Wednesday, 30 December 2009

New Steve Krug book - Rocket Surgery Made Easy

I've just read the free chapter of Steve Krug's new book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy, on his website. I want a copy. Now.

It's a few years since I read his first book, and I'd forgotten just how witty and engaging Steve is when he writes.

I'm also a bit peeved that I forgot to put it on my Christmas list. Never mind, that's what the January sales are for...'s a how-to book that explains exactly how to do your own usability testing.

I wrote it because I really do believe that everyone can—and should—be doing their own testing.

If you're remotely interested in having a website that is easy for your visitors to use, I defy you to read this, and not want the rest of the book.

Sample chapter (PDF download) - "Call me Ishmael - How this book came to be, some disclaimers,and a bit of housekeeping"

How to buy the book at - Steve Krug's website

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Axure resources - free downloads

Axure is a great prototyping tool used by a large community of usability professionals. Some have created stencils and widgets that can be downloaded and used for free.

Free Axure design patterns - Roslyn Zolandor (

Axure Design Pattern Library - Loren Baxter (

Axure widget libraries (

Three rules for creating great wireframes

A few hints and tips when you're prototyping a website or interface. And I like this succinct explanation of why prototyping is so important:

Explained properly to a client prototypes and wireframes can be a great way to lock down, demonstrate and flesh-out a site's functionality. It also has the added advantages of keeping a project on specification and budget.
Three rules for creating great wireframes - article by Roslyn Zolandor

Search landing page user experiences

An interesting article by Jared Spool on some of the ways in which search engines get it wrong with their results pages. Lots of useful examples and anecdotes from user testing sessions to back up his comments.

The best [website management] teams regularly inspect the top queries, determine what those users are seeking, then check their landing pages to ensure they're delivering it.

Three perils with search landing pages - article by Jared Spool

Free online seminar - improving the search experience

A free online presentation from Jared Spool of I've not watched this one yet, but others from uie have been worthwhile.

Search, Scent and the Happiness of Pursuit - free online presentation with Jared M. Spool

Presentation outline for "Search, Scent and the Happiness of Pursuit"

Gerry McGovern - Get to the point

Gerry McGovern emphasises the need to cut the waffle and get to the point quickly when writing for the web. Ironically in quite a rambling fashion. Still worth a quick read though.

The importance of getting to the point - article by Gerry McGovern

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Prototyping with Visio - Whitney Quesenbery

A presentation that covers all the basic whys and hows of prototyping, as well as getting into the detail of Visio techniques, ending with a further reading list I need to investigate further. All within 30 slides.

Prototyping and usability testing with Visio (PDF) - presentation by Karen Bachman and Whitney Quesenbery

The right trigger words - Jared Spool on labelling and links

A good article on the power of well labelled links. Jared summarises:
The purpose of every link is to move users forward. Each link needs to give off enough "scent" to clue the user into the content to follow. That scent comes from the trigger words. When creating new content, the designers' most important task is to ensure that the links to that content contains the right trigger words.

The bottom line, as ever is engage with your users if you want to understand them and use their language.
How do you find out what your users' trigger words are? Well, you start by asking them... This powerful trio -- field studies, personas, and usability testing -- are a great way to start identifying the trigger words that work for your users.

The right trigger words - article by Jared Spool

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

24 usability testing tools

This evening I went back to a link I blogged back in October on free and paid online usability testing tools. Very disappointed to find that the article now requires registration to read it.

So instead of registering, I just had a bit of a look about for someone else who's written much the same article. And here we are:

24 website usability testing tools - article from

Like I said last time, as and when I try these out I'll blog about them.

Anyone around the University experimenting with these, drop me a line or leave a comment.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Focus on self service - help visitors help themselves

A neat little article from Gerry McGovern, which again highlights how traditional marketing techniques employed in other media don't work so well on the web.

The majority of visitors come to your site with a task in mind. Instead of promotion, focus on helping them do what they want to do.

Understand your audiences, prioritise their requirements, be direct in your labelling.

Help those who want to help themselves - article by Gerry McGovern

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Loop 11 online usability testing tool

Another online tool I've been investigating - there seem to be so many available right now...

I've not set a test up just yet, but have tried out the participation demo and registered to get access to a set of dummy results and a free trial.

First impression is that it could well be a useful tool and I'm going to give some thought about what I'll use my free trial credit for. At $350 a test after the freebie though, I don't see this being something I use that often.

Loop 11 records and analyses the interactions users have with your website when undertaking a set of tasks set by you.

Advantages: There's no software for either you or your participants to install to access the service and the analysis of the data collected looks great. I almost always find summarising and communicating the results of tests to be a bit of bind.

Disadvantages: No video footage, no comments from the users. Instead you get details of routes through the site, time on page, screenshots, plus answers to any questions you pose.

So closer to a survey in some ways. I think this is reflected in the number of users they advocate you recuit. The maximum for any test is 1000.

The service is distinct from any other I've come across so far. It will be good for some investigations, and not so good for others. The trick will be working out how best to use it.

Certainly worth a look, if only for the free trial.

Loop 11 online user testing service

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Lou Rosenfeld IA presentations

Following the ad for Lou Rosenfeld's upcoming session in London, I spent a bit of time looking at his site. A couple of sections worth a look.

Information Architecture sounds a bit boring and techie, but in reality it's just the same as what everyone else is saying on usability but from a slightly different perspective. The librarian's approach, perhaps?

