considering what a great experience could be.”
It goes without saying that if you’re focused on user experience, learning how people engage online requires observation. If you’re not watching, you can’t advance their experience. From usability tests or field studies, it’s necessary to spend at least two hours observing the current experience.
Spool believes that problems become opportunities for improvement. Establishing a culture that accepts failure, as well as appreciates it as a way to learn about the users and their needs, can learn best from their mistakes.
Ultimately, by making the learning process explicit — offering rewards and acknowledgment for finding bugs — the culture starts to look for it.
If you don’t know what’s wrong with a user experience you can’t fix it. Improving behaviors starts with the vision and leads to observing users’ actions and results in finding and fixing mistakes. There isn’t a cookie cutter for approaching usability. Furthermore, you can’t begin to understand others’ behaviors without defining what you want them to be.
As we dig deeper into usability design in 2010, the questions posed to us nearly two years ago are still relevant.
Personas are a flexible and powerful tool for user researchers. They're also one of the most misunderstood. When done well, they ensure the team focuses on the needs and delights of their users.
Like other effective user research techniques, personas deliver confidence and insights to the team. Personas help the team make important design decisions with a thorough understanding of who the users are, what they need, and when they need it.
For the last few years, we've studied how a variety of design teams have tried to harvest the benefits of persona projects. We've explored several wildly successful persona projects and many that fell far short of their goals. We now better understand where the magic lies with personas — what the essence of a successful project is.
You don't get the benefits of personas for free. While we saw many teams reap new insights within the first few hours, the teams that saw the most out of it made a long-term investment.
Our research showed timing is a critical element in the success of persona projects. The team has to be in a place where they can proactively tackle design challenges. If the team is dealing with a firehose-stream of feature requests and enhancements, the project won't get much traction.
At the same time, the organization needs to be ready to make the users' overall experience a priority. We noticed this often comes after an experience disaster — some external issue that brings the overall experience, not just the features and technology, into the limelight.
For example, when a major e-commerce web site suffered a failed redesign launch, reducing sales by 35%, their senior management finally understood the need to know more about how their customers shopped. Before the devastating launch, the management's focus was all about features and slick visual design, but because of the revenue decrease, customer experience was now on everyone's mind. Personas were now a priority.
Because personas take time to develop and integrate into the culture, they require involvement at all organizational levels to be effective. Like any important endeavor, if the organization can't give the team the time and resources, then the persona project will probably fail. When that happens, it's likely the organization is just not ready.
We were surprised by how easy it was to jumpstart a persona project. We came into the research thinking successful projects had to start with an intensive research effort, costing big bucks and eating up the calendar. We couldn't have been more wrong.
Many successful teams started by culling information the organization already had in their heads. Using techniques that collect this information, such as Tamara Adlin's Ad-Hoc Persona workshop, these teams get working personas very quickly.
These quick-start methods are often fun and inspiring, as they focus the team on users’ needs from the very beginning of the project. A key element is involving senior management and stakeholders from the get-go. Their participation sanctions the work, helps everyone think from a user experience vantage point, and simplifies the persona ranking process.
At first, we were wary about constructing personas from existing viewpoints instead of from fresh research of real users doing real things. We thought it would create a design trying to solve problems that don’t encompass real users needs.
However, almost every team that used the jumpstart method went off to do more robust, formal field research, visiting users and observing real issues. As the new information came in, they changed their personas along the way, showing management where the internal beliefs differ from the real world. And, because the team involved senior management in the first pass, it was easier to sell the more rigorous research.
Our big surprise was discovering this: A team using the same, incorrect personas is better than each member designing for a different user, where some hit the mark and some don't.
Having the same personas to work with, even if they're off the mark, gives the team a common language. Since the successful projects ensured their teams had subsequent exposure to real users, correcting any wrong beliefs was easy. When everyone started on the same page, they found it easy to talk about how new information needed to change their understanding.
A common fixation amongst the failed persona projects we studied was the look and feel of the description document. The teams believed they needed a great looking description for each persona for its adoption. These teams invested hundreds of dollars (sometimes thousands) to produce slick posters, screensavers, and slideshows, describing the intricacies of each persona.
Studying the successful projects, we learned these description documents aren't important at all. These teams often had very bland, non-descript documents describing each persona. Instead, we found four success criteria: internalizing the personas, creating rich scenarios, prioritizing the most important personas, and involving all the stakeholders and influencers.
Internalizing the Personas: Each team member had the same personas in their head. As we talked with each person, they could describe the personas as if they were their favorite story characters. They had internalized the details — making them real.
Creating Rich Scenarios: The team members could talk through the personas' scenarios in detail. They could share each persona's context, the desired scenario outcome, and the approach the persona took to get there. It was clear the team had talked about these scenarios often, because everyone would tell us the same details, much like when people share their favorite fairytales.
Prioritizing: Interestingly, the successful projects also had something we hadn't originally looked for: a clear understanding of each persona's priority. We'd always thought the importance of a persona would shift depending on the designer's current focus. However, amongst the successful teams, they knew which personas were most important and which they could sacrifice when compromises had to happen.
Stakeholder Involvement: The most successful projects made sure this knowledge extended beyond the primary design team members, to all the people who could influence the design. When we talked with stakeholders and influencers outside the core project team, such as business line managers and the company's lawyers, it was clear they were also well versed in the personas, their scenarios, and their priority. They told us of frequent meetings and memos where an in-depth analysis of a persona's scenario influenced important business decisions.
