Several months ago, Luke posted an article titled, “Is This Possible?” talking about the limitless capabilities of the Internet. I’d like to take this idea one step further. The real question isn’t “Can we do this?” but “Should we do this?
When it comes to website design and function, there are a lot of great strategies, services, bells and whistles out there that may not translate well to your online marketing goals. So before you add that spinning globe animated gif to your homepage, open a Twitter account or post the full text of an article you found on Google onto your blog, ask yourself these three simple questions and evaluate if the online feature will enhance or annoy your users.
- Could this feature annoy, confuse or frustrate your users?
- Is the time needed to develop, implement and maintain the feature justifiable?
- Is this feature against the law or in violation of a Terms of Service agreement you’ve accepted?
Whatever you’re planning for your online media should be tested against all three of these before you make that final decision to go with it. In this first article of a three-part series, I’ll start with the number one reason why you should maybe reconsider your plans before you implement them.
Websites That Suck
As a usability expert, it’s my job to know how people interact with technology – whether that involves programming the clock on a DVD player or buying a product online – and finding ways to make those actions easier. You already know that you want to provide the best experience for your customers, whether you’re interacting with them in person or they’re browsing your website. But the Internet is a new and rapidly changing landscape and although you know your business inside and out at your brick-and-mortar establishment, your expertise may not translate well to the digital environment of the web. That can easily translate into miscommunication or frustration for your potential customers.
So how do you know if you’re annoying or frustrating your website’s visitors, and how do you find out what they actually want to get out of your site? Well, one of the easiest ways to find out is to evaluate what annoys or frustrates you. The Golden Rule still applies in the Digital Age.
One of the first sites I came across years ago when I started researching website usability was webpagesthatsuck.com. I strongly recommend that anyone considering updating or creating a website for their business take 15 minutes to look through this site. Not only will you see examples of websites that suck, but you’ll also get an explanation of exactly WHY they suck. Maybe the content is too hard to find. Maybe there are too many “cool” features. Whatever the taboo, it’s important to understand how to avoid these “can we do it?” pitfalls in your own website.
Websites That Don’t Suck
Another important task you should undertake before planning or changing your website is to look at sites you like and evaluate exactly WHY you like them. Some things I bet you’ll come up with include –
- It’s easy to find what I’m looking for. Translation: It’s easy to navigate/ the site is organized well.
- It doesn’t have too many distracting flashy things. Translation: The design is simple, clean, uncluttered and doesn’t include flashy spinning animated things.
- It allows me to do what I think it should. Translation: The interaction is predictable and simple for common tasks, such as contacting the business or viewing a specials circular online.
- It doesn’t take forever for pages to load, even on a slower internet connection. Translation: Files are compact, code is clean and site content is portioned out across pages well.
- It offers me more than I expect (for example: services offered include more than an address and a phone number to contact the company.) Translation: It allows you to get in touch with the business to give them feedback via comment forms, email, forums, live chat, Twitter, etc.
- I keep coming back to it because it changes often. Translation: The content is kept fresh and timely – it may include company news, regularly updated specials or offers, articles on topics I like to read about, etc.
- It doesn’t make me think. Translation: Important tasks are thought through from my perspective – for example, it doesn’t force me to do complicated multiplication when I just want to buy x amount of products.
So now that you’ve learned what you shouldn’t do, and thought a little bit about what you like in regards to the websites you do frequent, how do you go about building (or improving) your own site?
Take a Step Back – early and often
Speaking from experience here, the best thing you can do after evaluating what generally does and doesn’t work on the web is to take a step back and look at your website from your customer’s point of view. Keep doing that early and often as the design and development of the website progresses. In web development terms, this is called taking a user-centered design approach to your website. Why should you do this? Well, according to usability.gov there are several very compelling reasons, and all of them have to do with saving you time and money:
- increase productivity and customer satisfaction
- increase sales and revenues
- reduce development time and costs and maintenance costs
- decrease training and support costs
How much time and money can you really save by taking this approach? Well, for example, “…spending $60,000 on usability engineering throughout development resulted in savings of $6,000,000 in the first year alone” for IBM (from http://www.usability.gov/basics/usasaves/index.html).
So how do you evaluate your usability? First, slow down and organize a plan for your site. Clearly define your goals, but also spell out your users’ needs and goals. According to usability.gov, a few key questions you should ask include:
- What are your agency’s primary business objectives and how do they relate to the Web?
- Who are the users of your Web site and what are their tasks and goals?
- What information and functions do your users need, and in what form do they need it?
- How do users think your Web site should work and what are their experience levels with the Web site?
- What hardware and software will the majority of your users use to access your site?
If you work with a web development company, they should be able to help walk you through these and some other questions that should be answered BEFORE the first pixel hits the server. Believe me, I’ve worked on over 100 sites in the past couple of years, and the ones that work most effectively for our clients and their customers are the ones that took that little bit of extra time at the beginning to have their goals clearly defined. From there, you should solicit feedback from your customers and website visitors. Consider doing some formal usability testing, especially if you have e-commerce or other specific task-oriented actions that you want visitors to complete on your site. Again, your web development team can help you with the specifics, and may even be able to offer suggestions on areas to improve without setting up a formal testing session.
Your customers come first
They’re the whole reason you’re putting up a website in the first place. Why would you want to drive them to a competitor by frustrating or annoying them? By just taking a little extra time to learn about what your customers want out of your website BEFORE you create or modify it, you can save yourself a lot of wasted time and money in the log run, and it will also pay you back in dividends with happy customers down the road.
Stay tuned for the next article in the series – time and money constraints as a reason why you need to ask “Should we do this?”.