One presentation in particular caught my eye - "Enterprise Information Architecture: Because users don't care about your org chart"

Believe it or not, 'enterprise information architecture' covers the university approach to structuring web content...

Lots of interesting observations and advice. Possibly nothing particularly new, but well presented by an expert in the field.

Lou Rosenfeld's presentations - from

In addition to these presentations (delivered via slideshare) you can also download the powerpoint slides for the enterprise IA, bizarrely from his publications page.

Lou Rosenfeld's publications and downloads

Steve Krug & Lou Rosenfeld in the UK

Steve Krug and Lou Rosenfeld run two day workshops togther, and are coming to London early next year. Together they cover low cost usability testing and information architecture.

Steve Krug wrote the excellent book, Don't Make Me Think. If you only ever read one book on usability...

Lou Rosenfeld wrote the definitive book on information architecture, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (aka the Polar Bear Book). I've had a copy of this book on my shelf for 7 years now and still come back to it time and again. If you build websites, you probably should own a copy.

They're running their sessions through Etre, a usability company.

Etre Get Together - with Steve Krug and Lou Rosenfeld - March 2010

Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think
Lou Rosenfeld's Polar Bear Book

Etre usability email newsletter - personally I find them waffly, self indulgent and over familiar. But hey, that's just me. And I suppose if I hadn't subscribed I might not have found out about this...

Steve Krug presentation online

I blogged this free online presentation months ago. Worth highlighting again if you missed it...

Steve Krug on the least you can do about usability

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

McGoven on the value of user testing

Gerry McGovern advocates watching users visit your website to perform top tasks.

Do you really think those crude, meaningless statistics about page impressions, visitors and hits are anything other than crude and meaningless?

Behind these cold, lifeless statistics lie the experiences of real people.

"Crude and menaingless?" That's a bit harsh, but I agree - developing websites based on webstats alone is a dodgy business.

Nobody sets out to create a cruel and unusually punishing website... We... [make things difficult] ...because we don't see our customers using our websites. We lack empathy and feeling...

Observing our customers is intrinsic to web success, and it's so basic.

And that's just it. It's so easy, so basic, there's no excuse not to do user testing.

If your customer falls in the forest of your website - article by Gerry McGovern

Friday, 27 November 2009 - big thumbs up

Today I reviewed some usability tests I recently commissioned through Very pleased with the results too.

I asked 5 US humanities students to perform a couple of quick tasks on a school website, then comment on a few things relating to content and layout.

I got a set of 15 minute videos of students performing tasks and, on the whole, talking quite eloquently throughout.

As is always the case with user testing, I got some great participants and some not-so-good. But this would have happened if I'd grabbed students at an open day and tested with them myself. Two great, two good-to-ok, and one a bit off-the-wall that I'm going to try and get a refund on.

[FOLLOW UP: I got my refund in the form of a test credit a couple of days later. No problem, no quibbles.]

So Steve Krug's recommendation held good. I'd definitely recommend and already have another set of tests to review - this time with UK students. No doubt I'll use the service again.

I guess the trick is to establish the right scenario, set the right tasks and you'll learn something worthwhile. I can do this quite competently because I've made my fair share of mistakes over the past 9 years and got to see the results of my flawed tasks first hand.

The one benefit of running tests yourself I suppose - and particularly when you're a beginner - is that you can adjust questions on the hoof when you screw up. And you can pose impromptu questions or direct things when you're not getting what you want. With you just set it up and let it loose. Then you get what you're given... - remote usability testing, great value, minimal hassle

Follow up related post: Remote usability testing advice (August 2010)

Thursday, 26 November 2009

George Orwell’s 5 rules for effective writing

As relevant now for the web as they were in 1946 when Orwell wrote them as a journalist reflecting on political communication.
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

A commentary on George Orwell’s 5 Rules for Effective Writing from

Politics and the English Language - the article by George Orwell which he concludes with his 5 rules

Web dogma by Fat DUX

Fat DUX are a usability consultancy.

Their website contains a lot of interesting reading, useful links and a recommended reading list.

I particularly like their web dogma which is "...10 rules that will enhance the user experience of any website or online application."

As well as being very good advice, they steal unashamedly from George Orwell for their 10th rule: "Break any of these rules sooner than do anything outright barbarous."

An altogther classier version of Steve Krug's word of caution about any usability guideline - "It depends" - I think.

The web dogma of Fat DUX

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

How little do users read? - Nielsen article

Jakob Nielsen wrote an interesting summary of a 2008 research paper and his own company's findings around how long website visitors spend reading content.
On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.
This inspired me to look more closely at webstats. Unfortunately, Google Analytics only provide average time on each page so it only takes one person to leave a page open while they go and make a cup of coffee and the data becomes pretty meaningless.

However, my click analysis tool Crazy Egg provides a modal breakdown of time to click (and therefore time on page). So I can see x% clicked after 2 seconds, y% after 5 seconds and so on.

My focus has been on homepages - particularly school homepages full of text - and sure enough, most people read next to nothing.

How Little Do Users Read? - article by Jakob Nielsen

Crazy Egg click analysis tool

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Mobile usability session at Scottish UPA

This month's session looks at the pitfalls of the mobile web and introduces design guidelines that can be applied to create a usable mobile site.

The event outline promises to show examples of good and bad designs and the differences between the 'desktop' and 'mobile' web.

Sounds good.

Tuesday 1st December, 7pm at Scottish Enterprise on Haymarket Terrace.

