May 19, 2003
SUMMARY: If you can only spare the time to read one Sherpa article this week, make it this one. You will learn things that could improve your site's results with a few simple tweaks, including:
-> Where visitor's eyes go on your Web pages
-> What people *do not* look at on your Web pages
While click-stream analysis and other site metrics reports can show you how people use your site, only usability studies can help you get quickly inside a visitor's head to find out why they do what they do.
In essence, it is the difference between a quantitative metrics study and a qualitative study such as a focus group. Both have their place.
Which is why marketers at sites ranging from EddieBauer.com to Classmates have created in-house labs they invite consumers into on a regular basis to figure out how to improve their sites to get better results. Plus, usability studies have an added advantage, you can use them during the design and redesign process to test tweaks and changes before you release your new site to the public.
"Yesterday, we were testing a banking site and they were developing it on the fly," says Tammy Sachs, Sachs Insights President and Founder. "If someone didn't understand a word or see a button, the bank's designers could change it right there."
How many people do you need to watch use your site in order to make a useful design decision?
Sachs says it depends on how many major different types of users you want to measure. She recommends you conduct at least six-seven hour-long lab interviews per demographic.
While some sites, including UPS.com, prefer to conduct usability tests on location, in a user's own home or office, Sachs warns the logistics involved can easily double your costs and time spent, while the results may not be more definitive.
If you use a lab to run your tests (either in-house or at a third party location), make sure it feels comfortable and "homey." "If they feel like a lab rat, you're toast," Sachs says.
Here are Sach's top 10 insights into best Web design, based on usability studies her company's conducted for dozens of clients including LEGO and American Airlines.
#1. Where visitor's eyes go on your Web page
The upper left corner below the logo is the most important spot on the page.
Then, "people look at the center of the page. If they see nothing of immediate interest, they go to left nav and look for something else interesting," explains Sach's Director of User Experience, Mark Safire.
As you might imagine, the higher up on the page an item is, the more important it seems to visitors.
It is always key to have the important stuff above the fold. If you have got editorial, like a newspaper article, people scroll down as much as three or four page lengths before the experience feels cumbersome and they expect to be able to click to start at the top of another page.
Where exactly is the fold?
"I'm surprised at how many people still have 800x600 resolution," says Safire. "You have to design your site to the lowest common denominator."
Tip #2. What people do not look at on your Web pages
If it looks like an advertisement in colorfulness, shape or placement, it will not get looked at. "Editorial is less ignored," says Sachs.
This means visitors often fail to "see" things in your far right-hand column.
"That area is perceived as advertising and is blocked out," Safire says. If you have any mission-critical links or info in your far right column, consider moving that content immediately.
Ad-avoidance also leads to what Sachs calls "banner blindness." Banners, or colorful content in shapes and positions sites often have banners in, cause people to skip right over what's underneath the area as well. Their eyes are trained to miss the whole area.
Do not put any mission-critical site links near a banner.
If you are an online advertiser, consider testing advertorial, text ads and other editorial-style placements rather than banners for important campaigns.
Last but not least, do not put horizontal lines or a significant amount of white space down the page anywhere near or below your fold unless you want visitors to stop scrolling.
White space and horizontal lines are graphic indicators to visitors that this page is done and they should go elsewhere.
Keep this in mind if you have a chart or graph with a bottom that hits along the fold. The important information should be above the chart, and make it clear visitors need to keep scrolling.
If something "pokes up from the bottom and looks like it's half done, it shows there's more," says Safire.
Tip #3. Improve your navigation bar for usability
It has been bandied about that you should limit the nav bar to 7 or 9 items, but actually picking a number would be irresponsible, says Safire. Limit the items to just what is truly useful for visitors (versus your internal company departments).
Also, think about what you are calling each item. One site that sells computers lists "mobility products" and "convergence devices" on the nav bar. "What the hell is that?" asks Sachs.
There is also a trend toward using a horizontal rather than a vertical nav bar. It leaves more width in the body of the page to fit content. (For an example, see SachsInsights.com.)
Tip #4. Improving landing page conversion rates
If you are trying to convert someone who is clicked on a marketing campaign, your landing page must be extremely pointed.
Take away all browsing opportunities to the rest of the site and let them finish converting first. Do not let your Web designer talk you into keeping your standard navigation bar on landing pages.
Also, if you are trying to get someone to register and your questions might be confusing, include links to help for each question.
Tip #5. Lowering shopping cart abandonment rates
Although, like Amazon, you should remove most shopping navigation links when a visitor enters the cart so they are not distracted from making the final purchase; Sach's advises that you leave customer service phone numbers and email addresses prominently on the check out pages.
You do not want a consumer to abandon a cart entirely just because they can not call customer service at the instant they have a question.
Also, one change in your wording can increase cart size. Instead of saying "buy now" on a product page button, have the button read "add to cart." Buying is a bigger, harder decision than adding to cart. Start with the easy decision and build the sale from there.
Tip #6. Your home page should take both customers and prospects into account.
Have a log-in for customers on the home page. Do not make them search for it. Balance the page and ask yourself, "Who is the site for?"
Tip #7. Users do not "get" Web hierarchy the way designers do.
Although Microsoft would love to think so, fact is many consumers just do not get the idea of finding what they need by going through a hierarchical tree of choices.
This means main links on your navigation bar should lead them directly to someplace useful without requiring visitor to sort through many branches first to click on the right one. (Flash navigation is not a best practice.)
Plus, it means your search function has to be really good.
BTW: If visitors are using search in a particular section of your site, they often assume they are searching just that section. If results come back from the whole site is can be confusing and annoying.
Also be aware that once people find a way to get to something in your site they like, they almost always return through that exact same path time and time again; even if you have many alternate paths to get there.
This means that when you redesign your site, your most loyal current users can be very upset, and perhaps unable to use your site easily, if their old navigation path is disrupted in any way. Path disruption is the primary problem with site revamps, not changing colors or other design elements.
Tip #8. Best fonts and type sizes.
Actually, fonts are less important than not having blocks of dense text or a low contrast of type to background. Focus on making the physical shape of your copy easy on the eye first, with lots of bullet points, and subheads for longer copy.
Tip #9. You still have to underline hyperlinks...
or at least make sure they are that deep "hyperlink-blue" color, especially if it is embedded in the text. "A shade lighter blue and we see fewer clicks," says Safire.
Many designers will tell you, "Oh that's old fashioned. People know how to scroll over things to see if they are clickable now." Guess what? They do not.
Tip #10. Make more areas clickable.
Research shows people are clicking like crazy all over your site; on areas that are not actually clickable.
If you have an image that can be clicked on, say so. Do not make users run their mouse over things to find out.
Also, if you have a great background, like with a travel or fashion site, people will try to click on it. Do not have an unclickable image of anything, just for show, that a visitor could conceivably want to learn more about or purchase. Their primary experience of your site will be a feeling of disappointment.
Visitors often click on headings for topics rather than the topic itself.
Say you have a list of products headed by the word "Socks" and underneath you have clickable links for various types of socks. Visitors will frequently click on that header "socks" rather than a particular hotlink below the header such as "red socks."
Make the topic clickable, even if all it leads to is a page with the various link options all displayed again.