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Introduction: Scenarios and personas can help understand and communicate user requirements. A large number of people arrive at web content by first using a search engine. We offer here a scenario of one such searcher to depict this experience. This may give you some ideas on how to improve the way you write web content for users' search, track their search terms, and design for their arrival via search. Use it to research your own users who arrive by search. Add your own data and hypotheses. Consider it summer reading to help you in your job. Woven into the story, we offer some tips to improve the user experience for people like I, searcher. (Our gratitude and apologies to Leonard Read. whose essay “I, Pencil” in 1958 still inspires us that monolithism is dead)
I, searcher, am a person arriving at your website from a search engine.
I am like the ordinary web visitor that might arrive at your site many times a day – perhaps hundreds or thousands of times a day. I am known by many people. Everybody who creates or manages web pages thinks they know me. But sadly, I am taken for granted, as if I were a mere “hit” or as if I lack any reason for my behaviour. Thus I am relegated to the level of commonplace. But, how will people who write web content succeed if I continue to be taken for granted? As G.K. Chesterton observed “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder”.
I, searcher, commonplace as I am, merit your wonder, a claim I will attempt to prove. Perhaps if I can make you aware of the wonder I symbolize, you can help save the wonder the web is in danger of losing. I have a profound lesson to teach.
I am born out of curiosity
We can begin my story in a moment of curiosity. Wonder and curiosity are in my genes, the basic building blocks of my life. Just think of the things happening during my primordial moments. Time pressures, countless things to do, or tasks not yet complete. Think of all the people I rely on to be able to take that early step – people who ask me a question, demand service, are involved in the equipment, software, and networks I use, and support me to be able to accomplish my work goals. Then think of all the people needing the output of those work goals – people who have their own deadlines and questions to answer, who will use my data to create something valuable, who will communicate my data in something they have to say. Untold thousands of people have a role in me accomplishing my goal – even before my search task is well formed.
The next stage of my story is when I find words to phrase what I really want to find out. I point my browser to the appropriate page and look for the search box. Nine times out of ten when people go to the web, they start with a search engine.1 Increasingly, people use Google, and 60% type just one word into the search box.2 It is routine for me. Searching happens a couple hours of every work day for me.3 Think of the number of people typing a search term right now. Globally this task happens 2.5 billion times4 a day.
I know it when I see it
After I type my search terms and hit enter, I scan through a page of search results. I mostly look at the top search results, though I might compare other items on the page. Half the time I will click on the top search result.5 I don't bother to look at a second search results page. Now think about what is involved in that simple step. The search engine said it found hundreds of thousands of pages. Each item in my search results is a page that involves an author, a webmaster, or a whole team. Those people carefully choose the words on each page, fret over the words in multiple versions, or get people to approve the wording. The words people choose dramatically affect whether a web page makes it onto my search results. I scan pages pretty quickly for words I recognize. I may leave quickly too, if I don't see words I recognize. Yet the millions of authors of web content rarely see how their words can make me successful in finding their web page or in completing my task.
As I scan some pages the search engine leads me to, I might have to refine my search. Words can be hard to find – when I don’t see what I am looking for! Plus, words can be hard for web authors too. If they don’t use my keywords, their page may not show up in my search. Plus, search engines only index 16% of web pages. Add to that the deep web,6 or the invisible web,7 containing information inside databases like phone books and library catalogues. It contains five hundred times more information than I can search for on public search engines.
At last, I, searcher, arrive at some useful web content. I have left the search page, and I am browsing. But my search is still in progress and my task still incomplete. I may have scanned thousands of words today,8 but this web page will add another few hundred. If the words I am expecting don’t jump out at me, or are not in the top part of the page, I may miss the words I came for, and hit the back button.
I need to know where I am and what I can do next
If I arrive deep in your web site, I have numerous problems. I visit home pages less and less, but I still rely on navigation to help me get around websites. If the navigation on a web page is not organized the way I can understand, I may not know how to get to the page I really need, or move upward, or find related links. Lately I search for video or audio, too, but finding a specific phrase in a video or podcast is difficult. If I visit a site often, I may have to remember how to log in before I see any content. But I already have many passwords to remember.9 Do you think a new registration is a measure of success? Well, one out of six times I re-register because I forgot my log in.
