The Insighter

December 2009

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Neo Insight's e-newsletter on Customer Experience topics and techniques.

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Upcoming events

Jan 26, 2010 Real World Accessibility for AJAX and Web Apps  Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Mar 12-16, 2010 SXSW2010 Interactive, South by Southwest Conferences, Austin, TX
Mar 22-26, 2010 Usability Week 2010, Nielsen Norman Group, New York
May 31 - Jun 2 Graphics Interface 2010 CapCHI Ottawa, Ontario

Make web tasks faster

Neo Insight helps make top tasks faster to accomplish – it is the main result of what we do. So we are pleased at efforts to help, like Google's program to Make The Web Faster. Google says a faster web will make a better world, that customers prefer websites that are faster, and that we've only just begun. We agree. But Google cannot do this on its own. So Google is asking people to work together. We believe this requires a rigorous focus on user tasks. In this article we offer some ways to make web tasks faster.

Google has evidence that people prefer websites that are faster, and that even small changes to save a couple seconds add up. So Google is introducing things and promoting other people's efforts to speed up page-load times. Google introduced the Go programming language and Chrome browser. They promote optimization tools such as PageSpeed, a Firebug extension, and They promote Yahoo's efforts like YSlow (pronounced why slow), and rules for faster-loading web pages in Steve Souder's book High Performance Websites.

But efforts at optimizing page-load times will only tackle a fraction of the overall user experience time. A user can take much longer to accomplish a web task than it takes for the web pages to load. Thus our big challenge is in solving usability problems after the page loads. This requires us to make user tasks faster. If you test your web tasks, you know the value of saving the user's valuable time. If you manage a large website you know you can't make all pages faster – you prioritize your scarce resources on key pages. That's why more and more people are focusing on top tasks – to focus scarce resources on web pages that matter to users.

So user experience professionals can greatly help Google make the web faster. To do so we need to 1) focus efforts on the really top tasks and 2) radically reduce the time it takes users to do them. How can you help? If you already know your users' top tasks, here are seven ways you can help:

  1. Make landing pages immediately clear
    • Make top tasks stand out on key landing pages – when people arrive at your site they are scanning quickly
    • Put key links in visible places with words user will recognize
    • Get people started on their top task as quickly as possible
    • Assign real estate proportionate to the importance of the task
    • Eliminate clutter – avoid duplicate links that take users' time and attention
    • Downplay anything that does not directly support visitors’ top tasks
  2. Read more on landing page design

  3. Make links and menus faster to scan
    • Avoid jargon in links and menus
    • Avoid graphics that distract from key links – e.g. human faces, motion graphics, etc.
    • Lead with the need – place the important words first in link labels and menu items
    • Make links brief and to the point
  4. Read more guidelines for good links

  5. Make task journeys faster
    • Provide a clear, uninterrupted path to users' tasks – support progress toward the user's goal every step of the way
    • Don't make the user read if they are in scanning mode
    • Use mega-drop-down menus or other Web 2.0 and AJAX widgets to provide users with immediate access to top tasks, rather than having to navigate your information architecture to find them
    • Make accessible task completion faster using W3C guidelines and AJAX techniques
    • Manage the number of choices at every step along a task journey – search, arrival, navigation, and destination
  6. Read more about choices along a task path

  7. Make form-filling faster
    • Only make users enter information that is essential to complete the task
    • Don't make the user re-enter information they have already provided
    • Pre-fill fields with meaningful defaults
    • Keep forms as brief as possible
    • Use a calendar so people don't waste time on mistakes in date format
    • Arrange form fields for quick scanning and entry – and put field titles above data-entry fields if possible
  8. Read more about form design

  9. Preserve the task-context
    • Save the user's context when links send them to another site – send them to a relevant page not a Home page
    • Don't make users tell you what they want multiple times – make every click count
    • Make sure pages match the expectations users have when they click
    • When information is needed for a decision, don't make users look around for it
    • Provide concise feedback to the user about what the system is doing, or what is happening
  10. Help users recover from errors faster
    • When the user makes an error, show them how to correct it quickly
    • De-activate links to a page when the user is viewing that page
    • Show users which pages they've already visited by highlighting links they've followed
  11. Make web applications faster
    • Bring essential data from the application to the user's task rather than making the user launch the application to get it
    • Don't make the user log on unless the benefit is clear to them

Make web tasks faster – help make the world better. Read our brief history of time on task if you need some background on the importance. Ready to track how well you're doing? We can help measure your progress with tools like the Task Performance Indicator.

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How to study users without doing public opinion research

Sometimes it is hard to find budget for user research. In a budget crunch, decisions can overlook the importance of user input in managing a user experience. Whether you manage a website or an application, you can't be decisive without user input. We hope that by reading this you have already begun understanding your users' tasks. But everybody needs to apply what they have learned. Budgets tighten. But you can't just stop managing. Here we offer some coping mechanisms.