Mobile Usability & iPhone App session at the Scottish Usability Professionals Association

Snagit - a great prototyping tool

I bought a copy of Snagit during the summer after it was recommended to me by just about every usability professional on the course I was attending.

It's great. I love it.

If you need to mock up web pages or interfaces based on something that already exists it's brilliant.

If you need to grab screenshots for training materials or to provide feedback it's fantastic.

Did I mention that it's great? Quick and intuitive to use, I've saved hours and hours in the past 3 months.

Snagit screencapture and editing software

And it's cheap. Less than $40 for an educational license. When it came through, I actually had 4, so could share it round the office. So less than $10 a pop in the end!

And a 30 day free trial.

I like it. Did you notice?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Clear web navigation menus - McGovern's take

Gerry McGovern states the blatently obvious but frequently overlooked, as he often does...

Good web navigation is unsubtle. It is clear, precise, familiar, consistent, boring, unemotional. Good navigation is ugly and functional.

I particularly like his closing (slightly mad) thing on quick links...

How to create clear web navigation menus by Gerry McGovern

Persona development workshop & advocacy

An interesting article on how Howard McQueen runs a session to get organisations engaged in the persona creation process and embed their use in the development of intranets and portals.

Using persona advocates to develop user-centric intranets and portals - article by Howard McQueen

The article also includes a few potentially useful resources at the end. Some I was already aware of, but a couple I will need to return to - papers written by Microsoft staff on the use of personas in the development of their software products.

Personas: Practice and Theory (PDF download) - Research paper by John Pruitt and Jonathan Grudin (Microsoft)
Personas: Moving Beyond Role-Based Requirements Engineering (PDF download) - Research paper by Granville Miller (Microsoft) and Laurie Williams (North Carolina State University)

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The elements of user experience

Jesse James Garrett does an excellent job of illustrating the layer, the process, the essence of a user-centred design.

Print this off and put it on your wall. Reflect upon what happened when you last were involved in a website from scratch and which elements were overlooked. I have and I do.

Depressing and enlightening in equal measure.

elements of user experience by jesse james garrettThe elements of user experience by Jesse James Garrett - PDF download

This was the foundation for Jesse's subsequent book:

The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web - book by Jesse James Garrett

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Jared Spool on personas

I'm working on personas right now, and found an interview and a couple of blog posts, all involving Jared Spool, to be worth a look.
The persona [is] a package for containing what you’ve learned from your field research. A package that is transportable to everyone on the team, so they can have the same benefits of knowing the users as you have.
Jared Spool is a usability professional. His job is field research. While research is incredibly important, I don't think it's the be-all and end-all. So long as the people feeding into the persona creation process are people who genuinely understand the website user through first-hand experience.

In the interview, Steve Mulder gives this opinion:
I think personas not based on actual user research are absolutely better than no personas at all. A lot of customer and user knowledge already exists in many organizations, and by looking at the sales, marketing, product, customer support, and tech support perspectives, you can bring all these existing bits of knowledge together into personas without talking to any actual end user.
Making Personas Work for Your Web Site: An Interview with Steve Mulder - by Jared Spool

Crappy Personas vs. Robust Personas - blog post by Jared Spool

Personas vs. User Descriptions; Apples vs. Tomatoes

A final observation from Jared Spool:
Recently we conducted a study of several dozen organizations who claimed to use personas. Less than 5% actually conducted field research to inform their personas. The remaining 95% just made up the descriptions from internal guesswork.

If you’re just going to guess on the personas, why bother?

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Writing effective link text

Some recent articles by Gerry McGovern focusing on writing good link text that informs the reader and encourages click through.

I've found that the most effective links are written like headings, not part of sentences at all. I've found that putting links in sentences reduces readability and clickability.

How to write a great web link - article by Gerry McGovern

Why web links are calls to action - article by Gerry McGovern

Links are New Yorkers (Writing great web links) - article by Gerry McGovern

Links should embody the action... People only read as much as they absolutely have to before clicking... Lead with the need. Start with the most essential information.

Search, and the importance of good summaries

Jakob Nielsen reports on a study into user interaction with search engine results. Most people click the first result - no big surprise. But what if first and second results are swapped?

The power of defaults - article on website search by Jakob Nielsen

In addition to the findings - that point our how important it is to be at the top of the results page - Jakob also talks about the content that appears on there:'s also important to have good microcontent to increase the likelihood that users will perceive your site as relevant to their needs. Good page titles and article summaries are a must.
Which lead me to another article, full of useful advice on summarising your content effectively.

Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines - article by Jakob Nielsen

The case for incremental redesign

Jakob Nielsen considers the usability issues of website redesign.

You often hear design team members (or their management) say, "We need a fresh design." This usually gets redesign projects off on a wrong footing, with the wrong goals and strategy.

Fresh vs. Familiar: How Aggressively to Redesign - article by Jakob Nielsen

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The bottom line in website effectiveness - task management

An excellent article by Gerry McGovern, in conversation with Jared Spool.
To meet the needs of the users, the team needs to make task completion their #1 objective. "Don't manage the technology; don't manage the content; don't manage the information; and don't manage the graphics," Gerry says, "Manage the tasks."
This hits the nail on the head for university website management. Most of our visitors need to get answers from several schools and units. We don't manage the tasks though. We manage the webpages. The user journey beyond our own webpages are rarely a concern to us.

