Keeping up with the Jones

There is a new secret agent named Max, and this one is far from the bumbling incompetent Maxwell Smart of television fame.

WebCriteria Inc. of Portland, Ore., has created Max, a user experience test dummy program for the Internet. The program is designed to visit customers’ Web sites, gather information and relay it back to WebCriteria so it can create site profiles to be compared to competitive offerings.

The SiteProfile service, with Max as an integral part, was launched about a year ago. WebCriteria’s goal was to develop a way to calculate user experience so companies could build more streamlined and functional Web sites.

According to Alistair Williamson, CEO of WebCriteria, “the goal was to find a way to describe the experience on Web sites in such a way that people can actually build sites that [better] deliver that experience.” He said today’s companies are finding it difficult to measure and improve corporate sites. “They are looking for a systematic way to approach that problem and that is where we come in.”

Williamson explained that turning a visitor into a customer is really a combination of what you have to offer and how you offer it. The first is easy to document. The latter, the user experience, is more difficult. If your Web site gives users a bad experience, customers will leave regardless of what you offer.

Williamson cited a March 2000 NetSmart survey that found difficulties navigating a site to be the number one cause of user frustration.

WebCriteria’s evaluation is a two-part process. Say a company like Delta Airlines wants to compare its site to Travelocity and United Airlines. WebCriteria sends Max to the three sites, and it navigates through each, hitting every link. Max then returns to WebCriteria with a set of data which is brought to a processing centre where the company builds (in this case) three multi-dimensional models of the sites. The information gathered includes the total number of pages, where the links are located on each page, how many graphics are on each page and how big they are.

Analysis is done on the data, rather than on the live site itself, in order to eliminate factors such as Internet congestion, which could skew the results.

At the shop, WebCriteria performs the second part of the process. Max starts at the beginning of the site and he travels through it. Max views the site several different ways, including seeing and reading the site. It checks how easy it is to find things on a page, glances at things, reads others and measures it all in perceptual cycles (of eye movement).

Another way Max makes measurements is through thinking or cognitive cycles. When people surf the Web, they are required to use a great deal of short-term memory. The Web is linear, so a good deal of navigational frustration has to do with remembering where you are in relation to where you were. The fewer steps to get from A to B the easier it is. This is essentially what Max figures out.

Williamson says the underlying behavioural model was developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center back in the 1980s. “Like all good technology companies, that is where we go looking for brilliant ideas.”

Barry Parr, director of consumer e-commerce research at International Data Corp. in Mountainview, Calif., sees a market for this technology. “There is definitely a market for usability testing and I think one of the keys to making that really work is coming up with standardized methodologies so it can be done in a reasonably cost-effective manner,” he said. But he does see some limitations to using only machines. “There is still no substitute for watching a human being use your site – you will see things that you will not see in any other way,” he said.

Williamson agrees and said Max is evolving, since customers are not a static group. There are different navigational traits between experienced and non-experienced users and even different traits shown by the same user on different types of sites, he said.

For Ernst & Young, WebCriteria’s SiteProfile is an integral part of its own solutions for its customers. Ernst & Young’s Internet Scorecard is basically an integrated approach to e-business, according to Andrew Osten, a consultant with the company’s e-commerce core team in Toronto.

He said they go into a company and assess everything from its e-business strategy to the usability of its Web site.

“We used WebCriteria for the usability section component of the Scorecard,” he said. “It is not just the only product we found (to do what we needed) but it specifically hits things we needed to do.”

He also liked the fact the report comes with industry benchmarks, so you can compare your results with more than just a few specific competitor’s.

Though companies can do a one-time snapshot of their site, WebCriteria also has subscription rates.

WebCriteria ( SiteProfile with Max starts at $US1,000 for a snapshot. Subscription rates start at $US3,000.

WebCriteria in Portland, Or., can be reached at (503) 225-2991.