Category Archives: Usability

101 advice for websites promoting physical outlets

It has been a very wet few days in Sydney. Being a new(ish) parent I’ve been online trying to find inspiration for ways to entertain my toddler.

I have been amazed by how poor many of these sites are. As I browser I have 4 basic questions:

  • What do you offer?
  • Where are you?
  • When are you open?
  • What does it cost?

Most of the sites I’ve encountered do a reasonable job of the first and last of these points, but boy oh boy the middle two.

Have a go. Go and have a look at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo website ( and see how long it takes to find out when they are open. Surely this would be a prominent feature on their homepage? No!

Here’s another. I was recommended this play centre for kids, Lollipops Playland ( Just try to find out how to get to the Frenchs Forest outlet.

Difficult isn’t it. Why doesn’t it include a map of the location rather than after spending 5 minutes of so looking around the site finally having to go to Google Maps to find out where it is.

The 101 advice when creating a website for a physical location that people will have to visit is to include the following prominently in your site:

  • A map of where you are with directions and information about parking
  • Information about when you are open
  • Pricing

Yours is a highly competitive market, if I can’t find this information in an instant I’m off to one of your competitors!


Workshop: IA and collaborative design

I will be running a 2-day workshop on information architecture and collaborative design on the 24th and 25th March 2010 at Rydges World Square, Sydney.

The workshop is titled ‘Information Architecture and Collaborative Design:The design behind the design of successful interactive products’. More details can be found over at the Ark Group website who are hosting the event.

The workshop will cover all sorts of good IA and collaborative design topics, such as:

  • Card sorting and other methods of user and stakeholder engagement
  • Prototyping, usability testing and iterative design
  • Designing and documenting a robust and flexible information architecture

I am sure I’ll post quite a bit more on the topics I’ll cover over the next few weeks and months as I collate the materials I’ll be using for the workshop.

If you’re interested in attending please contact Michael Moorcraft at or call him on +61 1300 550 662.

I hope to see you there.

Counter arguments to homepage advertising

It is a commercial reality that online advertising is a necessity for many organisations. As any digital marketeer will tell you, the click-through rate on online advertising is staggeringly low (think of a low number, add a decimal place and a few 00’s kind of low). To counter the low click-through rates in most situations marketeers play the numbers game and place dominant advertising on pages which attract the biggest number of visitors, typically the website homepage. The result is yet more visual clutter on a page that is typically fairly cluttered to begin with.


All fine and good eh, the organisation derives maximum profit from advertising?

I am convinced that there is a compelling commercial argument to not having advertising on pages, such as the homepage, where people need to be able to navigate clearly. Here are a couple of counter arguments…

What is the impact of advertising on the 99.99% of us that don’t click on the ad?

Homepage drop-out rates are a big issue on many websites. Now I don’t want to blame this entirely on advertising, but certainly dominant advertising doesn’t help people complete the task that brought them to the site in the first place.

Adverts frequently employ highly distracting tactics, such as animation, which make it very difficult for a person to focus on the rest of the site for a sufficient time to click on the best link to help them nearer towards their task. During usability testing I have frequently heard people say that they’d click on something quickly just to get off a page with overwhelming adverting.

The upshot of this is that people end up at the wrong parts of the website where they can’t complete their task. This results in people either turning to alternate service channels that are more expensive for the organisation, such as call centres, or worse still, people giving up and seeking out a competitors site to satisfy their needs.

What is the cost of this to the organisation? It is a complicated calculation, but my feeling is that it certainly cuts into a significant slice of whatever revenue is derived from homepage advertising.

Wouldn’t click-through %’s be higher with more targeted advertising?

Why not place adverts in places where you know more about why a person is visiting your site, i.e. anywhere other than the homepage? Better still, place the advertising on pages after the person has completed their reason for visiting the site. This is when people are more susceptible to distractions.

Sites with sophisticed approaches to monitoring web metrics, such as Amazon, target these seducible moments to great effect. For example, on Amazon directly after adding an item to my shopping basket I am taken to a page that provides me with recommendations based on the item I’ve just added to my shopping basket.

Applying the principle of seducible moments to a site such as would mean uncluttering the homepage with take-over advertising and instead placing adverts for things such as credit cards in the Money area of the site, or alongside news articles about financial related topics.

Silverback – where’s the catch?

I finally got around to installing and testing out Silverback tonight. Silverback is a nifty Mac gadget that does picture-in-picture screen capture, i.e. exactly the application you want for your guerilla usability testing lab.

What I don’t understand is why I haven’t heard people raving about this. There is the obvious drawback that it only works on a Mac with built in iSight, but we’re not too small a percentage of the broader design community. Is it just that people don’t know about this product, or is there some catch I haven’t yet experienced?

Don’t listen to what people say

I am finally getting around to reading Barry Schwartz‘s much recommended The paradox of choice.