Why? So few of us actually deal directly with the site visitors. We don't (or can't?) empathise.
"If you were running a restaurant or a supermarket, you'd see your customers. If you built a door with a mat that was 12 inches off the ground and people were constantly tripping on it, you'd change the mat. But we don't see that sort of stuff. People create content without any conception of its usage."
Gerry McGovern says "Manage the tasks" - article by Jared Spool

Online usability tools - some free, some charging

A couple of articles that promote or review online usability services. Some of these I've tried, some I've yet to explore.

If anyone tries any of these out, leave a comment. I'll blog any that I find to be useful.

22 Cheap or Free Web Usability Tools, Part 1 (the first 6)

Turn Right On Usability Lane

Of those listed, I'm currently trying out, and

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Usability ROI - case studies

While I'm on an ROI roll, a couple of articles with lots of examples: facts, figures and case studies.

An article from the Usability Professionals Association, that's packed with great snippets like this:
"The rule of thumb in many usability-aware organizations is that the cost-benefit ratio for usability is $1:$10-$100. Once a system is in development, correcting a problem costs 10 times as much as fixing the same problem in design. If the system has been released, it costs 100 times as much relative to fixing in design." (Gilb, 1988)
I can't think of a home-grown application that couldn't be made more usable. And the thing is, most if not all of them won't be, because the cost of improvements post release is too high.

The ROI of Usability - an article from the Usability Professionals Association

And a suite of resources and case studies from I've not come across this site before, but this material is worth a look if you were interested in making a case for investing in usability testing.

Usability ROI - case studies and resources

Public sector website usability - the return on investment

A couple of articles by Jakob Nielsen that make the best case for improving website usability - the bottom line, money.

Everyone working in public sector web publishing should read this article. If this doesn't make the case strongly enough, we might as well all pack up and go home...

Do Government Agencies and Non-Profits Get ROI From Usability? - article by Jakob Nielsen

A comparison of usability ROI for a range of websites. Nielsen compares studies done in 2002 and 2008.

His conclusion is that the ROI is falling, but is still substantial (average improvement on average in 2008 was only 83%).

So he estimates that in 30 years, the ROI may not be significant enough to justify usability testing.

Usability ROI Declining, But Still Strong - article by Jakob Nielsen

Four essential skills for information architects

Sounds a bit dull, a bit specialist, desn't it?

But the thing is, as web publishing becomes less techie and more about communication and structure we all need to be able to play the role of information architect. Or at least have enough awareness of the discipline to manage our websites effectively.

This short interview with Donna Spencer provides a good lead in and, as with most things related to usability of websites, it's all pretty obvious once someone actually points it out.

I like this quote which is actually feedback from someone who read the article:
I’ve found that one of the strongest, but often overlooked, skills is editorial. A good IA will only work if the content is rationalized in the very beginning. Architecture hangs from a single premise: the information is worth finding.
Four essential skills for information architects: An interview with Donna Spencer - a article

The return on investment for personas

An extract from "The Persona Lifecycle: Keeping People in Mind throughout Product Design" by John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin.

Return on investment for personas - article

McGovern on menus and links

I'm not sure the examples Gerry gives are 100% relevant to information-driven websites (he talks about a news site and an e-commerce site) but the underlying message is spot on.
To make menus and links simpler you have to think like a customer. You also have to reduce the number of links and focus on the task at hand.
Whether a univeristy could be as ruthless as the BBC news site or Amazon, I don't know.

What universities can do though, is understand their audiences better, focus on their needs and stick to them through long term web communications strategies.

Confusing menus and links: the web's biggest challenge - article by Gerry McGovern

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Inclusive Design - great article on the value of accessibilty

This two part article with short case studies by Bruce Tognazzini has the tagline: "With Some Shocking Revelations About Your Future".

Some pertinent points for us all...

“We all will have disabilities eventually, unless we die first.”

Inclusive Design - article on accessibility by Bruce Tognazzini

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Facilitating usability tests - 3 roles to play

How do you become a great moderator? Simple—with practice. Facilitating sessions is a learned skill that improves the more you do it. There are some simple tricks and techniques behind it...
Jared Spool likens effective usability testing facilitation to playing 3 different roles in the course of a session: the flight attendant, the sportscaster and the scientist.

His analogy rings true for me and my experience of running usability sessions.

Moderating with Multiple Personalities: 3 Roles for Facilitating Usability Tests - article by Jared Spool

Corporate RSS and social networking - Nielsen usability study

Jakob Nielsen's summary of a couple of studies they've undertaken in recent years around corporate use of RSS and social network channels like Facebook and MySpace.

His findings won't be a surprise to anyone who uses such services for personal use. We have expectations about the levels of interaction we're going to get.
Start using a social networking service only if you have the budget to support reasonably frequent postings. And, if you later find out that you don't, close it down gracefully rather than letting it get overgrown by cobwebs.
As ever, it's not sufficient to jump dump in content from other media.
The shorter the message, the more important the writing... [write] for the medium...
Streams, Walls, and Feeds: Distributing Content Through Social Networks and RSS - article by Jakob Nielsen

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Free usability webinars: 12 - 21 October 2009

This set of free online presentations on various aspects of usability and marketing looks interesting. Registration is required. Some presenatations will be made available as videos after the event.

Usability marathon 2 - Free online presentations

Friday, 9 October 2009

Eyetracking Google search results - the golden triangle

Interesting bit of eyetracking research which reveals just how much, or how little, people take in on a search engine results page.

