"It must be an advert – quick, ignore it!"

Posted on October 16, 2009 by matyeo

Ten years ago, Jakob Nielsen identified ‘Anything that looks like advertising’ as one of the top ten web design mistakes [1]. In his research, he had found that users were ignoring content that appeared to look like advertising. In a recent usability testing project, we found this same behaviour was seriously reducing top task performance.

We always advise clients to bring their top tasks onto the home page [2] so that users can start those tasks right away. In this project, the client’s redesigned site appeared to meet those criteria. Links and content to start top tasks were right on the home page. Yet usability participants were slow to complete or couldn’t complete those top tasks. They went off into the menus without appearing to even SEE some of those home page items.

Sometimes, the usability participants would exclaim in surprise when they finally noticed those links on the home page. When we probed on those exclamations, some users said that they had categorized those design elements as ‘marketing’ – others didn’t know why they hadn’t noticed them. Our participants’ avoidance of ad-like content was so ingrained that they weren’t even conscious of it themselves! Without usability testing, the design team couldn’t have predicted this behaviour because they knew the purpose of the links and thought the links were highly salient.


Tip: Ask people to do your Top Tasks. Do you have important links that appear to be ignored? Watching users do Top Tasks is how you’ll find out. In contrast, asking them to review your design is not a good technique. It forces them to read carefully, very different to how they behave in reality: quickly scanning for the most likely link that matches their task.


On our client’s proposed home page, those top task links were located in a narrow column on the right side of the page. Think about where ads appear on most sites, and you’ll understand what was happening. We’d already tried out an effective solution to that problem in an iterative round of testing with another client. That solution is simple: wider columns.


Tip: If your home page has a right hand column that needs to contain some navigation links, ensure that the column is wide enough that it won’t be perceived as advertising.


The links in that right column were also located inside brightly-coloured boxes. Attention-getting colors and graphic boxes tend to be associated with … you guessed it. .. advertising. So the top tasks now had a double-whammy – they were on the far right – and in coloured boxes. In our testing, we’ve seen that graphic boxes have a negative impact on usability. Task performance usually improves when the colour and box-effects are toned down, and the links themselves get the focus.


Tip: Is your graphic design team recommending effects that emphasize ‘cool looks’ instead of top task items? Use those skills to ensure that the priority links aren’t ignored, as advertising content.


In addition to the top tasks in the boxes on the right being ignored, the client’s site had another usability problem. They needed their members to support top projects by sending in petition-like forms. To draw attention to those top stories, the design had a large photo in the center, with a text link to the story. Sounds good, right? Except that there wasn’t just one story, there were two. So the photos were animated – after a few seconds, the photo rolled off to the right and the other moved in. Video recordings of the usability sessions show the cursor moving over the photo as participants wonder aloud how they’ll find the story. Animations are one of the ad-like design elements that Nielsen identified ten years ago, and based on this study, that association still exists today.


Tip: Avoid design elements that move without a user action – they risk being ignored. A better alternative is an accordion-type design that reveals more content when the user hovers or clicks.


These kinds of usability issues are not identified by showing web pages to people and asking them for their opinions. They only surface when you ask users to carry out real tasks on your website in a usability test. With our experience, we can also identify most of these types of issues in our Expert Reviews, which we recommend prior to a usability test.

If you need help identifying or improving the usability of your top tasks, give us a call at (613) 271-3001 or 1 (866) 232-8522.

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URLs in this post:

[1] top ten web design mistakes: http://bit.ly/NielsenTop10_1999

[2] bring their top tasks onto the home page: http://bit.ly/Yjf5J

[3] Managing your users’ tasks: 6 measures you need to know: http://bit.ly/0807TaskPerformanceIndicator

[4] Design landing pages to focus attention: http://bit.ly/0905LandingPages

[5] Top Task Management helps you sleep better: http://bit.ly/c0uPW

[6] Back to Top: #top

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