Thursday, February 21, 2008

Usable and Credible Websites: How to KEEP customers!

Web 1.0 (1991-2002): Many traditional companies don't understand web usability & credibility.

Companies succeed despite a poor website.  You can throw away 50% of your web customers and still succeed.  The web is not everything... (despite what some engineers think :-)

(A) (American Airlines) - Website works extremely poorly on low-speed wireless. How badly?
    My ticket purchases take 5-10 min (if they execute), and they often fail miserably.
    Result: I buy Continental tickets on low-speed connections. I use AA because of their free international upgrades, DESPITE their website.

(B) (Delta Airlines) - Website has NO on-line ticket hold.
    So if I need help on a on-line reservation, and call Delta, they can't view my reservation. I have to remake the entire reservation on the phone with poorly trained Indian phone reps.
    Result: I almost never buy Delta or United (which also has poorly-trained phone reps).

P.S. Well-trained Indian, Romanian, or foreign phone reps are great! We need to help our global comrades earn a living. Can you believe that 50% of Romainian college graduates can't find work, and their average wage is $100/month? No wonder $200-$450/month looks like a good job. However, when a simple order or question turns into a 30-90 min phone call, something's NOT working!

DISCLAIMER: I am an American Airlines Executive Platinum (EXP) and Continental Airlines Platinum flyer who flew 210,000 miles in 2006, but I am not paid by either airline (aside from the occasional "bump voucher" or reimbursement for lost luggage).

Personally, 95% of the time I use websites in the following 3 ways:
(1) "Web" as a calling card. I goto a website to checkout a person/company. Works like reading a resume.
   (A) You've got 5 seconds to catch my attention. I'm highly unlikely to scroll and/or click anything. If I like your website in the first 5 seconds, I may read further and click once or twice.

   (B) If I click once or twice, I probably already like you & think you're credible. Now, I'm hooked, but you can lose my support with poor service (e.g. can't find your phone number).

(2) "Web" as a place to buy a product. I want an easy, friendly, and quick process. Amazon is an amazing website for service. It remembers not only my info, but my friend's addresses for mailing presents, and has lovely recommendations of other books (although there's recommendation SPAM).

(3) Just looking for a phone number, address, and/or e-mail.  Often to give to a client/friend.  Amazing how many websites make this difficult!

How many customers are you losing?

Customer service is an inexpensive way to market your company!

(Of course, I read in a Google book about how they hid their contact info when they couldn't afford customer support...)

Guidelines for designing websites
There are times when you can "break these rules", but you should consciously know why you are breaking them.

See 2002 Stanford Web Credibility Survey - page 8 for a wonderful diagram of about 50 issues that raise/lower your website's credibility.

For example,
(1) "Linking to articles on external websites" raises credibility.
(2) "Being able to find a phone number" raises credibility.
(3) *.org names used to provide more credibility boost in 1999 than in 2002. Apparently by 2002, people on the web have learned that any fly-by-night can setup a non-profit or *.org site.

In BJ Fogg's 2002 book Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do, BJ makes the great observation that your engineers shouldn't be designing obscure error messages (which may help the tech guys).

Instead, they can work with a marketing or usability team to design friendly error messages which improve the user experience (and maybe some technical details which can be relayed to "tech support").

Consider your possible audience.  What will your "first impression" be when someone tries to view your website?
(A) 20-yr-old traveling in India at a low-bandwidth hostel terminal

(B) 40-yr-old Businessperson on a public airport terminal in Amsterdam (No pop-up windows, Flash version is old, No way to configure the machine)

(C) 50-yr-old with vision issues who has their browser font set +2 (larger fonts)

(D) Businessperson giving their client at the airport a web address for a business they're recommending.  On the client's laptop, the website complains that Javascript is required and doesn't display anything.  Am I going to modify any settings on my client's laptop to load Flash or active Javascript? Probably not!

(High security laptop from the IT department has NO Java, NO Javascript, NO Flash, and NO Cookies).

"First Impressions" - Getting to the first 800 x 600 page
   (a) Most people will not scroll or click on anything IF you make a poor first impression.
   (b) Give people a reason to scroll or click!
   (c) With every-click you lose people.

Suggestion 1: If you design for a 1024 x 768 screen, put critical items (About Us, Contact, Home) and catchy stuff (You're trying to get a customer...) in the upper-left 800 x 600 area (visible without scrolling).

