Saturday, 29 May 2010

Involve stakeholders in usability testing

A short article from Jakob Nielsen on the value of involving your stakeholders when you conduct usability tests. "Selling" usability to colleagues can be a struggle so this is well worth a read.

...problems [arising from involving colleagues] are inevitable, but you can alleviate them once you're aware of them, as well as warn the other stakeholders about them.

In any case, the downsides are far outweighed by the benefits of inviting colleagues and executives to observe as many user tests as they can.

Steve Krug says much the same thing in his books, and one thing from "Don't make me think" that really resonates with me is - getting colleagues to watch reduces the need for a 'big honking report'.

I've written a few of these in my time and the sad fact is, most don't get read. A bit like most website content really...

Involving stakeholders in user testing - article by Jakob Nielsen

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Ineffective websites harm productivity

A two part article by Gerry McGovern that focuses on intranets, but the principles apply equally to any website or online tool that staff are expected to use as part of their day-to-day work.

Gerry talks about the hidden cost of doing nothing. It's pretty obvious that making things easier to use will increase staff efficiency and speed things up. But more than that: doing nothing to improve things that are blatently poor affect staff morale and this is closely linked to levels of customer satisfaction.
When you make life harder for your employees you reduce efficiency and affect morale-a double whammy. Employees hate these clunky, horrible processes that make their worklife a drudge... Employees are not dumb. They get the message of what senior management really thinks about them and their time.
In this piece, Gerry draws on a couple of short research papers:
  • The High Cost of Doing Nothing - Ken Blanchard
  • Saved Time, Saved Value - Celerant Consulting
Both can be downloaded as PDFs at the end of Gerry's articles.

Increasing employee productivity: Time is (still) money (Part 1) - article by Gerry McGovern

Time for intranet leadership: Time is (still) money (Part 2) - article by Gerry McGovern

Accessibility tools, articles & advice

In the process of looking for a tool to check the accessibility of a form the other day, I came across this list of online tools and browser plugins.

In addition to web page validators, there are a number of other useful tools on the list that give you an idea of how you pages will work for someone using a screenreader or someone with colour blindness.

Top 10 accessibility tools - article by

The Abilitynet site contains a wealth of articles, advice and resources for anyone looking to make their web content as accessible as possible.

Abilitynet website - online accessibility specialists

The section on legal compliance in particular caught my eye.

What the law says about accessibility in education - an overview by

On-site search podcast

Jared Spool talks about the on-site search feature, how to assess its effectiveness and what needs to be done to improve it.

In a nutshell, a website's search feature is a vital tool to visitors and delivering useful results isn't something that happens automatically. It requires monitoring of users' search behaviour and ongoing tweaks to ensure that all key search terms turn up something worthwhile.

Jared talks through examples and experiences on a wide range of sites, and covers:
  • Why are your users searching your site?
  • What separates the best search experiences from the worst?
  • What can be done to improve search results?
  • How can you tell Search is succeeding on your site?

On-site search tips by Jared Spool - podcast to download or listen online

Personas Q&A podcast

Jared Spool in conversation on the topic of personas - composite characters based on real users, created to help the website development process.

He has some useful hints and tips both for those starting out, and for those looking to improve how they work with personas.

Robust personas questions & answers - podcast to download or listen online, featuring Jared Spool in conversation.

This session was recorded in 2007 and it's worth noting that Jared seems to have subsequently softened his view a little on the level of research needed to inform persona development. I previously blogged a conversation of his with persona expert and author Steve Mulder.

Jared Spool on personas

Monday, 17 May 2010

Free online usability testing tools

A short article giving an overview of 3 usability testing sites that offer free services. All can be upgraded at a cost. I've played with 5 Second Test before, but not come across Usabilla or UserPlus.

Needless to say I'll be giving them all a whirl as soon as the opportunity arises.

If you've any experience of any of these, please leave a comment. Be good to hear what folk think.

Free tools for usability testing - article by Marisa Peacock for

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Page download time - usability findings

Fascinating findings about user perceptions of page download speed and how it's connected to a website's ease of use. The data is pretty old now, but interesting nonetheless. Technology changes quickly but people don't.

In this podcast, Jared Spool talks about some really interesting findings his company User Interface Engineering almost stumbled across in the process of researching something else. They found that users perceived some sites to be slower than others, even when in reality, the complete opposite was true. There was however, a strong correlation between a user's success with a site and their perception of how fast pages were loading.

When things are going well time flies; when you're not enjoying yourself, time is more likely to seem like it's dragging.

