Might look good, but does it work?

You’ve paid a top-flight designer to create the flashiest corporate site on
the Net, but it isn’t delivering the volume of traffic expected. This could
simply be down to the fact that it’s too difficult to use. Grant
McQuattie-Campbell, head of research at The Usability Company, explains how to
put your site to the test

Usability is a term new to many, but it is a science rooted in the Cold War
era of military research. From the earliest days of the jet fighter, scientists
employed usability techniques to optimise the ability of a machine’s user.
Today, these techniques are practised across the spectrum of digital platforms
– from PCs and interactive TVs to portable digital assistants and mobile

With an increasing number of personnel functions becoming Internet or
intranet-based, HR professionals need an appreciation of what works and what
doesn’t when it comes to screen-based design, especially in view of the rise in
self-service HR systems. By making an intranet easier to use, for example,
businesses are finding that productivity is boosted, support costs are reduced
and staff morale is bolstered.

Testing, testing…

Usability testing is a simple process to understand, but difficult to
implement. A usability specialist must first audit the platform and then
develop a series of tasks to do on the site, select a user group (composed of
the average demographic) and evaluate the individual’s ability to use the

This can throw up all kinds of inconsistencies and pitfalls. In the case of
an intranet, it could translate to hours of lost time as employees become immersed
in an unusable system while simply trying to find a phone number.

A recent review of online banking sites uncovered a typical case of
user-unfriendliness. Browsers looking for a telephone number to guide them
through the NatWest site were directed to The Royal Bank of Scotland page,
where the number they were presented with was based in Edinburgh. When this
number was called people were given a London number – which then directed them
to the correct website helpline.

In terms of wasted time, no users were willing to pursue the helpline hunt
further than Edinburgh. But had they done so, they would have had the pleasure
of two national-rate calls, an increased Internet bill and a great deal of hair

Inviting talent

The case for implementing usability guidelines on a recruitment area of a
website is glaring. Research by The Usability Company found a number of
multinationals with highly unfriendly sites. Such sites will often deter some
of the best-qualified job applicants, as only the most persistent (or
desperate) will devote a lot of time to the application process. If Amazon is
the benchmark of usability and scores a theoretical nine out of 10, then UK
jobsites average four or five.

Sion Mooney, a recruitment consultant well versed in usability issues, says
"The main barrier between an ideal candidate and your company can very
often be a cumbersome process in the online application. A thorough test of the
site irons out these problems and can increase enquiries."

Grant McQuattie-Campbell is co-founder and head of research of the
Usability Company, a leading usability specialist. In the past year it has made
recommendations for change to the interactive applications of companies
including Barclays, MTV, BSkyB, William Hill and Debenhams.


Towards usability: three design basics

Text This should be between 11 and 12 point size. One of the best
fonts to use in screen displays is generally agreed to be Ariel or other
san-serif fonts. The text colour should also be taken into account as colours
should be high contrast. Black on white is always a good starting point.

Navigation It is generally accepted that an online shopper has the
patience of a seven-year-old. Generally speaking, once the home page has
loaded, if they can’t find what they’re looking for in three clicks of the
mouse, they’ll leave.

Plug-ins If the user has to download the latest version of Flash to
view your site just because of a spinning logo, there’s something wrong with
your priorities. Always give users an option to view the site in plain text –
this will allow much greater access to your site.

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