The eyetracking heatmap gives a clear indication of why paid-for ads now appear top left on results pages...

Google golden triangle - eyetracking heatmap
Google Search's Golden Triangle - research report by Eyetools
Eyetracking articles - Eyetools blog

The art of writing very little

A good article by Gerry Gaffney of Information & Design, an Australian usability company.

Clearly written, thoughtfully designed, well formatted text is skimmed, scanned or skipped entirely.

The reluctance to read is rarely greater than when completing forms...
The Art Of Writing Very Little - article by Gerry Gaffney

Information & Design - usability company providing free resources

Usability of ballot papers: Caroline Jarrett at SUPA in Edinburgh - 20 October

This month's talk isn't web-related, but it is co-presented by Caroline Jarrett who is an expert in web form usability. She co-wrote an excellent book - Forms that work.

This month's session is about election ballot usability - a case study of usability work conducted following complaints about the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections.

Scottish UPA events

Forms that Work - free online resources and book promotion

Follow up - free report download
The talk was excellent, with many similarities to experiences of online usability testing. The scary thing is that bad usability is affecting our democratic right to vote. The number of ways participants were able to invalidate their vote was amazing.

The report is free to download from the Electoral Commission.

Usability of ballot papers - report by Effortmark and Uservision for the Electoral Commission

Saturday, 3 October 2009

User testing done for you -

This looks like a fantastic idea. I've not tried it yet, but they certainly have a lot of endorsements.

If it's good enough for Steve Krug, it's good enough for me.

Set up the test you want (what site or sites, the scenario, the tasks) and select the number of participants you need. Then sit back and wait for the results to come in. Every participant produces a video of them completing your test, plus a write up.

At $29 per participant, it would be pretty hard to do the work yourself at this price. Particularly if you want to involve external participants from specific demographics, and you're going to have to pay them.

Although this is a US-based company, you can select UK-only participants too.

I'm definitely going to give it a try in the near future. - fast, low cost usability testing

Follow up: I did some testing a month or so later and was very happy with the service - big thumbs up

Usability newsletters from Wichita State University

Usability News is a free web newsletter that is produced by the Software Usability Research Laboratory (SURL) at Wichita State University. The SURL team specializes in software/website user interface design, usability testing, and research in human-computer interaction.

It's obviously pretty academic, but there is tons of great material in the papers they produce. I've found their archive of articles to be really useful when looking for research and evidence to inform the starting point for design recommendations.

Usability News archive - usability articles from Wichita State University

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Screenreader users - guidelines to improve their experience online

Findings from a usability study with 16 visually impaired people, usefully presented as a set of guidelines. Worth a read to get an insight into how people using screenreaders typically interact with websites and the problems they face.

Guidelines for Accessible and Usable Web Sites: Observing Users Who Work With Screen Readers - by Mary Frances Theofanos and Ginny Redish

PDF version of Guidelines for Accessible and Usable Web Sites

Screenreader videos

If you've never seen a screenreader in action, here are some examples from You Tube.

Sighted person demonstrating how a screenreader works on a well structured web page

Blind person using her computer with a screenreader (she begins surfing the web at 4:15). Notice how much faster her screenreader reads, compared to when a sighted person is demonstrating. I've done usability testing with visually impaired users in the past and found it almost impossible to take in the information at the speed they listen.

Differences between advanced and novice blind users surfing the web. No two people are the same. Believe it or not, the same goes for those of us with a disability.

Breaking up large documents for the web

A great article taken from the best book on writing for the web, by Ginny Redish.

Most people come to the web for information, not for a complete document. They don’t want the user manual; they want instructions for the task they are doing. They don’t want the handbook; they want the answer to specific questions. They want usable, manageable pieces.

Breaking up large documents for the web - article by Ginny Redish

Letting Go of the Words - Writing Web Content that Works - book by Ginny Redish

Monday, 21 September 2009

10 harsh truths about university websites

Paul Boag speaks at the 2009 CASE conference about the problems faced by all universities in the management of their websites. It's an excellent presentation (the related articles are worth reading too).

If you've not encountered at least some of these either you're very lucky or you have your head in the sand.

My quick summary of his 10 points:
  1. Politics is killing your site
  2. Course finders suck
    • You sell courses
    • Stop copying and pasting the prospectus
  3. A lack of direction and focus
  4. Great content needs central control
  5. Too many techies and marketers
    • Techies driven by tech solutions, users want transparency and honesty, not broadcast marketese
    • Techies and marketers rarely work in harmony
  6. Your site is bloated and out of date
  7. If you try to appeal to everybody, you appeal to nobody
  8. Users don’t care about your organisational structure
  9. Social media is hard
    • Twitter, Facebook, YouTube are just tools for engagement – not the goal in themselves
  10. A CMS is not a silver bullet
    • Everybody hates their CMS. Why?
Full presentation audio and slides:

10 harsh truths about institututional websites - presentation by Paul Boag

Harsh truths in articles
And a couple of articles by Paul which were probably the basis for his presentation:

10 harsh truths about corporate websites - article by Paul Boag for Smashing Magazine
10 ways to battle site bureaucracy - article by Paul Boag

If you haven't got time for the presentation, read the first one on corporate websites.

Most of the clients I work with are large organizations: universities, large charities, public sector institutions and large companies. Over the last 7 years, I have noticed certain recurring misconceptions among these organizations. This post aims to dispel these illusions and encourage people to face the harsh reality.

