Getting the basics right

With all the who-ha of the e-government project well behind us, presumably we can all sit back and stop worrying about the web. After all we’ve bought nice shiny content management systems from salesmen with nice shiny teeth and a very sharp suit who assured us that they know what they are talking about. All we have to do is fill in the boxes, press the button and out pops a fantastic website. Wrong.
Putting together a website is much more than making sure there is a bit of text and a form for every service your organisation. You have to make sure that people can actually use the site when they get there. To do this an understanding of how real people actually use websites is needed.

Being in the know
The best-known champion for proper usability research is Jakob Neilson. His website is a fund of information for anyone interested in learning how people really interact with on-line information. As well as accessing a huge stock of articles you can sign up for a bi-weekly newsletter with the latest research in it. Unless you buy the full reports or decide to attend once of the courses or conferences he runs, it’s all free.
Neilson argues that if you want to understand users, the one thing you must never do is ask them what they want ( ). Obviously, that is the complete opposite of what a normal local authority would do, but there is a lot of sense in the suggestion. Show someone a series of web pages and ask them what they think and the answers will be based on how pretty a picture you have served up. You will get comments on the colours or the pictures or the typeface used for titles.
A web page isn’t a picture though, it’s a tool. To use an analogy, you can look at a nice new shiny car and love it, but if you get in it and find that the brake and accelerator pedals have been swapped compared to other cars then the chances of you handing over any money are low – it’s not just what the product looks like, it’s how it works that matters.

The reality
To get an idea of how basics can go wrong, here’s an example from Warwickshire’s website. We user tested this by taking a stand at a large local event. A couple of terminals were set up and the public invited to use them to complete some simple scenarios. These were based on the sort of questions people come to our site to answer.
The question posed by one scenario was “When are the Easter school holidays?” It’s the sort of thing that appeals to everyone. Either you want to know when the school holidays are because that’s when you get to go, or you want to know because that’s when you don’t want to be on holiday.
Anyway, looking at the picture you are probably thinking that most people clicked on the nice clear link on the right hand side that says “School Holiday Dates”. Let’s face it, we couldn’t have made it more obvious.
But you would be wrong. The scenario ran 56 times over three days and everyone went for the blue underlined link that says “General School Information” then surfed from this to the answer. Easy enough but not as direct as hitting the picture would have been.
Why? Because those being tested were adults and adults have learned to “tune out” pictures. That’s why we have pop-up adverts, we all got used to ignoring the banners so the adverts had to become more obtrusive to get noticed.
One of the interesting outcomes of our testing was that half the people who were asked ignored the content of the home page and used the search engine. This was a pity as there were some new features on the home page we were keen to test, but we can’t force people to use the site in the way we wanted unfortunately.

Goal-driven visitors
If you think about the way you use the web, this makes sense. How long ago did the novelty of simply seeing web pages wear off?  Nowadays people on-line are goal-driven. They have a question and want the answer. To that end their eye is drawn to all those inviting links and not to the beautifully crafted text or pictures of smiling chief executives that you carefully place on the page.
Therefore hyperlinks matter. Don’t hide them from your visitors. During our last redesign, the company that came up with “the new look” decided that pale grey was a good colour for unvisited links. To be honest, we knew that wasn’t right but dutifully tested the colour scheme anyway, then changed back to the standard colours once our opinions were verified. What works for a designer with 20/20 vision drawing a picture on a huge Macintosh screen doesn’t necessarily work when you try and use it on a normal sized PC display.
We also ban graphic only links, including image-mapped graphics such as clickable maps, insisting that a text equivalent is provided as well. This technique improves both the usability and accessibility of the site because anyone using a screen reader set to only read links gets more information than would otherwise be the case.
At the end of the day, no amount of sharp suited sales talk can make up for knowing, and caring, about the basics. The web is full of gizmos, but at its heart are users with questions they want answered. As long as we focus on them, we won’t go far wrong.

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