Neo Insight's e-newsletter on Usability topics and techniques.
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Special event - AJAX and Usability Presentation
As the web evolves from a data dissemination tool to providing transactional services and complex applications, usability evaluation and design is becoming more and more important. The simple hypertext link model is giving way to increasingly rich interaction models which include sliders, drag-and-drop, zoom and pan, etc. RIAs let users perform complex tasks without re-loading pages, and offer users direct manipulation, better visualization of data, and more. They make a web page into a mini application. Thus, to be successful, RIAs increasingly need to draw upon the established user experience design principles and guidelines previously only associated with desktop applications.
Map technologies are working, now the challenge
Most of the challenges in developing RIAs are design related, not technological. Moreover, the design decisions made with respect to the user experience often provide the critical competitive advantage, especially given the similarity of feature sets in many of today's web-based offerings. Whoever masters the overall user experience will have the advantage!
Comparing mapping applications like Google Maps and Yahoo's Map Beta, we see many similarities. But we also see they are still working out a number of critical interactions affecting the user experience, in such basic things as users entering data, searching, or zooming.
Both show similar maps with a field to enter in a new location. Yahoo decided to show hotels by default. With Google you have to type in your request "hotels in anaheim, ca". The side panel on Yahoo can be hidden but then you can't enter a new area without reopening the panel. Google shows their maps full width and people can keep entering different locations. With Yahoo, you can immediately swap to the upper two input areas to get directions. Using Google, you have to navigate to the "Get Directions" page. Which user experience is better depends on the task.
Other important differences show up in the usability of the zoom feature. On Google, there is no indication of what you might see at each of the different zoom levels. With Yahoo, a partially transparent overlay appears, when the cursor is near the control mechanism, showing what zoom level to expect. It also is oriented to match the user model of zooming down to the details. The Google model is the opposite. You zoom up to the highest level of detail but the cues are not as salient.
Although both applications provide roughly equivalent details regarding hotels in the area, only Google displays the critical information (address and phone number) in a panel on the left without requiring clicking through to each hotel separately. It would be nice if they supported people sorting the hotels based on price, distance from the location entered, rating, etc.
Each application can support additional overlays of information for more specific needs. For example, the Yahoo application allows people to overlay a live traffic report summary, showing travel conditions and the location of accidents or traffic problems.
Exploiting the power of combining mapping information with information databases, ASFusion has created an interesting real estate search application. To experience the Home Locator application you will require Flash Player 9.
Sophisticated map interactions can happen
Instead of navigating from page to page, all the interactions occur on the same page. First you select the geographic area from the map on the left, then you filter based on price range, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the square footage, and amenities. As you filter, the middle column is dynamically updated with any homes that match the criteria. Clicking on a home of interest centres the map in the top right around the property location and displays the property information or house pictures in the bottom right. People can collect their favourites by dragging and dropping them into the blue favourites area at the bottom.
Web maps are are evolving into
Although this is just a prototype, it provides a good feel for the direction that web-based applications are heading. They are moving away from a page-based metaphor. These kind of RIAs use an interaction environment well suited to user's needs to get an overview, zoom and filter, and see details before finalizing a transaction. Obvious functionality missing includes the ability to view and print favourites, do side-by-side comparisons, filter based on neighbourhood, etc.
New tools are emerging to permit the design of powerful, interactive web applications. We've talked about AJAX and usability in our July 2006 newsletter and Mike Atyeo recently gave a Neo Insight presentation on Ajax and Usability which also includes an associated podcast. The Home Locator application was created using Adobe Flex 2 which is based on Flash. Flex 2 enables rapid development of RIAs for almost any platform and, due to the almost ubiquitous browser support of the Flash Player, it provides a very attractive development environment.
As this trend towards more interactivity and rich media continues, it will become more and more important to focus on the usability of these map-based applications. The trends are making it more efficient for users to interact with map-based web sites, and providing more direct ways for users to manipulate interaction mechanisms. The new interaction environments offer an alternative to traditional page-based metaphors like navigation, browsing, and searching. Now the challenge is in getting the user experience right as map-based applications still vary widely. Ultimately, the only way to know if your application works well for users or is better than your competitors is through testing.
Both of our upcoming workshops Usability challenges of new Web technologies and Designing usable Web-based applications address these trends and the challenges of designing for usability in these environments.
Usability catastrophe of the month
by Gord Hopkins
In this usability catastrophe we focus on the BestBuy web site and the trials and tribulations of trying to check Store Stock Availability.
