| August 2005
By looking at how we interact with the world in our everyday life, we can learn some of the techniques we use and begin to understand why they work so well. We can then employ the same methods in web design to create a similarly easy experience.
Deciding how to get there
I recently moved house from South East to South West London and this meant I had to find a new way to get to work. My friend recommended I should try get the bus as I was now closer to where I worked and could save some money. I was a little dubious - I thought it might take too long and be too difficult to work out what bus to get. However, I thought I'd give it a go, just this once.
We also need reasons why we should sign-up to a new service, or download an application on the Internet. As such, you should always provide benefits to site visitors to encourage them to do this. For example, just like how I was told I would save money if I took the bus, you should tell site visitors upfront that they'll get all your latest special offers if they sign up to your newsletter.
You also shouldn't underestimate the power of word-of-mouth. When someone has had a good experience they're more likely to recommend it to others. But be warned - when we have a bad experience we also like to have a moan to someone else about it!
Preparing to take a journey
The first day I decided to take the bus I left for work early. Although I looked on the Internet and found out how long the journey would take, I wasn't all that confident. I didn't trust the times the website gave. Buses are always late aren't they?
When the bus came I let those that had been waiting before me go first and expected those who arrived after me to do the same. They didn't, so I quickly gave up on that idea! I watched what others did when they got on the bus and followed their example.
We often feel a little bit nervous or unconfident when doing something for the first time. We need to be reassured that what we're doing is correct and be given constant feedback that we're on the right track. Users who are new to your site might have negative ideas or assumptions about site processes. For example, if users need to register on your site, they might think that the form will take ages to fill in and after registering they'll be bombarded with junk mail.
You need to dispel negative expectations at the start. If you tell site visitors that it'll only take two minutes to register and their e-mail won't be passed on to third parties, then they'll be more likely to continue. I wouldn't have got on a bus if I don't know where it was going, what route it was going to take or how long it would take.
Site visitors can also learn what the site can do by seeing what others have done. We learn by watching others and are more inclined to do something if we see that others have done it too. You can provide case studies, testimonials and examples on your website to do this.
Taking the journey
I looked at buildings, road names, shops, posters, advertisements, and people on the street. I looked for clues from the environment to try and discover the route I was taking. I used tube stations as landmarks to recognise I was getting closer to my destination.
We also need these navigation clues on the web. Users may now expect to find a navigation bar along the left of the screen or across the top of the page. The logo in the top left hand corner often links back to the homepage.
To help users navigate, link text should stand out and make sense without forcing users to read around the link. Using ‘click here’ as a link is no more helpful than providing a road sign that says ‘Go here’. You don't know where you're going unless you absorb additional information around the area.
Web users also need to know that they're on the correct route. They need feedback and reassurance. If site visitors follow a link that reads ‘latest news’, the main heading on the page they reach should also read ‘latest news’. If it reads ‘latest articles’ or ‘today on the web’ site visitors may be unsure that they've come to the right place. Similarly when filling out a form, site visitors should be provided with feedback of their progress e.g. ‘You are at step 1 of 4’.
Finishing the journey
I knew when I was approaching my stop as I could see London Bridge, but I didn't know whereabouts the stop actually was. Based on past experience, I knew I had to ring the bell to stop the bus. I hoped that someone else would get off at my stop so I would know when I would have to get up. Luckily many people started to get up to leave at the same time and I just followed their lead. I got off the bus, had a quick look around and by familiarising myself with the surroundings could confirm that I had reached my destination safe and sound.
On the web, users should also be told what they can do next and should not reach dead ends. For example after placing an order, users should be told that an e-mail is going to be sent to them and how long the order will take. They should also be given recommendations of where to go next on the site, so they have somewhere to go.
Trying it again
After my first day on the bus I thought I'd give it another go. It wasn't a bad trip after all. Each day I got on the bus I started to learn more of the route. I got on different types of buses, and they all worked in the same way. I was gaining confidence and thought about taking the bus to go to different places at the weekends.
I'm still using the bus and I now notice when billboards change or if we're spending longer on a particular road than usual. I can predict the route. I can even fall asleep and program myself to wake up at the right time. I've learnt route numbers and I can now explore London and always know how to get home.
As users' confidence increases they'll be more willing to explore your website further. This should be supported by allowing site visitors to undo any mistakes they make. If they follow a wrong link there should be a way for them to get back where they came from. Before submitting a form, site visitors should be able to review it.
It's important to remember that web users won't use your website to its full potential on their first visit. When they return, they may be prepared to look further. This should be supported by providing the same means of interaction with the site throughout and using similar techniques that can be found on other websites.
When you visit either a place or a website for the first time, there's a lot for you to take in. Everything is new and exciting, but it can also be daunting. There's a lot to explore and you may not know where to start.
When you become more familiar, you start to learn your way around. You soon learn the best places to go and the best routes to get you there. When you know a place well you may even learn short-cuts. You're also more likely to notice when small things change - like the poster on the billboard at the end of the street.
This article was written by Jenny French. Jenny's crazy about web usability - so crazy that she's now a usability consultant with Webcredible, an industry leading web usability and accessibility consultancy. She's particularly passionate about usability testing.