The truth about page download time - UIE podcast to download or listen online

The truth about download time - article by Christine Perfetti and Lori Landesman

Why speed matters - Jakob Nielsen
So while Jared and co are telling us that if the user experience is good, download times aren't so critical, Jakob Nielsen counters with the impact of slow page load times on our attention and ability to focus.

I don't think Jared and Jakob are necesarily contradicting each other here. They both agree slow is bad. It's just that Jared is talking about the user's perception of download speed, while Jakob covers the reality of page load time.

Short-Term Memory and Web Usability - The human brain is not optimized for the abstract thinking and data memorization that websites often demand. Many usability guidelines are dictated by cognitive limitations.

Website Response Times - Slow page rendering today is typically caused by server delays or overly fancy page widgets, not by big images. Users still hate slow sites and don't hesitate telling us.

Response Times: The 3 Important Limits (excerpt from Usability Engineering 1993 - Jakob Nielsen)
  •  0.1 seconds gives the feeling of instantaneous response
  •  1 second keeps the user's flow of thought seamless.
  •  10 seconds keeps the user's attention.
  •  After 10 seconds, they start thinking about other things, making it harder to get their brains back on track once the computer finally does respond.

Follow up
A funny coincidence - just week or so after writing this.

We recently implemented some changes to the content management system interface to make orientation easier and one critical task quicker to do.

A colleague was telling me how much she liked the interface tweaks and how great it was that the system performance had been tuned up. Only thing was, the system is operating at the same speed it always has...

5 second test podcast - content usability

Jared Spool in conversation about this really simple and effective content usability technique; what it is, how it evolved and some success stories.

I'm a big fan of Jared Spool's 5 second test technique and have used it to appraise content on numerous occasions. I also promote it at our Writing for the Web sessions. The beauty is in its simplicity.

In this podcast, Jared and Christine Perfetti discuss:
  • Why 5-Second Tests should be used primarily to test a site’s content pages
  • Why 5-Second Tests aren’t effective on most Home Pages
  • How to conduct this test with your users
  • What some of the common mistakes design teams make when conducting a 5-Second Test
  • How to recruit users with this technique
  • How to combine 5-Second Techniques with other types of tasks 

5-Second Usability Tests - Podcast to download or listen online, plus transcript 

I've previously blogged a great article that covers much the same stuff:
Checking content scannability: Five second tests by Jared Spool

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Remote user testing tools reviewed

A nice little case study and review of two remote testing tools currently on the market: Usabilla and Loop 11. Even if you're not thinking of using these tools, it's worth a look just for the narrative of how the writer approached the study.

Usabilla and Loop11: Taking remote research tools on a test drive - article by Juliette Melton for UX Magazine

I've taken a look at Loop 11 in the past too, but am still to find the right project to use my free trial on.

Loop 11 online usability testing tool

Free wireframe and prototype tools

10 free tools reviewed - some online, some applications to download.

I'm certainly going to have a play with one or two of them - the plug-in for Firefox in particular.

10 completely free wireframe and mockup applications - reviewed by Speckyboy Design Magazine

The tool that comes out on top is Mockingbird. I've played with this in the past and recommended it too.

Free online prototyping tool - Mockingbird

Search usability presentation at Scottish UPA

This month's session on Wednesday 19 May is a virtual presentation - "Leveraging Search & Discovery Patterns For Great Online Experiences" by Peter Morville and Mark Burrell.

I've seen a few virtual seminars from and they've been pretty good. And Peter Morville is a well-respected search specialist, best known for co-authoring an industry-standard book - Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (also known as the polar bear book).

It's at the Scottish Enterprise building in Edinbugh. Free for UPA members, £10 for non members.

Scottish Usability Professionals Association May 2010 event - Full details and booking form

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Homepage design and purpose - McGovern vs webstats

In a recent article, Gerry McGovern talks about how the number of visitors arriving at the homepage is decreasing. This prompted me to dig into the University's webstats to see if our site matches his findings.

Gerry asserts that more and more are Googling (or the search engine of your choice) right into the content they want.

His conclusion is one I agree with, and reiterates his usual message with a slightly different slant. Your website is all about the tasks people do on it.
Your customers don't want to get to your homepage. At best, the homepage is merely a series of signposts that will help them head in the right direction. Unfortunately, too many marketers and communicators are destroying whatever credibility their homepages have left with customers by filling them with useless graphics and meaningless words.
But the stats he quoted at the outset of the article are what really caught my eye and prompted me to take a look at our webstats at the University. Gerry says:
Another technology website had roughly 10 percent of page views for the homepage in 2008, and by 2010 it was down to 5 percent. One of the largest websites in the world had 25 percent of visitors come to the homepage in 2005, but in 2010 only has 10 percent.
So I took a look at the University homepage, considering data from people outside our network only - so no staff or current students who might have it set as their browser homepage.

