Website Usability, or How to Communicate in Less than 7 Seconds

By Lauren Cheal

Design a usable website. This is undoubtedly a lofty goal, but one that is increasingly crucial to business success in publishing. Web usability is really a form of mind reading. First ask: what do users want and need to do on a website, and then follow those answers toward designing content that presents information in a way that guides users to the appropriate end goals. The International Organization for Standardization (1998) defines usability under the following metrics:

Efficiency: the level of resource consumed in performing tasks

Effectiveness: the ability of users to complete tasks using the technology and the quality of output of those tasks

Satisfaction: users’ subjective satisfaction with using the technology

These focus areas provide a simple place to start when evaluating any website. If a business goal of a certain company is to have a visitor sign up for an email newsletter, the web design must address the process the user undertakes to do this.

1. Is it efficient: does it exclude unnecessary steps like entering a phone number or other irrelevant information?

2. Is it effective: once they complete the online form, have they actually been signed up for a newsletter they want to receive?

3. Are they satisfied: does the user feel like they accomplished a task?

Asking these questions about efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction of experiences is the first approach to usability. Let’s take a look at each of these factors in more detail.

Efficiency: Better Make it Quick

Soothsayers and divining rods were once used to understand the world and human behaviour, but thankfully, modern science provides other more reliable solutions. Neuroscientists have come up with different ways of actually reading the human mind. The most common mind reading device in the field of web usability research is eye-tracking, which involves a camera following the eye as it moves around a display (science 1, soothsaying 0). Sirjana Nahal (2011) measured first impressions of websites using one of these eye tracking programs, and Nahal reported the following conclusions. The first is that users spent less time on websites deemed “unfavorable” (Table 4.8). Perhaps this is not a shocking revelation, but it underlines an important principle of web design and usability. People know what they are looking for, and if a website does not offer it, they will go elsewhere (and quickly, no more than the time it takes to hit the back button). The conclusion that users spend less time on “unfavorable” sites also reinforces the importance of connecting people with the content they are looking for. This idea will be further explored in the following section on effectiveness in web designused commercial water slides for sale.

Nahal also looked at the ways users prefer to view web content, and these preferences are broken down by design categories. The following table outlines those conclusions.

User Preferences for Visual Style of Websites

The information in the above table is in keeping with basic principles of design that apply to print materials like magazines, newspapers, and others. Where those print technologies have traditionally had barriers to access that require a relatively sophisticated knowledge of print production to make a viable product, the online world is a democratized, open-source environment that encourages access for all. This generalization is certainly debatable, but at the same time, how useable a website is can be directly correlated with how much attention is paid to these principles of design.

Another resource from Dahal (2011) is an assessment of how much time users fixated on different areas of a simple website during the visit. That information is summarized in the table below.

Top Areas of Interest in Website Viewing

There are two things worth paying particular attention to in this information. The first is just how little time is spent on any one element of the webpage. 6.48 seconds is the most time a website can expect to hold the attention of an average visitor. 6.48 seconds. Given this minuscule window, it is crucial that websites are built with absolute efficiency in mind.

Effectiveness: Help Me Help You

Steve Krug offers a very succinct guide to best practices for web design in his 2006 book, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (2nd Edition). The underlying argument Krug makes is that users will not do things on a website that take extra mental effort. Krug offers that users like obvious, mindless choices. A big part of what makes some choices more obvious than others is how they are labeled, and how the navigation of the site is laid out. Krug (2006) argues that the lack of physicality on the internet makes a webpage’s navigation system absolutely crucial to a user’s experience.

Website navigation should:

Help us find whatever it is we’re looking for

Tell us where we are

Give us something to hold on to

Tell us what is here

Tell us how to use the site

Give us confidence in the people who build the site

(adapted from Krug, 2006, p. 59-60)

With so many important tasks placed on the shoulders of navigation, a great amount of attention should be paid to how the elements of navigation (menus, sections, and utilities as a start) are designed and communicated. The application of conventions that communicate physical space and direct user actions is a major factor in how effective a website is from a usability standpoint.

Krug’s model also suggests that users scan websites instead of reading them. He compares them to the billboards we pass on the highway at 100km per hour. If it the information on the site can’t be read at that high speed, it is not an effective communication tool. One way to achieve quick and effective readability is to reduce the number of words on the page to focus user attention on exactly what you want them to do.

Krug describes how users interact with instructions on webpages: “The main thing you need to know about instructions is that no one is going to read them—at least not until after repeated attempts at ‘muddling through’ have failed. And even then, if the instructions are wordy, the odds of users finding the information they need is pretty low” (Krug, 2006, 42). Anyone who has tried to sift through an online help or FAQ page (here is an example of a wordy instruction page from the SFU Library) knows that this is absolutely true. It is a lightning-fast scan of the material, a quick attempt to click around and see if you can intuit your way out of your particular issue, and then a jump back to the help page for another nugget of information to try. Krug’s emphasis on the speed in which users can access the information they need mirrors the findings of Dahal, and many other usability experts and researchers. Milliseconds will dictate whether or not a person is going to use a website to do a task.

