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