Build on your knowledge of your users' top tasks

  • Prioritize the tasks your customers do on web pages
  • Substantiate them with goals for why users do them, and sub-tasks that are related
  • Know the destination pages for common search terms
  • Identify any pages that are not in top three search results, and re-word link labels to include the words users are scanning for
  • Put click tracking, such as ClickTale, on your site to watch mouse behaviour
  • Use Google Analytics Site Overlay to compare clicks on each page
  • Define a Goal Funnel in GoogleAnalytics

Keep up on the words your users scan for to do top tasks

  • Hyperlinks are the fundamental building blocks of the web, and the words in them help users know which to click
  • Study the search terms users type to arrive at your website to get to know their language
  • Study your search logs from your on-site search engines
  • If you use GoogleAnalytics prioritize the keywords used to arrive at each key page and make sure page titles, headers, and links reflect the most frequently-used search terms
  • Analyse competitor pages that rank high in Google Search results – use Google Keyword Tool to identify the search terms people use
  • Use GoogleTrends to compare terms to one another
  • If you have done a Customer Carewords analysis to identify words your users scan for, prioritize all the above activities around the words that got the most votes from users

Watch for alternatives that help users complete tasks

  • Do a comparative analysis of similar sites – compare the interaction mechanisms they use with your own
  • Mock up new ways to support tasks on paper – test them by asking colleagues to do tasks – to observe, not to gather opinions
  • Make them clickable and test the paper-prototypes or wireframes online
    Design before you code to minimize development costs
  • Test alternatives and compare the live traffic
  • Quantify the impact of usability errors – multiply frequency of use by unnecessary time-on-task

Better yet, make it a team effort. Gather your best colleagues during your next project with us and we'll apply these specifically to you. We cover lots of these techniques during a normal project anyway. We'll be happy to show you examples and work through these techniques in a hands-on workshop format.

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Good links are promises and paths – or they are pests

A link is a promise

Gerry McGovern says "a link is a promise, and if websites were marriages, many would end in divorce". Links need to keep their promise or people are frustrated. Designing links is the fundamental skill of the web. Links connect the steps of a user experience, and help users complete tasks. Links create expectations. People scan them and quickly build a sense of what to expect once they click them. If their expectations are not matched, they are disappointed when the page loads. They may hit "back" too soon, or leave the site altogether. Good links match user expectations. They fulfill their promise. Your links help you build trust.

Tip: "Lead with the need"; keep link labels brief, specific,
well-matched to the title or header of the page they load.

A link is a step in a path

The ideal link leads the user down a path that helps them complete their task. The ideal link is thus part of an overall experience. That path may not load many pages, but it may involve multiple choices or selections. A link or button may lead to another page, where a user scans for what to do next. Or with Web 2.0 a link or button may cause more information to appear on the same page, so a task path occurs without a page load. You might also hear these paths referred to in terms of steps, screens, journeys, etc. Whichever, the path needs to be optimized to help the user finish the task.

Tip: Reduce the number of steps to accomplish top tasks,
and keep users from being diverted by many alternate routes or pages to try.
Teach people who write for the web to think of the path created by their links.

A link can be a pest

Links sometimes sneak in where they don't belong. Links that don't belong distract users from a task, make extra work for web authors, or breed other links. Pests creep into a well-cared-for space and try to make a home. Links can too – when they creep onto a well-designed navigational menu or page. Pests that users cannot ignore can ruin a great visit. Same with links that distract users from the reason they visited. Furthermore, pests require maintenance – as all links require maintenance. Links have to be checked, repaired, managed on the page, and tracked in analytics. Links that are pests create unnecessary work for everybody. How do you get rid of links that are pests?

  • Optimize for search and sweep out pests
    Some links are long-tail – important but too low-volume to merit space in a navigational menu, home page, etc. For those low-volume links, optimize those pages for search engines to find them, using words people are scanning for in page titles, headers, links, etc. Then sweep the low-volume long-tail pests off the main page.
  • Transplant pests
    Find out where the links REALLY belong, and transplant them. Well-meaning web authors sometimes put related links on a page. But users are scanning for links to accomplish the main task they come to that page to do, and sometimes click those related links – or leave – before they see the links or content they came for. Transplant related links where they will thrive, in places where the user most needs them to do a task.
  • Build a place for pests to live somewhere else
    Some links are important, but just not important enough to keep in global navigation or top-level pages. These links may not be pests once they are in their proper place. Give these links a home of their own.
    These links might belong on a sub-site or in contextual navigation deeper in the site. If they are important, users will appreciate the fact that they are on a page that is optimized to a task.

If you have links that are pests, sweep them out, transplant them where they can thrive, or build them a new home.

Tip: Keep links visible in the primary scanning area, not below the fold,
easy to discriminate from each other
so users aren't tempted to compare too many choices.

Manage your user experience by building good links. Links are fundamental to your user experience. Get rid of pests and make good promises and paths. Give us a call at 613 271-3001.

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Quote of the month

“The world can be seen as only connections... A piece of information is defined by what it is related to, and how it is related. The structure is everything”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee – Weaving the Web

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