We've found there's a simple test to measure whether a persona project will be a success: Walk up to any team member, stakeholder, or influencer and ask who the most important personas are. If they can give the same story as everyone else on the team, you have a winning project on your hands. Slick posters and screensavers aren't spreading this understanding — it's frequent, in-depth discussions at practically every point in the project.
We've long believed personas were a valuable design tool. We were initially disheartened by the many failures we'd seen, but now that we've had a chance to study some successes in-depth, we can see teams realizing the promised benefits.
The trick is to not rush into it. Ensuring the organization is at the right place in their user experience maturity is critical. Using a jump-start technique works, but the team needs to follow up with robust research. Finally, keeping the personas alive through frequent discussions, especially around key decisions and trade-off conversations, makes them a valuable design asset.
TechRadar recently delivered what they and top experts consider to be key trends for the next 12 months in web design. At the core, is an increased focus on usability. Smashing Magazine sought to promote better user experiences with storytelling, encouraging designers to capitalize on users' emotions. The bottom line: by focusing on usability, a better website can be built.
Plagued by a turbulent economic outlook, web designers are finding it in their best interest and those of their clients to scale back on building micro-sites and head-to-toe redesigns, and focus more on improving the overall usability of their websites.
According to TechRadar, the advances the industry has provided have also enabled "clients to take advantage of the web's efficiency and modularity" perhaps making usability and functionality all the more important because they now know what to expect.
As well, better usability can help web designers assert their authority about how the web is used and how it can translate into revenue and brand loyalty for companies. But usability, as we often find, just makes sense.
In 2010, functionality incorporates elements of common sense and viability. Integrating third-party enhancements into a site are often more user-intuitive and free, saving designers lots of time and money spent recreating the wheel.
Video and photos are best to be showcased using well-known distribution channels like Flickr and YouTube, while Twitter and other social media APIs can be integrated within sites.
Meaningless (and cumbersome) visual animation will be replaced by beautiful interaction that works to promote specific user engagement behaviors. Pretty and functional interactive displays will be essential to the user experience.
Smashing Magazine says,
storytelling and user experience have common elements — like planning, research, and content creation — that can be utilized for effectively developing an experience.
Putting a face with a name essentially helps users relate to personas and makes them want to contribute to the story, either helping to shape it with their own words or how they choose to share it with others.
Blending emotions with design can help steer users in the direction appropriate for your website, ultimately improving functionality and customization.
In the last few months, we've covered the measures taken by the W3C on how to handle inaccessible websites, CSS3, HTML 5 and the semantic web, among others. As designers and developers adapt to changing web standards, they must also be mindful of anyone using browsers that don't support cutting-edge technologies.
Web standards don't just target traditional websites, but those that are mobile-based, as well. In the interest of time, money and accessibility, creating mobile-specific sites may be less important than designing better accessible websites altogether.
Whether it's designing apps for the iPhone or working with open source technologies, designers and developers alike need to get skilled. Customers are already demanding cutting edge applications and enhancements. Being able to make educated decisions about designs that promote new technologies, web standards and good usability will be a challenge, but ignoring it all together, won't make them less relevant.
Overall what design and usability intend to do for websites in 2010 is very similar to what the underlying goal of any website should be: making information easy to find, navigate and engage.
Good complexity leads to greater convenience, choice and options. Bad complexity leads to frustration, wasted time and wasted money.
Dimitris is a small business owner in Greece. According to a TIME article, he estimates he has paid "about a fifth of his revenue in bribes — to tax collectors, health inspectors, police and other officials". Small firms "are essentially obligated to conduct business this way," he says. "There are so many legal barriers to conducting business that they'll shut you down otherwise."
The Mystery of Capital by Hernando De Soto (see Amazon.com) is one of the most impressive books I have ever read. In it, De Soto comes up with a variety of reasons as to why some countries succeed while others fail. A core reason is corrupt, complex bureaucracy. The government acts as a parasite. It forces you to go through a whole host of unnecessary and complex steps if you want do anything.
If you want to buy land, set up a company, renew your driver's license, whatever, you will be forced to go through step after complex step. This is bad complexity and it exists so that you will require 'advice' from the corrupt official. Of course, a nice bribe will allow the official to ignore all these unnecessary steps, but then you're in their trap because they can force you to follow the letter of the law if they want to.
Many organizations have enemies within. Departments and divisions care only for themselves. They will introduce complexity that makes the organization as a whole more dependent on them. In fact, the way modern organizations are structured rewards bad complexity.
Examples of bad complexity can be seen everywhere. Marketers and communicators don't care if they make a website more difficult to navigate once they can push their message. Programmers will add more features to a product, not because these features are needed, but because new features show that the programmers have been doing something. Legal people don't want you to understand legal documents because that would diminish their importance.
Bad complexity creates dependence. Good complexity creates independence.
One of the things the Web reflects is a movement away from the production of products to the delivery of services. In a world of production the thing itself often dominates, but in a world of service the satisfaction of the customer dominates. In other words, in a service-driven world, the measure of success is not what you have produced, but rather how satisfied your customer is.
A service culture hates bad complexity. But we have a long way to go. I recently spoke to a manager of a website and told them there was a problem with one of their customer's top tasks. "That's not my problem," he replied. "That's an application. The IT department look after that."
Web teams need to take responsibility for the customer's experience on their website. But that's a major challenge because the organization is often working against the web team. Websites are often difficult to search and confusing to navigate — bad complexity — because the organizational units care more about themselves than their customers.
At the root of the problem is the fact that senior management encourages and rewards this bad complexity behavior by setting organization department/unit-based objectives, rather than customer satisfaction and task completion-based objectives.
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.