Conference Report: Usability and Web site success

I traveled to Cambridge, Mass., recently for four days of intensive sessions with leading experts in the field of user interface design gathered for the User Interface 7 East Conference (UI7). I was joined by more than 300 interactive designers, content creators and programmers who all shared the same goal: to learn the latest about developing better Web sites and interactive applications.

As a developer, I found the conference time well spent. UI7 East was sponsored by User Interface Engineering (UIE), a company Jared Spool founded in 1988. UIE conducts extensive research through user testing on various types of Web sites and shares their findings through books, papers, conferences and seminars.

All About Success

"User Interface" isn't the best title for this conference. It's actually about everything that contributes to the overall success of a Web site or interactive system, including:

  • Writing clearly, effectively and persuasively
  • Reducing risk by researching your users & brand before you design
  • Designing interactions that motivate users to action
  • Best practices for user-centered design
  • User testing as a design tool
  • Tackling organizational issues that can hinder or help your site
  • Structuring your site in a way that makes sense to the most users
  • User research that helps you make informed design decisions

When I asked Jared Spool about the conference's focus, he said "We take a broad approach to the idea of 'user interface.' We see it as anything that affects the user's ability to accomplish their goals." Building on that broad definition, UIE envisions itself on a 100-year mission "to increase the quality of life by eliminating the frustration caused by technology."

Is it working? According to Spool, the results are still unclear.

"We haven't seen a significant improvement in people's ability to accomplish their goals in the six-plus years we've been testing Web sites," Spool said

No wonder it's a 100-year mission.

All the same, sites with better usability significantly outperform those with poor usability.

What did we learn about building successful Web sites?

The conference workshops each offered practical advice applicable to any company involved in building Web sites or designing user interfaces. Workshop attendees were also challenged to think outside their traditional roles.

David White, executive producer of the Lands' End Web site, said his team found Gerry McGovern and Nick Usborne's seminars on copy and content to be particularly valuable.

"One of the challenges to improving usability of Web sites is dealing with the areas that are typically taken for granted. Copy is one of those areas. It takes effort to craft messages that work well on the Web."

The more technical members of the Lands' End team also appreciated Molly Holzschlag and Eric Meyer's seminar on more efficient ways to build pages with Cascading Style Sheets and other HTML standards.

Additional information about the conference speakers and workshops is available at, where a good overview of each session is provided.

Helping Users Reach Their Goals

Through their testing with e-commerce and other large sites, UIE identified seven main types of pages used as someone moves from the starting point to their destination. Each page type has a unique purpose, and some sites do a better job with certain page types than others.

For example, a "Gallery" page offers a choice of several content pages (such as product detail pages). The gallery page's function is to help the user choose a content page without having to click down into each detail page. If the gallery page doesn't have enough differentiating information, users end up "pogo-sticking," or jumping down and up repeatedly while trying to make a decision. Pogo-sticking significantly reduces a user's chance of success.

According to UIE, we're just beginning to figure out how to do this right on sites whose structure is fairly constant. They said developers really have no idea how to tackle large scale intranets and community-published sites that have millions of pages and thousands of authors, few of whom are trained in information design. Some of UIE's current research is focused on how to build usable sites that are also constantly evolving.

Patterns That Indicate User Failure

According to Jared Spool, "The biggest problem with the design process is that not only do we not learn from our mistakes, we don't have a mechanism for finding out what our mistakes are. Amazon, Ebay and Lands' End all have a great feedback loop built in to their system. But you still have to know what to look for."

Lands' End, for instance, relies heavily on filtered feedback from their customer service reps to decide on ongoing improvements.

To help developers know what to look for, UIE has identified some common patterns that indicate user frustration or failure, including:

  • Pogo-sticking
  • Back button usage (doesn't show up in server logs!)
  • Search behavior (requires that you look at the page from which the search was initiated and the search terms used)

Metrics & Analytics - How Do We Track User Success Or Failure?

