Design it right the first time

Surfing the Web can test any user’s patience. Poorly designed sites abound, and users have little time for them. Your team may have created the best content in the world or the sexiest design, but if people find your site difficult to use, you will lose visitors and the perception of your company may suffer.

Corporations invest vast amounts of capital and resources into Web design without truly considering the needs of the user. Statistics from Cambridge, MA-based Forrester Research have revealed that Fortune 1000 companies in the U.S. are spending between $1.5 million to $2.1 million every year on rebuilding Web sites that do not function properly.

With responsibility for the success of online projects resting on the shoulders of CIOs and marketing managers, there is little tolerance for designs that get in the way of the task at hand – whether that’s making a sale or persuading a user to click deeper.

The term usability is thrown around frequently without a clear definition of what it really means. The trouble is that the term itself can have so many meanings depending on the perspective of the individual. What one person finds perfectly acceptable and easy to use on a site, another may find terminally frustrating. The differentiator is understanding your users’ ability and expectations as you develop the site.

Usability is simply about advancing the user experience. The people who visit your site are on a quest for information, and the site that is visually engaging and quickly serves up the correct information will be the site that they return to on a regular basis.

User-Centred Approach

The key to improving a site’s usability is to adopt a user-centred approach to design. Early testing is the best insurance policy against poorly designed sites.

“You have to get users involved early in the development cycle. Customers define quality on the Web, so the sooner you can get them to do that for you the better,” says Morgan Earl, Chief Navigator of Top O’ The Mast and a marketing liaison to iUnits, a division of Barclays Bank Capital PLC. “If you’re not incorporating usability, you are gambling with your money.”

Spending time to develop a requirements report can uncover flaws before initiating development, resulting in tremendous savings of both time and money. A requirements report states the specific items that must be accomplished for a project to be complete. This can include outlining content, functional specifications, etc. However, it can also be used to define the target audience, placing that information within the same context and of the equal importance to the more technical details of a project.

Research is the Key

Quality research is the backbone of any successful design project. Researching the needs of users is essential for gaining an understanding of what the user wants to experience. This often involves observing users in their natural settings – a process called “contextual inquiry” – basically, watching users at work in their offices, performing both Web and non-Web tasks, and then designing the site to meet those needs.

When conducting onsite research, the goal is build a profile of the end user that can be readily understood and referred to by the design team. Observing users as they use your Web site can help you to identify the obstacles and difficulties inherent in their current way of working.

One of the skills of an effective CIO is the ability to avoid the mistakes that others have made. This principle is particularly useful in design, as there are standard “rules of thumb” that serve as a litmus test for the effectiveness of an initial design. Your Web development team should always include a usability specialist or trained designer with experience in identifying potential problems in a design.

The Usability Lab

For Web sites with high user interaction, task-based testing in a controlled lab setting is the most reliable way to know if a design is going to meet the needs of the user. A usability lab generally includes a computer console that users sit at while video cameras record their interaction with a design; in the other half of the lab, behind a one-way mirror, developers can watch the tests and see what is effective, efficient or needs correcting.

A professional researcher facilitates testing within a usability lab. Typically, a sample group of six to eight users are evaluated to provide enough information to identify recurring patterns. The job of the researcher is to objectively gather information on the user experience and compile this data into a report for the design team.

“Testing in the lab is invaluable for perfecting navigation and content. What you learn can make the difference between ‘so-so’ and ‘so great’ design,” adds Morgan Earl.

Usability testing can also be accomplished on a smaller scale by limiting the size of your sample group. Even introducing the design to a handful of users and asking them to use the site will provide you with useful feedback. It is important to test with real users that will provide constructive comments.

Sample Users

Sample users should always be provided with a list of tasks to accomplish, to provide a baseline for comparing the results of user testing. As in any sample group, test moderators are present to encourage comments by letting the users do the talking, but they should never lead the test subjects in their questioning.

Advancing the user experience should always be a priority when managing a design project. As team builders, CIOs might consider appointing a user advocate that will represent the needs of users throughout the design process. This individual’s responsibility is to ensure that a minimum level of usability testing is conducted and that the results are incorporated into the final product.

We often say that design is the single largest expenditure that technology managers know the least about. If you think about usability in terms of overall return on investment, a general rule is that every dollar spent on usability will save a minimum of ten dollars that would be otherwise be spent on rebuilding your design. For budget conscious CIOs, this decision is a no-brainer.

The good news about usability is that it is easier than you think and the payoff is enormous. User-friendly sites not only save money in the end, but are also essential to building an intuitive surfing experience, promoting site re-visits and building word-of-mouth.

Cathy Devlin is the founder and President of Devlin Applied Design, an Envoy Group Company, based in Toronto. Since founding Devlin in 1994, she has been a champion of user-centred design to clients across North America.