Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge with us today Kim. You’ve been done a lot of things online, but I think you’re most recognized as a usability expert. How did you develop your expertise, and of all the paths you could have chosen, what made you choose this one?
I’m never sure which industry I fall into, frankly. I started out with web design in 1995 and quickly realized I had a passion and talent for SEO, which was encouraged by the company I was working for at that time. Cre8pc.com launched back then as an SEO teaching site and was popular enough that many people continue to contact me for SEO services, despite my having switched to usability and software QA testing in 2000.
As a user interface engineer, while I loved the design work, I was never as good as the guys I worked with when I reached the point of working with the best in the business at Verticalnet. I could code but not visualize designs. I could organize. I had a gift for detail and a strong leaning towards logic, as well as heaping loads of passion for the user experience. VERT management was smart enough to see that and put me into their newly created web software application QA testing department. There was no usability person in QA and other than Jared Spool, Alan Cooper and Jakob Nielsen(and a few others), few teachers. I was fortunate to have been mentored by a Human Factors PhD while at Verticalnet. Soon enough, I developed my own blend of QA usability testing, based on the discipline of software application functional and user interface testing.
The interesting thing was that I freelanced in SEO at night for my own clients and was teaching it in the old Cre8pc Website Promotion club in Eteamz (later Yahoo! and it is now Cre8asiteforums.com). I could bring my knowledge of SEO to UI and QA work and accessibility, which I also picked up. I learned in time that I was extremely valuable as a well rounded person who could understand and support web designers, and the goals and requirements of company management. In the end, usability work won out because search engines were dying and the challenge and fun were gone. All anyone had to do was wave money in front of an engine and rank was theirs. So I focused on what happens once site visitors arrive. Today, I offer a blend of both usability and SEO. I have a team of folks I team up with on projects. I’m a strong team player and like working that way.
Most websites fail miserably when it comes to usability. I think part of that is because people think that everyone else thinks like they do. What can they do to open up their thinking and create a more usable website?
Test, test and test more. Many site owners are held hostage by their web designers who want to add things that may not be right for the company or target users. It’s not that they’re selfish. It’s that they love to design and there are gobs of toys to play with. I don’t blame them. However, they may be less trained in the usability side, or not thinking of special needs users, or perhaps don’t understand the difference between women and men and how they interact with the web. Some don’t understand SEO, but most have the basics down these days.
A website is never for the site owner. That’s rule number 1. When approached from the perspective that you are presenting something that benefits others, everything from site requirements to design to marketing changes. One of my services developed by chance because site owners were frustrated and had no idea how to communicate with their designers. They needed a mediator. So I’m called in or emailed for an objective outside opinion during the site-build phase. Site owners are nervous and want someone with experience and a wide background to seek support with on how things are going, if they’re on the right track, if any design choices are “wrong”, or just to hear me say, “Your people are doing great work for you.” It’s scary to spend money on web sites and not be sure if it is going to work when it’s rolled out to the public.
What are some of the more common usability mistakes that you see and what can people do to resolve them?
Poor color contrasts. Fonts that are too small or can not be resized by their browser. Ads, navigation and polls that pop up and cover up content. Pages crammed with too much information. This is quite common and comes from the belief that if you don’t show everything at once, nobody will know what you offer. The truth is, visitors will follow tasks or browse as long as they’re confident where you’re taking them. Therefore, lead with well defined link labels in the navigation and embedded inside content to pages inside the site by creating interest.
For example, I’m working on a site for someone introducing something brand new and slightly unusual. His Internet Marketer changed my “Personal Experiences and Feedback” navigation link to “Testimonials”. I suggested they reconsider that, because the word “Testimonials” is not that compelling. Most people figure they’re fake anyway. But in this case, the site is about someone who has direct contact with people doing a unique, personally developed type of bodywork. He claims that his work changes lives and he leans heavily on word of mouth. Therefore, they agreed to switch it back to “Personal Experiences”. If there was more room, I would have pushed for a verb, like “Read”, or if he had video testimonials, link to that page with “Listen to Personal Experiences”. The trick is to understand motivation and persuasion.
Jakob Nielson once claimed he had over 2000 usability heuristics. Every web site needs testing or reviews on a regular basis because human-computer behavior is constantly evolving. How we interact with the web is important to marketing. The worst mistake is to put up web “brochure” and think it will have any impact on revenue. These are the days of social conversation and user generated content. We can no longer talk to, but rather, we’re being encouraged to speak with our customers.
As new technologies emerge, they offer new functionality but at the same time, they cause new problems. Once upon a time, Flash was probably one of the worst perpetrators. What new technologies adversely affect usability today?
Any technique or technology that interferes with a user task is not recommended.
It’s not the technology that’s the problem. Rather, how it’s applied. Flash is fine, but it must come with user controls so they can slow it down or stop it. Flash images can be valuable marketing tools for artists or products that target human senses. However, the implementation is sometimes a deal breaker and creates page abandonment instead.
Ads that load over content are ridiculous. I’ve been to sites where the ad sticks and can’t be moved or closed. Are they not testing for this? AJAX is nice but has usability issues when bookmarking pages. Drop down menus are a pain in the neck because they cover up text and can be clumsy to use. The fun stuff is fine as long as it’s not hindering site usage and this is why tracking and regular site testing are needed to help understand what may be hindering task progress.
Technology, such as Flash or AJAX can help make some tasks much easier for developers, but more often than not, they are used when they don’t need to be. Do you have any guidelines to help someone decide if they should utilize a particular technology from a usability point of view?
This is when Requirements Gathering comes in. The majority of companies still don’t invest in the time and resources to do this and I’ve seen where not doing so creates serious problems for businesses. Before a stitch of code is laid down, I suggest preparing a document that lists all site goals, and organizes every nuance from target user, specified tasks, and whether SEO, accessibility and usability are site requirements. Everything is documented and from that, site guidelines are prepared for consistency. Test plans are created to make sure every requirement is met. This is when it is discovered that the usability requirement that states, “Content must be clear and easy to read” is validated and if something like an ad or navigation drop down covers up content, this is considered a “defect” or failed metric and must be corrected.
People always ask, “What do you think of my site?” I want to say back to them, “Who cares what I think. Does it meet your site requirements? Has it been tested? Has each requirement been validated? Are your site guidelines being adhered to? Have you checked your logs? Do you have it set up for data analysis and tracking so you know for sure what’s not working as per your requirements?”
(I wrote How Web Site Requirements Keep Your Project from Exploding to help people understand better what I mean when I talk about this.)
For the website owners who aren’t quite ready to invest in your top-notch usability services yet, what are your top three recommendations improve the usability of their website?
Register the site with Google Analytics and take advantage of their free tools. You can’t improve anything until you know what’s going on.
On the homepage, answer the Who/Where/What/Why/When/How questions, preferably above the page fold. When you offer good reasons for someone to stay put, they will. And remember, it’s not about you. The emphasis is on what you can do for your customers, as well as why, when and how you do it better than anyone else.
Avoid “clunky” designs. We’re already stressed out, okay? Break up content with shorter paragraphs and insert small images if they help communicate your message. Create “gutters”, which are vertical columns of white space that allow us to breathe. Soothing colors are calming. Don’t make it look like there’s a food fight happening on the homepage. Site visitors are really tolerant folks and they’ll stick with your site when you provide a pleasant experience in ways that motivate them.