Satisfaction: Ahh. That’s the Stuff

The subtitle of Seth Godin’s 1999 book Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends And Friends Into Customers has become almost cliche in the internet marketing canon. The principles laid out in Godin’s book still hold, and point to a fundamental shift in marketing that came about because of how the internet changed how we talk to each other. Godin argues that in order to make a sale online, a company must ask permission using accepted web practices. If a business is serious about making an impact on their bottom line through a website (this impact is not restricted to sales of goods, and should be thought of any way that an online presence can enhance customer experience), serious attention to design and web usability is a good place to start. Providing a satisfying customer experience is about more than just giving them the product they want. Now, more than ever, it is about getting people involved in a community (that lives online, primarily), asking them to participate in the community, and having them help build a brand reputation on behalf of the business. This ability to engage in and with a community should absolutely be considered when designing a usable website.

Research into the factors that contribute to user satisfaction on websites helps point the way toward what a business should do to keep their customers. Kincl and Strach (2012) studied user satisfaction on 44 different educational institutions’ information-based websites by documenting satisfaction levels before and after the use of the websites. The researchers found that content and navigation were key areas in determining overall satisfaction, and that “users perceive high-quality websites if they achieve what they visited the site for. This success in user activities is subconsciously reflected in website assessment” (Kincl and Strach, 2012, p. 654). In short, people are satisfied when the website they visit does what they expect it to do. A simple sentiment that is anything but simple to implement. Another interesting finding from this study is the fact that users care less about what the researchers term “trivial” data like the colour of the site than “non-trivial” data like the content (Krug and Strach, 2012). That is to say, an average user would still rate their satisfaction of an unpleasantly-coloured site highly if they found the information they needed. This serves as a reminder that while attention to the look of a website is certainly important, in the end, users want substantive content (and to be able to find it).

The 3 Most Important Things to Remember about Usability

If you were scanning this article like a billboard, this is where your eyes should stop scanning and start reading.

1. Your website needs to communicate really, really quickly. In under 7 seconds.

2. Your website needs to be easy to use. It should be obvious where a user should focus, and then what action they should take at each step (and there shouldn’t be many steps).

3. Your website needs to give a user exactly what they think they need. A website is a promise, and it is up to you to define that promise and then to deliver on it.


Bibliography

“Website Usability.” 2008.American Libraries 39 (10): 32.

Dahal, Sirjana. 2011. “Eyes Don’t Lie: Understanding Users’ First Impressions on Website Design using Eye Tracking.” Master of Science, Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Garrett, Sandra K., Diana B. Horn, and Barrett S. Caldwell. 2004. “Modeling User Satisfaction, Frustration, and User Goal Website Compatibility.” Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting Proceedings 48 (13): 1508-1508.

Godin, Seth. 1999. Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends, and Friends into Customers. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Green, DT and JM Pearson. 2011. “Integrating Website Usability with the Electronic Commerce Acceptance Model.” BEHAVIOUR & INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY 30 (2): 181-199. doi:10.1080/01449291003793785.

International Organization for Standardization (ISO). 1998. Ergonomic Requirements for Office Work with Visual Display Terminals (VDTs), Part 11: Guidance of Usability. Geneva, Switzerland.

Kincl, Tomas and Pavel Strach. 2012. “Measuring Website Quality: Asymmetric Effect of User Satisfaction.” Behaviour & Information Technology 31 (7): 647-657. doi:10.1080/0144929X.2010.526150.

Krug, Steve. 2006. Don’t make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. Berkeley, Calif: New Riders.

Mathews, Brian. 2009. “Web Design Matters.” Library Journal 134 (3): 24-25.

Morris, Terry (Terry A. ). 2012. Basics of Web Design: HTML, XHTML & CSS3. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Snider, Jean and Florence Martin. 2012. “Evaluating Web Usability.” Performance Improvement 51 (3): 30-40. doi:10.1002/pfi.21252.

Somaly Kim Wu and Donna Lanclos. 2011. “Re-Imagining the Users’ Experience.” Reference Services Review 39 (3): 369-389. doi:10.1108/00907321111161386.

Other things to consider and discuss:

There are many institutions that attempt to categorize the “Top Websites” in the world at any given time, and Alexa is one of them. In addition to statistics on the most visited pages, Alexa provides information on category-specific website usage. For 2012, the top websites under the category “Publishing” were:

EzineArticles.com

Merriam-Webster

ArticlesBase

Audible.com

John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Springer

GoArticles.com

Wiley Online Library

McGraw-Hill

OverDrive

See the full list here.