Centralised or decentralised authoring?

A look at the advantages and disadvantages of two website content management models. Makes a strong case for changing the way we look at university website management.

Centralised or decentralised authoring? - by James Robertson, Step Two Designs

Step Two Designs - free resources and blog on content management

McGovern on university web publishing

A couple of articles by Gerry McGovern on devolved web publishing, one specifically about universities. And a great quote:

"I once stood in front of a group of university staff and asked the following question: What is an organization if it is not organized? "A university," someone replied."

Less is more for university websites by Gerry McGovern (Article no longer available)

How many webpages can one person manage? by Gerry McGovern

University enquiry forms study: it's all about context

Interesting article about some research done around the impact of graphic design and marketing text on two university websites.

Omniture looked at the universities' request for information pages, changing various elements in the design and copy to see what, if anything, affected enquiry rates.

The upshot is, it depends. Depressingly vague, but nevertheless highlighting the limitations of marketing guidelines - there is no magic formula. You need to engage with your own users to find out what will work for you.

In this study, it appeared that the more sophisticated design - "hero shots", marketing copy etc - had a positive effect on visitors arriving on the page from search engines, and a negative effect those navigating to the page. Those navigating preferred the simple, functional approach.

The question is, I suppose, who would you prefer to receive enquiries from?

Context matters - article by Omniture Industry Insights

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Plain English - free guides

No one writing web content should be without these free guides from the Plain English Campaign:

Plain English Campaign website

McGovern on web writing

It's much the same stuff that you'll read in many places, but I like Gerry McGovern's style and approach to online communication. Worth a look...

Excerpts from "The Web Content Style Guide" by Gerry McGovern

I'm a fan of "Content Critical" in particular - probably the book that focused me on content management and away from web design.

All books by Gerry McGovern

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Biggest ROI from a usability fix? $300M for Jared Spool

A great story - how changing a button increased a site's annual revenues by $300 million.

The $300 Million Button - Jared Spool article

Market research seminar in Edinburgh - 15 September

This month's session at the Scottish Usability Professionals Association sounds interesting, although it's not really usability this time.

A market research focus this month:

Online Qualitative Research – New ways to find out what consumers really think

It's being held at the Microsoft offices on George Street. Cost: £10/£5/free .

Usability testing - avoid leading your participants

Jakob Nielsen writes about avoiding telling your usability testing volunteers what to do, providing a few tips along the way.

Despite the article's title, he talks about accompanied surfing too.

I usually say user testing is easy: basically, you get some real customers and watch them use your site or app. But this article touches on one of the difficulties of running great studies: minimizing bias...

The beauty of usability is that the methods are so robust that they generate useful findings even if you use them wrong. This is particularly true for user testing: any time you watch customers, you'll learn something...

Card Sorting: Pushing Users Beyond Terminology Matches - Jakob Nielsen article

10 top tips for web and email copy that gets results

Worth a quick read to refresh your memory. It's always reassuring when other professional's advice corresponds with what I've produced for the University's web writing training :o)

10 top tips for web and email copy that gets results

Web content consultants

Just stumbled across the website of CDA (Content Delivery and Analysis) through an article by Gerry McGovern. From their 'About Us' page:
We bring focus to the content aspects of websites, emails, social media and other digital messaging platforms and properties.
I'm just in the process of exploring their free research papers, case studies and content management blog.

CDA website
Content management blog

Increased website visits does not equal success

Gerry McGovern asks "Could growth in your page views in fact be a negative trend?"

In short, "Measuring success based on volume encourages bad practice" [in content management]

Volume is the wrong way to measure web success - Gerry McGovern article

Search terms and website content

The words we use when we search are not always the words we like to read when we arrive at a website.
We know it's important to get key words and phrases that our audiences search for into our web copy. Gerry McGovern comments on some research done by CDA, a digital communications consultancy which examined the relationship between the language we use as we express a desire, the words we type into the search engine, and then our expectations about what we read on the destination pages.

Search words versus carewords - Gerry McGovern article

CDA themselves summarise their findings:

We found that the language that engages people on web pages is different to the language that forms the pathways to a site. Rather, people change or adapt language terms as they refine their search...

Free search language research report from CDA - "Online language pathways: two kinds of language online"

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Research-based usability guidelines

This site should be near the top of the list in everyone's bookmarks folder.'s suite of resources have been around for a long while, and the site's just had an overhaul. is a one-stop source for government web designers to learn how to make websites more usable, useful, and accessible. The site addresses a broad range of factors that go into web design and development. - learn how to make websites more usable

Before you embark on any significant usability testing, check your site or application against the recommendations covered here. This document (pdf'ed by chapter) may save you time and effort.

Throughout your Web design or redesign project, you should take advantage of what is already known about best practices for each step of the process. The Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines, compiled through an extensive process of research and review, bring you those best practices.
Research-based usability guidelines from

Persona resources #2

I particularly like this introduction to personas by Tina Calabria at Step Two Designs:

An introduction to personas and how to create them - Tina Calabria

It includes links to some impressively detailed resources I've yet to explore fully from Cooper Interaction Design:

Online journal of persona development - Cooper Interaction Design

And further to my last post on persona, where I covered a blog promoting a book I've been reading by Steve Mulder. A set of slides from Steve Mulder:

The User Is Always Right: Making Personas Work for Your Site - presentation slides by Steve Mulder

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Summary text usability

In this article Jakob Neilsen describes the iterative process he went through developing text for a tweet (a short message sent out via Twitter).

