Published 23 November 2010
Crimes against creation
Chefs slave away tirelessly to achieve great dishes, constantly tasting as they’re going along, and make sure that each plate looks its best when it leaves the kitchen. But can you imagine any chef who doesn’t find out if the customers actually enjoyed their meal?
Hoteliers tirelessly strive to give their customers the best service possible, with clean rooms and friendly service. But they always encourage guests to give feedback on how they could improve the hotel.
Shops have experts who design the layout, carefully position signs, and know how to place products in positions to maximize their effect. But they constantly watch shoppers trying to find out which products get the most attention, what can be improved, and how they can maximise profits.
So why do so many companies (of all sizes in all sectors) build websites without testing how they work in the real world? Why do they release sites but take no follow up action? This isn’t to say that they don’t care about their sites. On the contrary, I have seen teams spend hour upon hour fiddling around with text and images trying to make them ‘perfect’. I have heard MDs and CEOs demand changes to sites because ‘experts’ have told them how to improve their site. I have sat in meeting upon meeting where analytical statistics are wheeled out to prove or disprove a reason why a certain page is or isn’t working as desired…
… and I have sat in meeting upon meeting beating a drum for usability studies – the concept of which is watching real people using the site in real-life scenarios. It’s about finding out how real visitors move around your site and how they go about performing the action that earns your company money. Through usability studies, beliefs such as “we’re building the site for our typical user” and “we’ll do this because that’s how everyone uses websites” can be exposed as utter nonsense.
The most common myths about usability studies are that they are (a) expensive, (b) time-consuming, and (c) difficult to organize. Doing some usability research is better than doing nothing (the latter being what 95% of companies conduct). Even if it’s only getting 3 of your friends or neighbours to look at your site, it will benefit you.
All you need to do is ask them to complete a standard task (one that you expect your visitors to do on a daily basis) and get them to tell you what they’re thinking as they try to do it. You’re not asking them for advice on how to improve the site; you just want them to talk you through their thoughts on what they are looking at, what they are contemplating doing next, and why they choose a certain route, link or button. However, it is important that you don’t lead or influence them; just sit and watch what they do. For a great beginner’s guide to usability, pick up a copy of Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy. Trust me, once you do one of these studies, you will be hooked and want to do more – they are a fascinating insight into your users. And you will be amazed that you didn’t see the obvious flaws in your site.
To give you an example, I asked 3 people to use www.oxfordwine.co.uk with the task of buying a certain type of wine: what I presume is one of the core activities for the site. They’re a sizable business and have a good annual turnover with a number of shops around Oxfordshire, UK. They stock some great wines and, if you’re passing, they’re worth a visit. Here is a handful that became evident from watching 3 people use their site in less than 1½ hours:
- The top half of the homepage is an image of a cellar (and the company’s logo) which remains constant on every page. This large banner means that users have to scroll to find content on all pages. Unsurprisingly, users found this annoying after the first couple of pages.
- If you click on this top banner, it does nothing; all users expected it to take them back to the homepage (which happens on nearly every other site).
- The homepage scrolls and scrolls and scrolls. It tells us about 4 different tasting events at the top, then special offers, news of a new store, awards, the new store (again), a wine they have labeled using a design by a 13-year old, vineyard visits. Oh, and a link to their Facebook page. Users found the homepage cluttered and confusing (because they couldn’t define the useful parts from the waffle), therefore read very little of any of it.
- The top toolbar is under this huge banner. Users expected it to be at the top of the page and spent far too long looking for it.
- The toolbar also has 14 tabs. The fifth one is about what I’d consider is the company’s core proposition: “Buy wine”. Users spent far too long reading all the options and trying to find the “Buy wine”. Bizarrely, the other tabs that took priority over buying wine included:
- Services: including running tastings, free glass hire, party planning, cellar planning, wedding consultations, personalised Armagnac labels, and even that you can “Buy your favourite wines on our web shop – easy secure and convenient”. Users saw the amount of text and clicked back to the homepage or the next tab in the toolbar – they read very little, or none, of the text.
- Events: tasting events – the first half of which have already been and gone. Users thought that this page was bizarre and they immediately dismissed it and clicked back to the homepage or another tab in the toolbar.
- Features: a vast array of information, including profiles of producers, an article on snobbery in the wine world, and how to open a Champagne bottle with a sword. Users stated that this had far too much, badly signposted articles. Again, they quickly clicked away from this page.
- When you click on the “Buy wine” tab, it appears to take you to a completely different site. It has a smaller banner, a different colour scheme, etc. All users said that they wondered if they’d been taken to another company’s site.
- The rest of the toolbar includes:
- A list of jobs: which it takes great pride in telling us that 2 of the 3 positions have been filled.
- Food & Wine: opens up a new browser tab and takes us to someone else’s site.
- Wine school: a one-page prospectus for wine courses run in the Languedoc (which doesn’t appear to be run by anyone connected to the company that owns the site).
- Contacts: over a dozen names, phone numbers and email addresses (and a handful of names with no contact information) for people across the business, alongside shop addresses, phone numbers, opening hours and directions. Again, all very confusing for users.
- Links: guest houses and restaurants in Oxfordshire! I suspect that this is the result of someone telling them that Google will rank the site higher if the site contains loads of links to other sites. Not wanting to enter into a debate on SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) right now, there’s certainly no excuse for them being in the main toolbar navigation.
What are you trying to say?
This probably isn’t the best example because anyone could tell you that the site is cluttered and confused. That there is no clear direction for users. That there is no clear message telling us what this company’s core product is: a wine shop or a wine tasting company? The content is a bit like a Blue Peter jumble sale: it’s all there, but finding what you want is pot luck. I suspect that the company, like so many others, has fallen victim to what I’m going to call the drip-feed jumble effect: gradually, over a period of months, the powers-that-be ask for x, y and z to be added to the homepage because “it’s important” which has the overall effect of jumbling up the site. The problem is, the more you add to a page, the less powerful everything becomes. This might all seem obvious stuff but, if it is that obvious, why are so many sites making the same mistakes?
Now, I’m not picking on this company (in fact, they’re getting some free usability advice so they should be thankful!) and they’re a good firm which sells some fantastic wines. But, how much did it cost to build this website? How long did they spend writing the text and taking the photos? How many discussions did they have about the colour scheme, design and layout? I’d guess a lot more effort and time than they’ve spent finding out if their customers can use the site easily and effectively?
Sometimes you need real users to give you a wake-up call (or prove to the bosses) that the site really does need to be changed. Sometimes we need to make a stand that “we know how people use our site… they’re just like me” is not actually true. With a simple round of usability studies, which should not take more than about 3 hours for the first session, you can find out the biggest problems that your users are having and start to implement solutions. And the earlier you do these studies, the easier (and cheaper) it is to make changes.
Well, it’s never too late…
Please note that this blog is only the opinion of the author.