This top ten list show varying degrees of attention to design and usability. The standouts are the two Wiley websites, which both have a clean look and a clear path for users to follow, and the Audible website, which does works well to present a product, give key information about the product, and direct the user to an action (to “Get Started” using the product). Audible is a subsidiary of another company that is very good at directing user flows in a publishing environment (Amazon, of course).

20 Top Web Design and Development Trends for 2013 – By Craig Grannell of netmagazine

AWWWARDS – Recognition & Prestige for Web Designers (a good place to look for inspiration and ideas).

4 comments:

  1. Great Paper Lauren!

    Despite the fact that providing a clean, clear, user-friendly website should be second knowledge to businesses, it is amazing how few actually have functional websites where I can get from A to B without getting frustrated. Although perhaps it’s just your paper that has illuminated the subject in such a clear, straightforward way for me that makes me think it should be easy.

    Regardless, you shed light on a topic everybody wanting to build a website should be aware of. The rapid pace with which people peruse the Internet these days is significant, and any website that wants to succeed in satisfying their customer’s needs should be aware of the 7 second rule you discuss. As you say, customer satisfaction stems from finding what you need successfully, which should be something every website strives to do.

    I did find myself thinking about the difference between educational websites, e-commerce websites and regular (i.e anything other than one of those two) websites while I read your paper. They should all strive to provide their customers with quick, satisfactory service, but I think many companies that know their audience WON’T leave their website don’t put as much thought into these factors. For example, take the SFU Library’s FAQ page, or a well-known shoe company like Aldo’s website. They know that the audience for their website largely has to be there. You can’t exactly use a different university library successfully if you aren’t a student at the library, and you COULD shop at a different shoe store (but they don’t have the pair of shoes you want), so these websites don’t necessarily put the focus on design and functionality that they should.

    My last point is that I really appreciated the extra content you provided at the end. Interesting and insightful!

    MacKenzie

  2. Great paper Lauren! I like how you boiled usability down to the basics. There’s a ton of research out there but it’s important to stick with your three fundamentals (efficiency, effectiveness, satisfaction). It would be a good way to structure usability testing as well.

    I really liked your billboard example – makes it clear how people scan content and the fact that it’s never linear but more “hunt and peck,” as Monique would say. This is a reason to make links visual (vs. a hover effect) to help people find what they’re looking for more quickly. I found a neat plugin that tracks hotspots where people hover & click on a site.

    You mention being familiar with conventions, and I think that’s super important. I was on a site recently where there was an open text field in the top right corner, where I expect to see a search bar, which was actually part of an ad – very frustrating!

    Your last bit of content shows how important it is to write content for the web, using lists, bold, and clear simple language. There are a variety of readability tests that can help you determine the grade level for your content (lower is better for everyone!).

    MacKenzie makes a good point about websites that have captive audiences. University websites should still put thought into their audiences and what they want to achieve (e.g., put the application deadlines up front).

    Lastly, a great resource for all things usability is the Nielson Norman Group. They have done very extensive usability research and the biweekly Alertbox has great practical tips. I had the opportunity to go to the Usability Week conference, which was incredible.

    Thanks for the insights!

  3. Thanks for the comments here, MacKenzie and Lee.

    MacKenzie, I think you make a really valid point about the different types of websites, and how their designs need to reflect the different audiences, purposes, and occasions that they are serving. It seems that some websites are able to “get away” with committing bigger sins against usability because the people coming to the site don’t have a choice in what they are accessing. I think it is important as website consumers to give feedback when we find ourselves on a site that works really well, to encourage those site administrators to keep working at it.

    And Lee, I really like that billboard comparison too. It really is a drive-by situation, not a committed reading experience like we expect with book. That is also a cool plug-in for WordPress that you found. It always feels like magic when we can actually see what people are doing on content we create, and that plug-in is a great example of that. Monique pointed me to a service called Crazy Egg (http://www.crazyegg.com/), which gives really detailed heatmaps and other ways to see how people are behaving on your site. Another good resource to keep in mind if you find yourself managing a site.

    Thanks again!

  4. You’re smart.

    I think the most important part about this paper is thinking about the fact that websites NEED to do exactly what we expect them to. When you read this, you think, “yeah of course.” But it’s actually something we don’t always think about beforehand, because we’re busy making it simple and sexy and all those other good (but less vital) things.

    Like most things in life, good site design is about managing expectations. We have to deliver exactly what people expect of us, based on multiple factors: our brand, our design, our mission, etc. It’s no good if an e-commerce site looks like a medical info site, right? We have to brand ourselves according, in part, to an established set of recognizable conventions.

    This is all even more important on the internet, where we’re immediately wary of any site that starts to do something unexpected. We don’t want to get spammed, we don’t want to waste our time. So while we all want to design a site that’s original, there’s something very important to be said for giving our audience exactly what they want.

    Oh, and one final point: doesn’t it seem like certain sites make usability difficult on purpose? I’m thinking of, mainly, the Government of Canada’s website, and student loans in particular. What a labyrinth.

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