The principles apply to writing short items on webpages that you want to grab the reader's attention with: headings, summary paragraphs and link text.

Neilsen's conclusion on this kind of writing:

In fact, the shorter it is, the more important it is to design text for usability.

Twitter Postings: Iterative Design - article by Jakob Neilsen

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Persona creation resources

What's a persona? Part of a definition, taken from the Fluid Project:

Personas are a model used to describe users' goals, skills, abilities, technical experience and context... They are used by the design team (and larger project team) to describe, and keep front and center the user(s) for whom the system will be built.

I've been working on persona development the last couple of months.

The Fluid Project wiki is proving to be a great resource.

Persona development resources - the Fluid Project

I also bought a book the other month: "The User Is Always Right" by Steve Mulder with Ziv Yaar. Steve's blog promotes the book and he also posts links to related material and resources.

Practical Personas blog by Steve Mulder

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Branding and usability

A couple of interesting articles from Jared Spool on branding.

Firstly, an old one based around Jared's observations of user experience on big, well-established brand sites.
...eBay's direct-experience branding works better than Ford's indirect-message branding at giving users a positive opinion of the brand. Therefore, we believe that usability is essential for effective branding. It appears that any obstacles users face will directly (and negatively) affect how they perceive the brand.
Branding and Usability by Jared Spool

A second, more recent article giving an overview of his research on a range of e-commerce competitors. Jared observes that when people are done shopping on certain e-commerce sites, their perceptions of the brand are often strengthened, while other sites seem to consistently weaken their brands.
...when we create designs that focus on ensuring users accomplish their goals, we are likely having a long-term positive effect on the strength of the brand.
Determining How Design Affects Branding by Jared Spool

The merits of quick, lo-fi testing

A recent article on Jared Spool's website by Dana Chisell on the merits of quick-and-dirty usability testing. And also her opinions on when this isn't the best way to go.
"Most of the value in doing testing – let’s say about 70% – comes from just watching someone use a design."
It's definitely my preferred approach. Possibly because it's often the only route available...

Testing in the Wild, Seizing Opportunity by Dana Chisnell

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

McGovern on website redesigns

Gerry's just come back from a summer break but judging by the tone of his latest newsletter post he could do with another one.

Still, he makes a strong and valid point - as is usually the case.

"...the site was "redesigned and ready to help you plan your adventures. Take a few minutes to customize your account profile to ensure you take advantage of all that our new site has to offer."

And you know what, I didn't take those few minutes.

...I just wanted to quickly check availability and see if there were any good deals. I had zero interest in designs, redesigns...

...I just wanted the website to work."

Harsh, but true...

Full article: Nobody cares about your website by Gerry McGovern

Content management online seminars by Gerry McGovern

Gerry McGovern is well worth listening to when it comes to content management.

Of course, there's a sales pitch involved but then his online seminars are free and there's lots to learn.

I've found his approach to task-driven web publishing easy to understand, and equally important, easy to communicate to others.

I've done a number of surveys based on his approach and found the data collected a very useful extra dimension when viewed alongside webstats.

Seeing the relative importance of a small number of website tasks way ahead of numerous others is pretty powerful and great when helping content owners focus on the really important stuff.

Gerry McGovern's online seminar archive - free videos and slides to download

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Usable web forms

Forms that Work by Caroline Jarrett is a book that nicely compliments Ginny Redish's Letting Go of the Words. Both sit on my bookshelf.

Web forms are incredibly frustrating when they're badly designed, and can be a barrier to successful eCommerce or even just basic interaction between the web publisher and their readers.

Caroline's website has useful free resources, so there's lots to learn without even buying the book.

Forms that Work - free online resources and book promotion

Web writing resources

Letting go of the words book cover

Without a shadow of a doubt, there is one book out there ahead of the rest on writing for the web:

Free sample chapters of Letting Go of the Words

Editing that Works is a website inspired, at least in part, by Ginny's book. It's got a couple of sections worth a look - the principles, and a list of recommended resources.

Editing that Works - Caroline Jarrett's website

Usability testing resources

A list of resources, articles and do-it-yourself materials for those interested in usability and the user experience from Information & Design, an Australian usability company.

Usability resources from Information & Design

Lots of great stuff here. For those new to usability testing, read the page on common mistakes before you go any further.

Usability testing mistakes

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Eye tracking research - an insight into online reading and navigation behaviour

A couple of great repositories of eye tracking study findings.

Eye track 3 was the third (surprise!) publicly published study by The Poynter Institute, the Estlow Center for Journalism & New Media, and Eyetools. It provides advice based on their findings on:
  • Homepage designs
  • Eye viewing patterns
  • Headlines & blurbs
  • Headline size
  • Font size
  • Navigation
  • Photos & images
  • Compact & extended pages
The Best of Eyetrack III: What We Saw When We Looked Through Their Eyes

Jakob Nielsen has published lots of his findings over the years. He has a page on his site that pulls all these articles together, the most famous one being the F-shaped pattern for online reading.

Jakob Nielsen’s eyetracking research summaries

Effective search results pages - through hard work, not technology

An excellent 2 part article by Jared Spool of on what makes effective search results pages.

Having watched hundreds of people search on numerous sites he draws out attributes that make some search engine results pages more effective than others.

The bottom line is that you can't just trust the technology driving your search engine to deliver an effective service. Understanding your users and tweaking your results pages accordingly is the route to ensuring the most visited part of your site does the job you want it to.