The booked is filled with great stories to support his tenet that “the culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction”.

I was particularly struck by a paragraph around the problems we have around deciding and choosing:

So it seems that neither our predictions about how we will feel after an experience nor our memories of how we did feel during the experience are very accurate reflections of how we actually do feel while the experience is occuring. And yet it is memories of the past and expectations for the future that govern our choices.

(his italics)

The quote has strong echoes of Neilsen’s first rule of usability:

To design an easy-to-use interface, pay attention to what users do, not what they say. Self-reported claims are unreliable, as are user speculations about future behavior.

Schwartz is preaching to the converted with me, but it is great to have more anecdotes to tell to support your beliefs.

If you don’t own a copy, go order yourself one!

Context is everything

Harry Brignull’s post (Why you shouldn’t rush into a solution too quickly) about my OZIA presentation reminds me that I promised to extract a few of the key messages from the presentation and blog about them myself.

The key message of the presentation was Iterative design alone can’t save us.

Iterative design alone can't save us

As you can probably guess from the main theme, my argument was that we must ground our work in a rich understanding of the context of use, or else we run the risk of creating well meaning rubbish.

I argued that although an essential ingredient in good user centred design, iterative design alone can’t stop us from creating bad products.

To make my point, I cited the highly iterative, but decidedly non-contextual development of the UK Government’s SA80 rifle. The rifle was developed over a number of years and involved much testing at firing ranges.

The problem was that the testing was conducted under far too controlled conditions. The rifles were carefully caried out to the firing range, rather than being dragged around in the real conditions in which they would need to operate. The result being that when the product was ‘launched’ it still had major (**major**) issues. Such as:

  • Couldn’t be fired from the left shoulder
  • It went off when dropped
  • Safety catch would break if the trigger was pulled hard
  • Plastic would swell in rain and jam the safety switch on/off
  • When running a heavy ammunition magazine would fall out

My argument being if we only conduct iterative design in controlled usability testing labs, using pre-defined tasks then what is to stop our projects going the same way as the SA80?

My full presentation is fairly visual rather than textual, so it may not make sense out of context (chortle).

The information about the SA80 project comes from James Meek’s excellent article, Off target, from a few years back in the Guardian.

Office and the beast

The recent post by Phil Barrett, Using the Microsoft Ribbon without anyone getting hurt, reminded me of my first experience using Microsoft Office 2007.

I was in remote New South Wales conducting field research (almost literally!) and had been given a laptop on which to conduct the research. It is always a joy not using your own equipment, but I was running usability tests on a working prototype and needed a machine with a server in a hurry, so I was given “the beast”!

The beast

The Beast

The beast doesn’t look quite so beast-like in this thumbnail, but let me explain…

The beast is an Acer Aspire Gemstone Blue 8930G. It has the byline “Wider than Wide!”, a more accurate description of the product would be “Heavy as Hell”. Light it isn’t.

(it feels like quite a liberty to call something with a 18.6″ screen and that is difficult/impossible to find computer bags for a laptop – maybe if I was a giant it would be both portable and fit on my lap!)

Besides the weight, there are a couple of other issues with the product (this is even before I got to using MS Office 2007):

  1. The laptop has a bizarre trackpad that provides no tactile feedback as to the edge of the trackpad area. This meant that my fingers kept on brushing the fingertip recognition scanner that is oh so handily placed just beside the trackpad. Brushing the scanner causes a “fingertip recognition has not been set up on this machine” message to come up every time – quite disrupting when you’re touch typing – grrr!
  2. Every second time I started the machine rather than the Windows environment I was placed in some Acer multimedia environment that enabled me to select between the different modes the machine can operate in. Unfortunately there was no obvious way (not to me anytime) of exiting the environment and booting into Windows – so I invariably ended up rebooting the machine and hoping that it would just magically boot into Windows rather than the multimedia environment (never will anyone have been so pleased to see Vista starting up!).

So to MS Office 2007…

Where did Save As go?

As the above description of the machine I was using suggests, I wasn’t exactly working at maximum speed anyway, but then I started using MS Office 2007.

I understand (or at least think I understand) the supposed logic of the MS Ribbon, i.e. exposing the most likely functions a user may require based on the task they are undertaking. But for a product like MS Word with such a variety of tasks is it really possible to do this? Can you really second-guess all the things a user may want to do at any point in time? It certainly failed me.

The task: I was updating my “on the road” notes and wanted to save the document I was working on with a new name, i.e. Save As.


Where has the File menu gone? It took over 10 minutes before I managed to locate the feature (clue: you find it by clicking on the circular Office logo in the top left corner – intuitive eh!).

The combination of the Acer laptop and MS Word 2007 reduced my productivity considerably. What should have taken me 15 minutes, ended up taking around 45 and included much, much frustration.

I like Phil’s note that there are products you can buy that remove the Ribbon, personally I’ll be sticking to Word 2003.