Nearly all of the Web log analysis programs on the market today focus on hits, page views and user sessions. These programs do not analyze the actual content of the pages being viewed. UIE said that site developers and managers simply don't have the measurement tools right now to tell them if users are actually succeeding or failing on their Web site.

Ed Chi, Ph.D. of Xerox PARC, made a presentation on his progress developing software tools which can:

  • analyze how users find their way through a Web site
  • predict their most probable paths and likelihood of success based on given objectives
  • analyze logs along with page content to essentially reverse engineer the objectives of users, and then to gain some idea of their success or failure.

The webmasters in the crowd were drooling over the thought of having such powerful analytics tools. Dr. Chi was hopeful that these tools will see daylight in commercial form sometime in the not-too-distant future.

[Read Dr. Chi's papers on information scent, intelligent analysis of Web traffic and categorizing user sessions.]

Design Guidelines - Which Ones Should You Follow?

Jared said that the first thing reporters always ask him is "What are the five things Web designers should not do?"

Jared's typical response is "Well, uh ... cocaine."

Seriously, rules are comfortable. They offer us some assurance that our work will succeed.

Of course, pundits have provided countless guidelines for how sites should be designed. But are these guidelines based in opinion or research? Will Schroeder of UIE explained that we often accept the guidelines on faith because verifying them takes time and money.

Fortunately, UIE has been testing the more common guidelines against their research data. Schroeder emphasized that their data set is not large enough to prove a guideline, but it is large enough to disprove one. They have found that some guidelines help, some make no difference, and some can actually hurt.

Examples of Design Guideline Findings:
Put shopping cart icon in top right of screen, because this is where most people expect it.No difference
Women are more decisive and less patient than men, so sites catering to women should be simple, straightforward, and free of bells & whistles.No real difference between men & women except on more difficult shopping tasks – men spend more time on details (product pages), while women stayed longer on overview (gallery pages).
Display a link to return & warranty policies on checkout screensHelped
Request credit card information as the last step in checkout processHelped
Offer a choice of shipping methodsHurt
Your pages should load within 8 seconds or else people will leave.Users perception of site speed had nothing do with actual speed. The fastest-rated sites were those where users successfully finished their task. If they failed at their tasks, they rated the site as slower, even if it was really faster.
Source: Unpublished research from User Interface Engineering, 2000-2002

Flash Usability Guidelines

UIE hosted a panel discussion on Flash usability guidelines, with expert Flash developers Chris MacGregor and Josh On, Eric Pressman, Flash usability engineer for Macromedia, and Christine Perfetti, author of UIE's study on Flash usability. They discussed the need for Flash usability guidelines, how and whether they should be developed, and how to determine if the guidelines are successful.

Flash has developed something of a bad reputation for usability.

"Blaming the tool [Flash] is sort of like blaming VCRs for Jim Carrey movies," Spool quipped during the forum.

Chris MacGregor explained the early days of Flash development by saying, "Web designers' sites needed a big sledgehammer to show clients how cool they were. Flash was just the biggest sledgehammer available."

Eric Pressman said that, "Macromedia's position has not been so much to tell developers how they should do their work, but to give them good examples of things they can do, or the way things should be done."

We did see some exciting examples of useful Flash sites: one for information visualization, and one for hotel reservations.


Certainly the pursuit of good usability is important. As developers, we often don't want to know whether or not our systems work well. That's a form of accountability that makes us nervous. But accountability is part of "growing up" as designers, writers and developers. We have everything to gain from taking an honest look at our sites to learn if they work for real people.

If we want to succeed, we have to focus on helping our users succeed.

Further reading:

User Interface Engineering has several papers available on the topics covered during the conference.

The following books provide additional information on related topics.

Content Critical: Gaining Competitive Advantage through High-Quality Web Content, by Gerry McGovern and Rob Norton

The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman

Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, by Steve Krug and Roger Black

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites, 2nd Ed., by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville

Net Words: Creating High-Impact Online Copy, by Nick Usborne

Submit Now: Designing Persuasive Websites, by Andrew Chak

Ways of Seeing, by John Berger

David Poteet is president and founder of Blacksburg, Va.-based New City Media.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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