Archive for the ‘Usability’ Category

Give ‘Em What They Want

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Sometimes, you come across something that just says it all.  A recent diagram in the xkcd webcomic pretty well summed up a lot of what we find on the Internet today.

When you are deciding what to put on your Web site, remember to be driven by what your visitors will want to find there.   Things that you’re tempted to add because they’d be “cool” are likely to be in the left-hand portion of the above diagram.  Strive, instead, to think of the things on the right, whatever they may be in your specific case.

If you’ve already got a site in place, a look at your Web analytics can reveal a lot about what is actually the most useful information on there.  There’s little sense in trying to guess what your visitors are interested in, when you can get hard data that reveals all.  Of course, if you don’t have Web analytics installed on your site, we can help you with that, and we can also help you to make solid decisions based on the data gathered.

When you’re considering the addition of a new piece of functionality or content to your site, it may be worthwhile to survey your visitors to learn whether they think they might use it.  Of course, don’t spend more effort on the survey than you would on the development – it may well be that it’s faster and easier to simply put something up and see whether it’s used or not.

Another useful exercise is to visit your competitors’ sites, to see what they’ve put online for their visitors.  Of course, you may very well discover that their webmaster is a member of the “flaming logos” school of Web design, but you may also find that they’ve thought of something interesting and compelling to add to their site.

It’s almost impossible to look at your own site with unbiased eyes, so ask an associate or a trusted customer to have a look at it and give you candid feedback, as well.  Is there something that they’d just love to see there, but couldn’t find?  Is there a lot that they had no use for at all?  Did they spot typos or other “mechanical” issues with your site?  Go through this exercise a few times, with a few different people, and you’ll gain a new appreciation for what your visitors may be after when they come to your site.

Responding thoughtfully to all of this information will make your site more useful to visitors, and one that they’re more likely to come back to again and again, and to share with their friends.  And that, of course, is how you retain your existing customers and win new ones.  Give ‘em what they want!

The Case Against Flash

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

From time to time in my practice, I have clients who ask for something done in Flash for their sites. I am always resistant, and not just because the $700 for Adobe’s Flash Builder would blow a hole in my budget. After all, if the project or its follow-on opportunities are big enough, expenses like that are justifiable.

No, my objections are squarely based around usability. In all of my years of surfing the Web, I can think of one time — exactly one time – when I looked at a Flash-based Web site and said, “Now that adds something valuable to the experience.”

Yes, I know that nearly all video delivery on YouTube and the like is done through Flash, and that is a great and limited use of the technology. I’ve also seen sites where the use of Flash in limited interface and functional elements added to the experience. And there is a whole class of Flash-based online games, some of which are remarkably sophisticated and rich. To base your navigation or even a whole Web application in Flash, though, is to make some serious compromises to your usability, for a number of reasons:

  • Not all visitors can use Flash. Famously, the Apple iPad recently launched without Flash support, but there are plenty of folks out there on less cutting-edge browsers who also do not have Flash installed or enabled. It may be that their computers are old, or their connections slow. They may have disabilities that preclude them from making use of it.  Even more frustrating for visitors is seeing a message that their version of Flash is out of date.  Do you really want to force them to go through the pain of an upgrade to see your content?
  • Flash is typically slow to start. We’ve all seen the “please wait” notice pop up on an otherwise blank Web page, where the designer wants us to park it for a time, while we wait for their magnum opus to make its way to our browsers. If a site is slow on your broadband connection, it’s downright painful on dialup. In an environment where your competitor is a click of the “back” button away, why would you give your visitors an immediate reason to go away?
  • Flash tempts designers to get creative. This might sound like a good thing, but consider for a moment how much work you’re willing to put into figuring out someone’s “creative” navigation scheme, when you just want to look up a specific piece of information.  Too often, also, folks decide to include some “mood music” on their sites, since Flash makes that so very easy to include.  This is not welcome, particularly in a business environment.  Again, the “back” button beckons, sometimes with urgency….

Flash elements incorporated into a site’s design for strictly “decorative” purposes are almost worse than site designs that are entirely based on Flash.  Think about it – the designer is demanding that visitors have an additional application loaded on their computers, up to date and configured correctly … all so that you can see his flaming logo? Really?

I will absolutely grant that there are some gorgeous sites out there that use Flash in ways that are artistically satisfying and appealing. Many of these sites fail the “think test,” however.  They require you to spend time puzzling out how to navigate, and how to find what you’re after. For a leisure site, you might be willing to put in the effort.  For a business site, however, it’s unlikely that you would.

The primary purpose of most business Web sites is to make information about your business available to your customers and prospects. All too often, Flash throws up a barrier between your customers and that information. If it’s not adding something essential to your site’s functional design, it’s not worth including.

I’ll also grant that some folks have managed to use lightweight technologies like Javascript to accomplish some truly horrid effects on their Web sites. I recall one particularly awful site where a chain of bubbles appeared to be dragged around by my mouse cursor as I moved around the site, with letters on the bubbles spelling out the name of the company. Someone was entirely too pleased with his new-found skills, and decided to inflict them on the rest of us.

The best that can be said about a case like that is that you’re not stuck waiting for a huge download before you can decide to head for the exit.

Flash is sometimes used for nice things like slide shows of someone’s portfolio, but we can accomplish the same thing with Javascript or other lightweight and widely-supported browser capabilities.  As a bonus, if your visitors’ browsers do not happen to support the capability we’ve used, we can cause it to “degrade gracefully,” which is just another way of saying that they won’t be stuck looking at a big blank page.

Ideally, the text content of your Web site will be so compelling that your visitors will stick around just to read it.  (The same applies to search engines, in their own way … but that’s another blog post.) If you need some motion — after all, the human brain is hardwired to pay attention to motion — then there are alternatives to Flash that do not suffer from its drawbacks.  Let’s talk about what your site needs, and find the right solutions for your audience!