A new study (July 2008) entitled 'Factors that Improve online experience' by Sathish Menon and Michael Douma from the Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement offers key insights on the current state of online user experience.

The study reinforces known usability truths, sheds light on user perceptions but more interestingly points to disconnects
between designers and users
. The study surveyed
perceptions, expectations and practices across various audiences and
contrasted the results.

The key findings and what they mean:

1) Designers underestimate the thresholds for an effective site. Respondents consider a site “effective” when visitors are satisfied
with respect to enjoyment, can find information somewhat easily, and
never get lost in the site. By at least one point on a five-point
scale, visitors have higher expectations for effectiveness than do
designers. Nonprofit organizations believe that effective sites do not
have “information gaps between what visitors want and what the site
provides” and that visitors are at least “somewhat satisfied” with
their sites. Designers should give greater consideration to overall
effectiveness, thereby reducing the chance of failure for a user to
find the information they seek.

Comment: Designers rely too much on a "they'll figure it out" approach and
underestimate that users need transparent designs that support
intuitiveness over flair.

2) Easy access to complete information is key to visitor enjoyment. All three survey groups believe that the ease with which visitors can
find information and the ability to maintain orientation is critical to
enjoyment. Both organizations and visitors believe that reducing the
gap between what web sites provide and what visitors seek is critical
to enjoyment. These variables explain 25% to 30% of the variance in
visitor enjoyment; hence, ease of finding information is an important
foundation for most sites.

Comment: The feeling of satisfaction is highly relevant to how well a visitor found the information they were looking for.

3) Good visual design and up-to-date information are critical. Over 80% of designers and organizations believe that good visual design
is important. A healthy 50% of the visitors agree. Fully 80% of
visitors and organizations believe that up-to-date information is very
important. Only 60% of designers believe that to be the case. When
budgeting for your project, don’t be overly seduced by fancy graphics
and multimedia. Invest in strong, clear design and simple methods to
quickly deliver current information to your visitors.

Comment: Of course, "fancy graphics" is open to
interpretation as is "strong, clear design"; as is multimedia. For
example, video or a flash demo may be exactly what you need to
communicate your product or process.

4) Visitors want information fast. Web site visitors are looking for simple, accurate, fast, and easy to
navigate web sites - preferably with links to information they seek. A
significant number of comments revolved around the need for speedy
access, including but not limited to download speed, in order to find
the information visitors are looking for. Even in a broadband age,
visitors value fast sites, both those that are fast loading and those
that quickly deliver sought-after information.

Comment: This is why popular e-commerce site Director of Development views a key user experience challenge as delivering load times in 1 second or less (view video).

5) Visitors want a broad range of topics. Relative to
designers and organizations, visitors more strongly believe that a
broad range of topics is important. Visitors believe sites can be more
effective by helping visitors find interesting information - even if
they are not looking for it. Designers and content developers can
provide ample sidebars that link to other recommended pages, and
extensively cross-link to other pages based on keywords.

Comment: Visitors want to go to one place with links to many more places, versus
navigate to many places for content. the study findings
advise: Designers and content developers can provide ample sidebars
that link to other recommended pages, and extensively cross-link to
other pages based on keywords.

6) Designers are overly optimistic about visitors' ability to maintain orientation.
In the survey, the ability to maintain orientation was defined as
visitors' ability to know "where they are, where they can go next, and
which pages are related." About 70% of designers believe that visitors
are almost always able to maintain orientation. That drops to about 30%
when non-profit organizations express their view. In contrast, only
about 10% of visitors report being able to almost always maintain their
orientation. Fewer than 5% report that they tend to get lost
frequently. Said another way, your visitors don't know your site as
well as you do, so make sure it is obvious how to find information
through meaningful menus, prompts, and not too much clutter.

Comment: Usable navigation is classically over-looked by designers and web agencies. I've
seen this disconnect between how designers think about navigation and
how end-users actually interact with sites consistently for the past
eight years. The home link on a top navigation bar is a good example.
Users want it there, designers and design boutiques are convinced it is
"old school" and every dummy knows to click the logo. A survey we did
of a high tech audience (employees who worked for the company) found
only 20% knew that the logo meant "home"!

7)  Visitors still need hand-holding. The study asked about
hypothetically providing visitors with personal assistance using a
site. About 70% of organizations and visitors believe that a personal
guide would increase the effectiveness of a web site. Only about 50% of
designers believe the same. Designers tend to overestimate the clarity
of their designs.


Comment: The problem here I think is those of us working in
this industry get too familiar with the Web. We take for granted that
everyone else knows what has become implicit knowledge for us. This is
also true of usability consultants. I'm frequently called in after
another usability consultant has been working on a project to bail out
the project. Usability "people" often underestimate their users, it's a
classic (and yes shameful)  common mistake- it's not just designers!

8) Visitors point to the lack of breadth and depth of site content as causing an "Information Gap." Although
over 90% of visitors say that they are able to find the information
they are looking for, over 50% report that there is a gap between what
they are looking for and what typical web sites provide, and 60% think
that a personal guide would help them navigate web sites. The reported
gap is negatively correlated to visitors' ability to find information,
and positively correlated to the need for a local search engine. This
indicates that most web sites are unable to provide the breadth of
information that visitors seek. Visitors often request broader and
deeper information, when in fact they need to find existing information
more easily.


Comment: This is a tricky problem because it's so context dependent. Typically usability best practice says solve the users immediate task or problem first, then give them options to explore, expand and enhance the discovery, search or experience.

There are specific interaction design techniques that can help with this problem. I discuss a few here: progressive disclosure (giving users what they need, then offering more) and forcing functions (limiting choices to help users get what they need).

Download a copy of the study here

Best Wishes,

Frank Spillers, MS