The scenario started with needing to buy a new battery for a cordless phone. I found the battery quite quickly at BestBuy.ca, under a fairly logical path of: Home > Telephones > Telephone Accessories > Cordless Phone Batteries. I even found a link to Store Stock Availability under Store Services at the bottom of the page. I was getting excited as I thought I was near my goal of finding out if the local store had the desired item in stock. However, this is where things started to go very wrong.
When I clicked on the link, I was expecting I would have to identify which store to check, either by entering my postal code (to find stores close by) or by picking from a list of all Canadian stores. Instead I was taken to a Help Page that talked about a Change Stores button and the Check Store Stock Availability button (see text below). It also told me that they they update the system every 2 hours. Great! But, why tell me about the feature for checking store stock availability rather than just letting me select the store and check? Worst yet, when I returned to the product page, the buttons they referred to on the Help page were nowhere to be found, nor were the procedural steps they mentioned.
They talked about Preferred Stores. Maybe I have to set those up first. I clicked on Shopping Help and was pleased to see a link labelled How do I select my Preferred Stores? The problem is that it took me back to the same Help page as previously.
What if I click on Store Locator? Maybe that's how I pick my preferred stores. Again, I thought I was getting close. It allowed me to pick one of the stores near me. But, alas, all I got was address, phone number, and store hours. There was no way to select this as "my Preferred Store". Well, at least now I had the product number and could call someone, if I wanted to wait through the interminable voice response system.
After a few more failed attempts I did resort to the phone. Later I found out that you can check store stock availability online, but only if you create an account and login to the web site first. Hmmm, it would have been nice to have told me that somewhere. Instead all indications were that this functionality was there for the asking, without needing to create an account or login. Moreover, if I'm planning on doing business with the physical store, why would I have to login anyway?
Why is this a catastrophe? The amount people spend as a result of visiting a retailer's web site is more than just the amount spent on the site itself. The experience impacts subsequent in-store purchases as well. Unfortunately, the poor retailer might never know they have a catastrophe. In fact, they might believe it was a good experience when their traffic analyst boasts about the numerous page views on their web site, or when their advertising department brags about dozens of hits on their ad server. But it was NOT a good customer experience!
"Last year consumers spent $93 billion online and more than $137 billion offline as a result of Internet-influenced purchases (The Dierenger Research Group, 2003). Additionally, in a 2003 study of successful cross-channel retailers, Neilsen/NetRatings found that a good Web experience could increase the likelihood of a store visit by up to 27 times. This indirect Web effect ultimately accounts for more than 40 percent of total sales for many traditional retailers." (Source: http://www.dmreview.com/article_sub.cfm?articleID=1016231)
Which type of usability investigation is right for you?
There are a number of methods for investigating the usability of a product or service. Determining which should be used is not always easy. The following table provides some guidance as to when you might consider one of these three common methods.
Focus Groups - Our experience with Focus Groups is that they are great for getting at attitudes and beliefs about up-front design concepts. However, they are generally very poor for predicting actual behaviour. In many cases, what people say they do, or would do, in a particular situation bears little correlation with their actual behaviour. We use focus groups to discover the overall context of the users' goals, tasks, and their environment, and we create concrete stimuli to evoke a response and focus our discussions.
Heuristic Evaluation - This type of expert evaluation can be very cost-effective in identifying major usability issues and getting them addressed before involving actual end users. It also helps to focus subsequent testing on items important to test with real users. Critical to the success of an expert review is the expertise of the evaluators. Only they can step outside their shoes and bring their past observations of hundreds of users to bear on the analysis. Non-expert evaluators judge more based on their own personal reactions.
Usability Testing - This can be carried out in a controlled environment. However, more and more we are using portability provided by Morae software to permit testing of applications, products and services in context. This permits more accurate evaluation of the impact of common workflows, multi-tasking, interruptions, etc. Critical to the success of usability testing is the expertise of the evaluator in designing the study, facilitating the test without guiding the user, and knowing when to probe for the rationale behind someone's behaviour.
TechSmith will soon be releasing the next major release of its very successful usability testing software - Morae 2.0. The new release will add three major improvements:
Contact us if you'd like a Morae demonstration for your team.
Early registrants save $100. There are even more savings for group bookings. Come join us.
Usability challenges of new Web technologies – Save $100 if you register by November 17th.
Designing usable Web-based applications – Save $100 if register by November 24th.
"In most projects, the first system built is barely useable. The only question is whether to plan in advance to build a throwaway, or to promise to deliver the throwaway to customers."
Frederick Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month