Nobody tries to understand what I do
Arriving at a web page via search is a small part of my overall goals, and yet few webmasters are given web statistics on my common goals. If they would just concentrate on words I use most commonly, webmasters might find out that a small number of my keywords cover a great deal of their web content. But, I wonder who thinks about my search terms? Search engines may, but they don’t know why I use the words I do, nor whether I find what I need. If I search on-site, rarely will a webmaster find out how successful I was at completing my task. Sometimes the internal search engine doesn’t even remember what I typed into the box – it might remember it for that session, but then immediately forget me. If it does remember the words I used, the internal search engine server gives my search terms to people who never talk with me, and don’t know what I mean, or what web content would have completed my task on the web site. I feel less and less like a person and more and more like a “hit”.
This is yet more astounding. There is no central mastermind forcibly directing the innumerable actions that precede my arrival at your website. Sure, I use Google two out of three times. But I spend very little time there.10 A search box and search result pages are brief moments in my overall goal. I, searcher, am a complex combination of curiosity, a task, search terms, scanning, refining, browsing, etc. Millions of bits of know-how are configured naturally and spontaneously in response to my behaviour. They arrange themselves productively – or not – in response to human factors and demand, without any coercive masterminding. Each party in my story acts independently. There are millions of individuals involved in helping me complete my task, each with incomplete knowledge about each other, and none with the know-how to fulfill my whole task. Even with the most sophisticated algorithms, none have yet been able to model what I do. This is why it is so important that I write to you, because so much of my livelihood depends on people like you.
Words, tasks, design, measurement
I hope you are reminded by now how much of a wonder it is that I arrive at the proper information on your website. You may be like most organizations who think search is very important – but only half of whom measure its effectiveness.11 Rather than being overwhelmed by everything I go through to reach your site, keep a few things in mind as you design your pages. Get to know the words I use and tasks I do commonly. Embed keywords on web pages that will help me complete my task. Use them in site navigation. Write some examples of your own “I, searcher” scenarios. Test your usability systematically. Know and plan for the common journeys I take through your website. Track how long it takes me to complete my task.12 Measure your progress. And don’t lose sight of the wonder.
5. "Eye tracking analysis of user behavior in websites and search engines" SEOpedia, October 2006.
November 8, 2007 will be the third annual World Usability Day, and practitioners will mark the day in Ottawa as well. World Usability Day is open to anybody interested in usability. Keep an eye on the preparations by subscribing to this newsletter. World Usability Day this year will focus on designing things that are important to life so they are easier to access and simpler to use: “Making life easy”. A specific focus will be on healthcare usability. Mark your calendars to be a part of the event.
Describing a specific user experience problem or opportunity can be difficult. Often a few screenshots help get the point across. Sometimes a simple screen recording can help describe the broader user experience. Jing is TechSmith’s new lightweight application for capturing screenshots and screen recordings. For the beta period, TechSmith is providing Jing free along with a free account in Screencast.com. They make other great tools for usability professionals – Morae and UserVue for usability testing, SnagIt for screenshots, and Camtasia Studio for screen recordings. Jing takes a very “keep-it-simple” approach to capturing and sharing a simple screenshot or screen recording. It reduces the steps involved in selecting an area to capture, recording your voice annotation, and compressing this information to be shared. The application runs in the background, so it is ready when you want to capture something, and is available for Windows – with .NET3.0 – as well as MacOS. TechSmith is seeking user input on how to improve it. Visit the Jing site for a tour, to download, or read their blog.
While Web1.0 plods along, people are already talking about Web3.0. Recently the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, described Web3.0 in a nutshell. He says Web3.0 will be a different way of building applications. We elaborate on his description in the right column below, and share some contrasts in the left column.
Why is this important? Applications with the characteristics on the right are growing rapidly. Take for instance Facebook, with 34 million regular users viewing 15 billion pages per month. Facebook has 2,349 applications, downloaded 100 million times. Its development environment includes an application programming interface published in May, “FBML” for building content in templates, and “FQL” for database functions. Whatever the coming generation of applications, we know this much – usability will be important. If you want to learn how to cope with these changes, consider our course “Designing usable Web-based applications”.
September 21 is the deadline for early registration in our one-day workshop “Usability challenges of new Web technologies” which takes place on Thursday, October 4. We will review many live Web 2.0 examples and explore how to adapt traditional usability techniques to design and evaluate the new generation of web user interfaces. Early registrants save $100. Save even more for group bookings. Come join us.
For our Thursday October 11 workshop “Designing usable Web-based applications”, sign up before September 28 for the early registration discount of $100. Web applications are becoming as powerful as the ones on our desktop. Join this workshop to explore the challenges of designing web applications, and come away with tips, techniques and current best practices for providing high-value services that enable your users to fulfill their goals effectively and efficiently.
To take advantage of further discounts, call us to run either workshop at your location for five or more people: (613) 271-3001.
Quote of the month
“The walls between art and engineering exist totally in our minds”
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