(In 1991-98, we used to advise the upper-left 640 x 480, assuming that AOL was using up the top 1/3 of the screen.)

(1) Does your website run & look ok on the following systems?
     PC - Internet Explorer, Firefox
     Apple - Safari, Internet Explorer (the old version), Firefox
     Linux - Firefox
     Web 1.0 (defunct advice): Sun & Unix Flavors: X11 Mozilla, etc...
     Web 1.0 (defunct advice): PC/Apple - AOL browser
     Web 2.0: Mobile Phones, Palmtops
Web 1.0 (possibly defunct advice, but maybe relevant to mobiles): Lynx (text-only browser)

There are many websites which don't run at all on Apples. It's ok if that's your conscious decision to throw away a possible market.

(2) Does your website run in high-security environments?
Java and Javascript are turned OFF (No Flash), Cookies are NOT allowed, No popup windows.

Unfortunately due to heavy virus attacks, many places are moving to higher security conditions.

Many people do NOT have the latest version of Flash installed.
Do you want someone's first impression of your company to be "Have to load Flash 8"?

Suggestion: Design a non-Java, non-Javascript, non-Flash, non-Cookie version of your website (if possible), and automatically shift to it if you detect something missing.  You may give the user a link/button which invites them to use your fancy Java/Flash version. Yahoo! Mail uses this multi-level approach.

For Flash users:
Suggestion 1: Give people phone number, contact name, and address even if Flash doesn't load.
Suggestion 2: If your web server sees that Flash is not loaded/current, show a non-flash website.
Suggestion 3: Give people a link to bypass the Flash.
Suggestion 4: When loading Flash, show useful and interesting content which helps attract the viewer.

(3) Does your website run in low-bandwidth and/or flaky Internet conditions?
Always consider what will happen if the internet crashes.  Can the user find your telephone number or street address at the bottom of the home page, so that they can call you?  I'm assuming you still want their business when the internet is not working...  :-)

In the old days (1991-2000), we worried about dial-up speed in the US.  This is a minor issue now in the US, but it's still a huge problem when traveling internationally.

On American Airlines website in low-bandwidth conditions, it may take 5-10 min to TRY to purchase the ticket, and after the 5-10 minutes, the ticket purchase often won't complete.

This is especially bad when there's a weather condition which means that the airline's 800-numbers have 30-60 min wait times.

Suggestion:  Test your website on a 28.8k dialup connection and a slow wireless link (maybe one of the annoying public ones which display ads - the ad display mechanism in the MetroFi-Free in Sunnyvale, CA, makes some websites work improperly.)

(4) Is your website respectful of people with disabilities or lowered-abilities (age 50+ eyes, "carpal tunnel" wrist, etc...)?
(a) Low Vision - If someone increases the font size +3 on their computer, does all of your text expand equally?  Does the layout still look ok at font size +3?

Suggestion: Perhaps add some extra space in your layout, so that your presentation still looks reasonable when font sizes increase +1 or +2.  Font size +3 will probably not look as good, but you may look WAY better than your competition...

(i) Age 50+: Is your text readable in the natural (un-altered) website view?

There is a trade-off here. Sometimes a site looks more credible and professional in a smaller font - especially with serif fonts for the main text.   Serif fonts in the main text look very amateurish.

But a website with larger text (or text that scales properly at +1 to +3) will impress older people with vision issues.  That's the professional-look trade-off.

(ii) Sight-problems

(b) Hand Issues - Is your website navigable with a minimum of mouse-clicks (e.g. someone who uses the Tab/Enter buttons to navigate)?

How much mouse motion is required to navigate your website?

Lots of "carpal tunnel" people. My brother (visual effects industry) uses a foot mouse due to wrist tendonitis.

(c) Blind - Can the blind see your website? Useful also for speech-on-the-fly (for the future)

One of my friends, Patrick Burke, at UCLA was born totally blind (so he spends half of his life in jet lag), was studying for a graduate degree in German Literature, but he proof-reads websites for blind accessibility and helps other blind people read books & magazines (he slaps them on his scanner & e-mails them the words).

Computers for the blind are incredible...they last 1-2 weeks on a battery because they don't have to power a screen...

Patrick Burke, Coordinator, UCLA Disabilities and Computing Program

Check out UCLA's Accessibility efforts.

- Mitchell Tsai (Harvard '86) - CEO, Spiritual Business Companions : FriendFeed, LinkedIn, Facebook

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