Producing Great Search Results: Harder than It Looks, Part 1

Producing Great Search Results: Harder than It Looks, Part 2

Friday, 31 July 2009

Click analysis tools

I've been using a click analysis tool - Crazy Egg - for over a year now and find it a useful addition to webstats. There's another notable click analysis provider - Click Density. I suspect that Click Density is a better, more sophisticated tool but I went with Crazy Egg because their free service was much more generous when I was dipping my toe in the water.

For me, Crazy Egg does two things that our webstats package Google Analytics doesn't do:
  • It shows me which links are most popular on a particular page, when the same link appears more than once
  • It breaks down time to click statistics into modal groups (less than 1 sec, less than 2 sec, less than 5 sec, 5-10 sec etc). Google Analytics only provides an average, which is obviously skewed every time a site visitor stops mid-surf and wanders off to make a cuppa.
It's great to stick click analysis on a homepage for a few days to illustrate with a heatmap all the click hotspots, and to show to site manager just how many people click through in a matter of seconds. That's the vast majority, in case you hadn't guessed.

All those carefully crafted welcome messages that just never get read...

Crazy Egg
Click Density

Prototyping with Axure

This week I've been on a course on Axure - a piece of software I've played with in the past but not used in earnest.

I was amazed at how quickly I could knock up prototypes for a range of search interfaces we've been comparing.

I've been using Visio for a good while now, but am definitely an Axure convert.

Axure - "...for rapidly creating wireframes, prototypes and specifications for applications and web sites."
AX Trainers - Axure training delivered by usability professionals

Monday, 27 July 2009

Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

Absolutely the best book I've read on usability, bar none. Everyone should own a copy.

The book’s tagline reads: “A common sense approach to web usability”. It’s exactly that.

Easily read in a matter of a few hours, it will leave you thinking differently about your website and the ‘obvious’ mistakes we all make.

Religious debates cartoon from Don't Make Me Think by Steve KrugThe chapters on how to conduct usability testing are available to download from Steve Krug’s website:

Steve Krug’s website:

A couple of chapters have also been turned into articles for Adobe. They give a real flavour of what you can expect from the book.

How we really use the web - Scanning, satisficing, and muddling through
Usability as common courtesy

"Religious debates" cartoon from the book. If you've never experienced this as you've worked on a website you're either very fortunate or you work alone.

Checking content scannability: Five second tests

Five second tests are a quick and easy way to check the quality of your content pages.

I use this technique informally all the time when I write content. It's a great way to hone your writing.

Well worth giving this a try.

Five second tests article from

Follow up

I've since discovered and blogged a podcast on 5 second tests, also by Jared Spool:

5 second test podcast - content usability

Prototyping resources

Prototyping - in a nutshell, it's testing new developments out before you either build the website or change an existing one. Saves a lot of pain in the long run. And probably a few heated discussions too.

For those new to the idea of prototyping:

Introductory article on paper prototyping from

Prototyping with MS Visio is pretty quick and easy. Particularly with this tutorial and free templates:

Visio templates for paper prototyping, plus supporting article, from

Monday, 20 July 2009

Nielsen in Edinburgh September 09

Well, not quite.

It doesn't look like Jakob Nielsen himself will be visiting, but his company - Nielsen Norman Group - will be delivering training over five days in the week beginning 14 September.

The sessions cover information architecture, website and application usability.

Agenda for Nielsen Norman Group training in Edinburgh, September 09

Customer opinions vs traditional marketing

This week's article from Gerry McGovern covers ground well known to many these days - online customers place a great deal of value in the opinions of other customers.

A couple of bits of research he quotes:

According to a July article in Revolution magazine, "In the UK 68 per cent of internet users were found to trust online consumer opinions, while only 58 per cent said they trust brand websites."

The article also refers to a Harris Interactive poll which found that "46 per cent of US internet users say they ignore banner ads, with just one per cent finding banner ads helpful in making a purchase decision."

A recent Nielsen study found that, "Personal recommendations and opinions posted online are the most trusted forms of advertising among Internet users around the world."

So while collecting student quotes and graduate profiles may be a bit of a pain, it's probably well worth the effort to keep them relevant and up to date.

Gerry goes on to his usual mantra. No harm in repeating it...

To succeed on the Web we need to change our mentality from seeing ourselves as a master to seeing ourselves as an apprentice. The customer is the master and we need to learn about what they need to do right now, and help them do that.

The web customer is purposeful, directed, action-oriented. They are on a journey and we need first and foremost to help them get to their destination. Then and only then have we any chance of introducing to them the idea of taking a new journey.

Web turns marketing and communications on its head - full article on Gerry McGovern's website

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Edinburgh usability community

Businesses operating in Edinburgh:

Monthly meetings of the Scottish Usability Professionals Association (SUPA) are often worth a look. Usability businesses and a range of people with an active interest in usability get together for presentations, seminars and ale:

Scottish Usability Professionals Association

Steve Krug on the least you can do about usability

"Steve Krug talks about informal usability testing and how the minimum of work can give you extraordinary results."

A great opportunity to see a truly engaging usability expert present for free. The presentation is about 40 minutes.

I love the approach Steve takes to usability. It's easy. It's for everyone - not just usability nerds. Manager, programmers, marketers, content owners - you can't afford to ignore the basics.

Steve Krug' presentation on the least you can do about usability