Usability is the next challenge for the Net

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The Independent Online

In Web design agencies all across the country, the builders are being called in. Walls are being erected, carpet laid, sofas and comfy chairs lugged in, and televisions and PCs parked on coffee tables. As a finishing touch, large two-way mirrors are being installed, with CCTV cameras covering every angle ofthe rooms.

In Web design agencies all across the country, the builders are being called in. Walls are being erected, carpet laid, sofas and comfy chairs lugged in, and televisions and PCs parked on coffee tables. As a finishing touch, large two-way mirrors are being installed, with CCTV cameras covering every angle ofthe rooms.

Here, in these premises posing as Joe Blogg's lounge, "every-day" surfers of the internet are being given tasks to accomplish on the Web. And like lab rats being observed by scientists, these surfers are being scrutinised by designers and consultants trying to understand and pinpoint just where people stumble when they surf the Net.

Welcome to the internet industry's latest buzzword: usability. In the early days of the internet, aesthetics reigned. Sites had to be cool and cutting-edge. Designers delighted in frames and flash.

But then, a funny thing happened as the Web grew increasingly commercialised. People couldn't find their way around. They were visiting sites, only to surf away three or four clicks later. On e-commerce sites, surfers were filling up their shopping carts, only to abandon them later.

Usability isn't new. But when the market downturn has put a growing pressure on internet companies to deliver, usability, or human-computer interaction (HCI) as it's known by its academic name, is a way to offer clients tangible, measurable results. The resurgence of what some call common sense has never been so welcome.

"Usability is being talked about a lot more by clients and the agencies," says Mike Bloxham, CEO and founder of Net Poll, the digital media research and consultancy firm that has a booming usability division. "Investors and companies are demanding accountability and they expect usability to help them find that."

How serious a problem is usability? Jakob Nielsen, a former Sun Microsystems engineer who has been leading the rant against poor usability, says 90 per cent of commercial websites are badly designed.

Zona Research, a San Francisco-based internet research firm, says 62 per cent of shoppers gave up looking for an item they wanted to purchase online. The figure for abandoned online shopping carts is 75 per cent, says the research firm Shelley Taylor & Associates.

In the US, several companies have even sued their Web agencies claiming poor design. Last July, Iam.com, a casting site for discovering unknown actors, sued its agency, Razorfish, for what it believed were "grave technical and navigational problems" on its website. Iam.com argued that its business had been hindered by the design. Razorfish countersued the website for breach of contract, claiming that Iam's "financial difficulties" were the true reason the website didn't want to pay the company. Razorfish eventually won the lawsuit.

"There's a lot of crazy stuff out there," says John Baker, the managing director of the UK office of Organic, the US-founded Web agency. "Not indicating where a user is in the navigation process; not breaking up registration forms; putting key information such as the 'Buy' button beneath the key fold, so users have to scroll down to find it. And these are just a few."

Owen Daly-Jones, manager of Serco Usability Services, one of the UK's oldest usability firms, says: "Say you were going out shopping and the entrance to the store was blocked by flashing lights and other barriers. But you made your way in, and just as you did, a bouncer, whose online equivalent is the registration form, popped out at you and asked you a whole bunch of personal questions before you'd even had a chance to look at anything. You would leave."

But isn't this all just plain common sense? "It may be common sense," says Mr Daly-Jones. "But it's not common practice."

Then there are the sites that have been "overdesigned", an example of which, according to Mr Bloxham, was the original Boo.com. The clothing site, founded by two Swedish twenty-somethings, Ernst Malmsten and Kasja Leander, launched months behind schedule and barely lasted six months before going bust. Its brand name and URL were sold to US-based Fashionmall last June and it is being run today as a fashion portal.

"They were so over-designed that the average user was completely mystified as to where things were," says Mr Bloxham. "It's the equivalent of going into the supermarket and looking for the canned fish, but the supermarket has instead called it 'fruits of the sea'."

Mr Baker, whose agency Organic designed Boo.com, says agencies are often trying to strike a balance between the number of teams who must work together to build a website in the first place. "When you've got 12 weeks, and you're working with four designers, 12 technology guys and countless others, and everyone's clamouring for their agenda and clients are demanding ways to differentiate themselves, the trick is trying to put that all together."

But for all the talk about usability, poor design is everywhere. And it's not just on the internet. As companies take their business across wireless devices and interactive TV, bad design is moving with them.

As a videotaped session from a usability session by Serco demonstrates, the situation is almost comical. On the tape, a well-spoken woman in her thirties is hunched over her Nokia 7110. She is trying to read a story from ITN's WAP site. As she tries to download the entire story, the screen suddenly gives her a list of options but none tell her how to get the whole story. The woman haplessly scrolls up and down the tiny screen, asking repeatedly: "Where do I end up if I select Select? How do I return home? What is Select? What is Back? Is Back home?"

And going interactive on television isn't always a good thing, says Mr Daly-Jones. Serco's research has shown, for instance, that interactive TV viewers aren't necessarily interested in having control of camera angles. "There's a reason why professional camera editors exist," he says. "Watching TV is supposed to be a social activity, so in some instances with interactive TV one person controlling the remote can lead to all sorts of trouble."

The focus on usability isn't just good news for surfers, it's good news for consultancy firms and Web design agencies. With usability growing more popular, Web agencies struggling to ride out the dot.com downturn are falling over themselves to offer these services to clients. Most of the larger agencies, such as Razorfish, Organic and Deepend, have had usability testing for years. Now newer agencies and consultancies are popping up to offer usability with a twist.

For example, digital@jwt, the digital consultancy backed by J Walter Thompson, the brand experts, has set up its own HCI-usability division. Jeremy Davies, managing director of digital@jwt, says the consultancy can do one better than the traditional design agencies by ensuring the site isn't just easy to use, but that it conforms to the company's brand identity.

Whether the rise of usability will mean more satisfied surfers and allow websites to "monetise" their visitors remains to be seen. But as the Web grows up, and tangible results are being anxiously pursued, this bandwagon is likely to roll on.

"At a time when people can vote with the click of a mouse, or their remote control, usability is no longer the icing on the cake," says Mr Daly-Jones. "It's essential."

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