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Web Usability

Printed in the May/June 2000 Issue of the IEEE Professional Communication Society Newsletter. By Elizabeth Weise Moeller

In the September, 1999 issue of the PCS Newsletter I touched on some web usability issues. However, I felt some of these issues were important enough to warrant another discussion. In fact, splash screens, user login, and out-dated content are the three biggest problems I see on a daily basis.

Splash Screens

It bothers me that the latest trend in web site design includes lavish splash screens, often with some form of Flash or Shockwave animation. Disney World (http://www.disneyworld.com) and Ford MotorCompany (http://www.ford.com) are prime examples. While Disney and Ford allow users to skip the Flash introduction, many sites do not allow users to get past the splash screen until they view the entire animation. Additionally, flash and Shockwave require the users to get plug-ins (additional software) for their web browsers before they can even view the animation.

Usability issues abound with animated splash screens. The biggestproblem is download time. Nielsen/Net Ratings, the Internet arm of the company known for its television rating system, reports thatless than half of the internet users connect with modems capable of speeds of 56K or faster. Over 40% of those users are using 56K modems, which rarely connect at full speed. On top of that, Jakob Nielsen reports that users will wait a maximum of 15 seconds fora web page to load (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9605.html). This basically means that the total size of all page files, including graphics, should be no more than 50K. The combination of some form of animation, plus any text you may want to include, will more than likely run over this 50K limit.

Splash screens are often the product of a web site designed and created by a marketing department, usually without the benefit of a web usability expert. These screens are designed to be consistent with the rest of the marketing image for the organization. Unfortunately, this is sometimes not reasonable. As everyone knows, different advertising mediums require different styles. Once users are at your web site, you have up to 30 seconds to engage them-and this includes the download time. Give them the content they desire without asking them to watch your animated sequences or jump through special hoops.

User Login

Another annoyance for many users is the required login before the site will give you any information. For example, Travelocity (http://www.travelocity.com) advertises their Best Fare Finder to help you find the best available airfare for an upcoming trip. The only way to see these fares, however, is to tell Travelocity who you are-including name, street address, email address and phone number. Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com) requires user login at the ordering stage. Users are free to browse the site until it is time to order something. However, once you login, Amazon tracks your purchases and those of others purchasing items similar to yours. Each time you visit Amazon.com, the home page includes book recommendations for you based on your previous purchases and other information stored about your viewing habits.

Some sites do not require user login, but they give the appearance that you will not get the best information unless you login. Time Warner Cable, providing Road Runner Cable Modem service to businesses and homes in our area, uses this tactic on their Road Runner Pro(business use) web site (http://www.rr.com). It appears that you cannot get to the pricing structure for Road Runner Pro unless you provide your name, company name, and associated information. However, if you simply click on the “Next” button, you will see the complete pricing list.

Again, this is a case where the organization marketing department probably had final say over the web site development. Many organizations require user login as a way to collect marketing data about who is visiting their site and where they go. Once logged in, a users movement through a web site can be tracked. That user can then be targeted for specific advertising. There is a cartoon that surfaces a lot on the Internet-the caption reads “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” That is the appeal of the Internet for many. They choose to browse the offerings of different vendors, knowing that they will not be subjected to a high-pressure sales pitch. They are able to find vendors who meet their needs and then contact the vendors when time allows. This is a conundrum for many web site developers. They want to know who their users are without scaring them away. A bigger issue for them, however, should be their informational content.

Out-dated Content

This is the biggest problem facing users today. Many organizations feel that once the web site is online, it can be ignored. WRONG! The web site becomes an integral part of your marketing plan. This means that all information needs to remain current. Out-dated content, in the best circumstances, simply requires the users to make a phone call to verify information. In the worst circumstances, your organization has lost credibility and customers.

CyberResearch (http://www.cyberresearch.com), the self-proclaimed leading supplier of industrial PC-based data acquisition systems, has been advertising “online catalog coming soon” for quite some time. While their print catalog is very much alive and current, there appears to be no sign of the online catalog. This, coupled with the infrequent updates to the web site, will cause huge credibility problems for them. For example, a “leading supplier” should not be offering an out-dated, obsolete computer system as a “featured item” on their web site-something CyberResearch has done in the past.

This is frustrating for users-not only on a business level, but a personal level as well. The season for our local performing arts center is long over, but their web site (http://www.spac.org) was still advertising 1999 events at the time this column was written. SPAC has not formally announced their 2000 season yet. However, it would be nice for them to acknowledge that the 1999 season is over, perhaps thank people who attended, and provide the date we can expect to see information on the 2000 season.

Organizations need to view their web site as a customer service vehicle. Many would never dare to offend a customer during a phone call or face-to-face encounter. But, by ignoring the needs of their web site visitors, they are doing just that. Stop and think about which organizations you have chosen not to patronize simply because their web site was difficult or out of date. The lis might surprise you.

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