The Year of the User

Reprinted from The Triangle Technical Journal

As we deflate the monster yard snowman and store the fruitcakes for next year's regifting, it's time to reflect on events of personal significance of 2003 — replaying the good, the bad, and the ugly. And in the end, we look forward to the beginning of a great 2004 — an opportunity to right the wrongs and improve the improvable. Yes, we're talking resolutions. For us, it means asking you to join us in resolving to make it the Year of the User.

So in 2004, together we resolve to.

  1. Acknowledge that if users have a bad experience, they won't come back.

    Only if your site is easy to use will people stick around long enough to find out how great your services and products are. Jakob Nielsen, Web usability expert, sets the stage this way:

    “The real difference between a person's behavior on the Web and in the physical world of real stores involves switching costs — how much it takes to switch from one vendor to another. In a physical store, the costs of switching are high. The person has driven to the store, entered the building, and walked deep into the interior. Even when faced with dwindling supplies, inattentive or rude salespeople, and lines at the checkout counter, the purchaser is apt to stick with it. The cost of leaving, going to another store, and then possibly encountering the same behavior is usually not worth the effort.”

    On the Internet, however, switching costs are very low — as the saying goes, “Your competitors are only a mouse-click away.” Countless usability studies have established that people have a low tolerance for difficult-to-use site designs and slow-loading pages. When you combine low cost of switching with people's impatience for poor user experience, the result is user attrition.

  2. Provide users with an experience that is coherent and intuitive — where everything works the way it should.

    To build long-standing, profitable relationships with clients and customers, you need to ensure that the user experience of your site or application is positive and that your users are satisfied with each interaction. A recent study found that, by improving the user experience of your e-commerce site, you could increase your current conversion rate by 40% and increase the average order size by 10%. And for applications, by incorporating usability engineering methods, you could reduce your product development cycle by 33-50%.

    Give your site a user experience that is useful, usable, and satisfying. Make your site so compelling that users will return to it. In addition, gain new customers — those frustrated masses leaving difficult sites for usable yours.

  3. Accept the facts of life on the Web.

    1. We don't read Web sites — we scan them.

      As users, we tend to focus on words or phrases that either match the task at hand, our personal interests, or trigger words such as “free,” “sale,” or our own names.

    2. We don't make optimal choices — we choose the first reasonable option.

      It is pure myth to think that users will scan the page, consider all of the available options, and choose the best one. Reality — we click the link that seems to lead to what we're looking for. Why? For a multitude of reasons from time constraints to the low penalty of guessing wrong to the simple fact guessing can be fun.

    3. We don't read instructions — we prefer to muddle through.

      We use things all the time without understanding how they work or with complete misconceptions about their intended purposes.

  4. Make sure users see us.

    In a world where virtual traffic is hundred-fold that of New York City, Steve Krug, a respected usability consultant and author of Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, recommends five basics that can be implemented to ensure that users see — and understand — as much of your site as possible:

    1. Create a clear visual hierarchy on each page

    2. Take advantage of conventions

    3. Break pages up into clearly defined areas

    4. Make it obvious what's clickable

    5. Minimize noise

  5. Recognize testing as a good thing.

    There are several truths about testing. They include:

    • Great sites are by-products of testing. Testing allows you to see your site through fresh eyes — enlightening you to the knowledge level and habits of your users.
    • Testing one user is better than testing none. Any test, even the wrong one, will reveal things that can be done to improve your site.
    • Test early. It is difficult to make changes to a site once it's in use and not have users resist. A simple test early allows you to learn from it while you still have time.
    • Testing is not about proving or disproving, but rather informing judgment. Testing strengthens the choices we make and the confidence in which we make them.
    • Testing is an iterative process. Just like shampoo — lather, rinse, repeat.
  6. Learn from usability testing.

    Doctor, can we save it? Usability testing often invites the dilemma of how to improve a site — is it by tweaking or scrapping? To find the right track, Steve Krug recommends the following guidelines:

    • Always consider tweaking first. Before scrapping anything, always stop and think, “What's the least we could do that might fix the problems we're seeing?” If it seems like a particular tweak has a reasonable chance of working, implement it and test it.
    • Focus on specifics. Try to avoid sweeping statements and focus on the precise points where people seemed to go astray.
    • Tweak, but verify. Because this is an iterative process, you can afford some tweaks before scrapping anything.
    • If the problem is deep-seated, bite the bullet and scrap. Make sure serious fundamental problems are discussed so that solutions will soon follow.
  7. Eat healthier, exercise more often, stop smoking and become rock stars.well, you didn't think we'd forget the perennials, did you? We have to have something to quit, y'know.

    Though it sounds relatively straightforward, establishing positive user experience is not child's play. In fact, Forrester Research estimates that Fortune 1000 companies will invest between $1.5 and $2.1 million on Web site redesigns next year — all because of their failure to provide a positive user experience on previous site launches. Too often these redesigns offer only a visual facelift, with no real attention paid to improving user experience. Meanwhile, some estimates show that up to $20 billion per year is being left on the table because of the negative user experience of Web sites and Web applications. It's clear that millions of dollars are being spent — and lost — due to the widespread lack of understanding about user experience and how it affects the bottom line. Successful Web sites are usually a delicate balance — they must be useful, usable, and satisfying in order to have a major impact. A positive user experience is correlated to decreased overhead expenses and lower cost-per-customer numbers. Make 2004 the Year of Your Users — and watch it reciprocate to your bottom-line.