Over the past year, views of the homepage accounted for just over 11% of all page views. Looking at unique page views, the percentage was slightly higher (a little over 12%) but this is to be expected as this figure includes all the visitors who land on the homepage and then leave immediately - what Google Analytics call the bounce rate.

So far so good, the University is in line with the kind of thing Gerry is saying. But then I thought, what if every visit to the website definitely began with the homepage? What would the percentage of homepage views be?

The average number of page views per visit was a little over six, so if every visit started at the homepage we would expect the percentage of homepage views to be about 17%. Not a great deal more than the reality.

I then picked on a few individual months of the past year when traffic patterns would differ, based on the academic cycle. The stats were pretty much the same.

So, yes the percentage of homepage views compared to the whole isn't particularly high, but would we really expect anything else?

Finally I took a look at points of entry into the site. And this surprised me considering the stats so far. The University hompage accounted for 53% of all landing pages. And the variation across the months I considered was greater. From mid July to mid September the figure was higher (56, then 59%), while last month (mid March to mid April) the figure was lower - 48%.

And what about other areas of the University? I repeated the exercise with an important academic website, and a service website with a large external audience.

The academic website's stats were a slightly higher than the University as a whole, while the service unit's figures were a good bit lower.

My guess would be that the business of the service unit is better known to external audiences than the academic unit. Visitors to the service website would be more likely to know precisely what they wanted and therefore could be more specifc with their search behaviour. More people dipping into the academic side of our business don't know what they need to know. And if you don't know precisely what you want, you're less likely to search and more likely to navigate, getting educated along the way, as it were...

But hey - it's all lies, damn lies and statistics. This is all based on what Google Analytics collected for us, and we don't cover every last page the University publishes. Not by a long way. When it comes to what people do, and why they do it, we're just making presumptions when we use stats. You only really learn when you watch people in action.

Which brings me back to Gerry's main point: use the homepage to help people get where they want to go.

Too often marketing and communication behave like needy children. Or like the tailors telling the CEO Emperor about how beautiful his new clothes look. On the Web, content may be king but remember that the customer is dictator.

The decline of the homepage - article by Gerry McGovern

Email newsletter usability - UK politicial parties reviewed

Jakob Nielsen analyses the email newsletters produced by the Tories, the Liberals and Labour in the run up to the 2010 UK General Election.

Measuring them against the guidelines he developed through previous studies, they all come out pretty much the same, with Labour a little behind. A bit like the likely election result itself then...

UK election email newsletters rated - article by Jakob Nielsen

On a related note, I previously blogged an interesting bit of research done in 2009 about usability testing of UK voting systems. Bad usability getting in the way of democracy is a scary thought, but it's been happening...

Usability of ballot papers

Paper prototyping risk management case study

The day-by-day experiences of a usability team working with a software development team. The article covers their activities over 6 days, as the development team got to see first hand how end users found their software, and what they needed to change.

By using paper prototyping and usability testing, the development team managed their risks by focusing on them earlier in the project, while there was still time to make changes. We had started the process by having the team pick those areas which they had perceived as most critical to the success of the next release - the areas of highest risk.

Using paper prototypes to manage risk - article by Carolyn Snyder for

Help & support usability

This short account of usability research findings around how staff interact with various forms of help and support was more reassuring than enlightening for me, but if you're involved in this kind of work, it's worth a read.

Like accompanied surfing, researchers basically just watched people doing their job and looked for patterns in successful and unsuccessful use of help and support. The help and support covered manuals, online help, and helpdesks amongst others.

...the documentation was only part of the picture of how people do their work. Perfect documents don’t help users succeed unless the [development] team accounts for all these other factors. Because they made these site visits, the teams came up with some changes that showed great promise for improving users’ success.

Being involved in development, training, support and customer liaison I see the consequences of decisions made at each stage: how development decisions and training effectiveness determine the level and nature of support required; how the quality of training and support provision affects how people perform in their jobs and therefore our ongoing relationships.

When these functions are independent of each other decisions are taken that are right for one team only, or based on a misconception of how end users use (or want to use) a tool.

Docs in the real world - article by Carolyn Snyder for