Friday, July 25, 2008

The Study Results—
Factors That Improve Online Experiences has released the findings of their study titled Factors That Improve Online Experiences authored by Sathish Menon and Michael Douma. You can download the PDF as well. I took part in the study a number of months ago so it's nice to see the fruits of an important study. Usually you have to pay to see the results of the work

There were three subject groups: nonprofit organizations and cities, web designers and firms, and the general public. The findings are quite interesting. Here are some of the findings with my favorite parts highlighted by yours truly.

Designers underestimate the thresholds for an effective site.
Respondents consider a site “effective” when visitors are satisfied with respect to enjoyment, can find information somewhat easily, and never get lost in the site. By at least one point on a five-point scale, visitors have higher expectations for effectiveness than do designers. Nonprofit organizations believe that effective sites do not have “information gaps between what visitors want and what the site provides” and that visitors are at least “somewhat satisfied” with their sites. Designers should give greater consideration to overall effectiveness, thereby reducing the chance of failure for a user to find the information they seek.
Goodness, the definition of an "effective" site is so elusive. It's nice to find a definition that can be backed up with some data.

Good visual design and up-to-date information are critical.
Over 80% of designers and organizations believe that good visual design is important. A healthy 50% of the visitors agree. Fully 80% of visitors and organizations believe that up-to-date information is very important. Only 60% of designers believe that to be the case. When budgeting for your project, don’t be overly seduced by fancy graphics and multimedia. Invest in strong, clear design and simple methods to quickly deliver current information to your visitors.
Yes, we all know this, but... must... drill... this... into... client's... brain.

Visitors want information fast.
Web site visitors are looking for simple, accurate, fast, and easy to navigate web sites - preferably with links to information they seek. A significant number of comments revolved around the need for speedy access, including but not limited to download speed, in order to find the information visitors are looking for. Even in a broadband age, visitors value fast sites, both those that are fast loading and those that quickly deliver sought-after information.
Visitors want a broad range of topics.
Relative to designers and organizations, visitors more strongly believe that a broad range of topics is important. Visitors believe sites can be more effective by helping visitors find interesting information - even if they are not looking for it. Designers and content developers can provide ample sidebars that link to other recommended pages, and extensively cross-link to other pages based on keywords.

Again, information that we all kind of knew, but never had facts to back up. But for designers, I think the value of these two findings would be more evident if their order were reversed: A broad range of topics does not always equal fast information retrieval. It's a fascinating challenge.

This is where designers really need to rely on strong information architecture (IA) and rock-solid development: Set up a logical organization of the information and have solid, efficient technology to deliver that content. That includes incorporating a site search function assuming time and budget allow (boy, talk about a loaded statement.) But I digress...

Visitors still need handholding.
The study asked about hypothetically providing visitors with personal assistance using a site. About 70% of organizations and visitors believe that a personal guide would increase the effectiveness of a web site. Only about 50% of designers believe the same. Designers tend to overestimate the clarity of their designs.

This could be because designers are more removed from the end users, and overestimate the clarity of their work. Designers also believe visitors are very satisfied with respect to enjoyment more often than do organizations and visitors. Designers of large sites do not believe in personal guides, perhaps due to additional navigational aids like local search engines. There could also be a degree of skepticism about how much a human being could help navigation on a complex web site.
This is the most shocking finding for me. I am not a fan of having a video personality weighing down my navigation through a site. I think a site's navigation needs to be strong enough to avoid the need for a personal guide. If you disagree, that's fine. Just watch your head when you tell your client how much it costs to write, shoot, edit, key and then integrate all of that video. Let me say it now before you click away: I told you so.
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