Six avoidable website mistakes

Usability and delivering site content in a pleasant, uncluttered manner should be the main priorities for companies looking to develop new websites or revamp existing ones, experts say.

Usability and delivering site content in a pleasant, uncluttered manner should be the main priorities for companies looking to develop new websites or revamp existing ones, experts say.

Joy Lee, usability consultant at Blackbox Research, a Singapore-based research agency with a focus on website usability, said that companies looking to develop their corporate websites should always consider the ease-of-use aspect, and not dwell solely on meeting business key performance indicators.

This, she said, can be done through obtaining user feedback during pre- and post-development stages. Elaborating, the consultant said that the pre-development stage will focus on delivering users' needs, as well as achieving business ones.

Post-development evaluation should be a "disaster check", and a confirmation that the user strategies set out by the company are in place and are sufficient to meet site visitors' needs, Lee added.

Citing the example of Singapore Airlines' unpopular recent site revamp as an example, the consultant said that the airline's development was "severely lacking in the usability-testing department".

Even though the site took two years and millions of dollars to develop, the revamp was bug-filled, and its introduction was met with great criticism as customers experienced difficulty in making flight bookings.

Lee added that "problem discovery" could easily be done before launch through user testing and cycling through multiple iterations until the product is ready for launch. "If you are discovering bugs through the public when your site is live, then it's way too late. It's like selling half-baked cakes in a restaurant."

Razil Ali, a freelance web developer who runs Zallaza Creative Studio, agreed. He said that the airline probably did not carry out "in-depth testing on application and server load", which led to the failure of the new site.

"In a complex back-end and front-end site, high volume of communication and data transfer happen between platforms and databases in the background per transaction or page load," Ali mentioned, adding that when traffic peaks, server capabilities are stretched, hence leading to a meltdown.

Lee, together with Suresh Gunasagaran, director of web design company Interactive@OOm, and SLI Systems country manager Australasia Mark Brixton shared five web development oversights that companies should avoid.

  1. Cluttering of website

    Consumer sites, particularly e-commerce and online publication ones, are "far too guilty of bombarding the consumer with too much information", Lee pointed out. She said that while it is understandable that companies want to highlight their wares as prominently as possible, squeezing too much information on one's landing site can lead to confusion.

    "Too often, [cluttered sites] result in users' goodwill being depleted, which will affect the brand," Lee stressed.

    Gunasagaran also spoke out against having information overload on one's site just for the sake of search engine optimisation (SEO), insisting that it is more important for users to find the information they need quickly.

    "Gear the website to deliver information in a simple, yet effective, manner. The inclusion of interactive and creative elements is OK, as long as these features add value to the site and do not confuse users," he said.

  2. Unclear navigation taxonomy

    The Interactive@OOm director also stated that having a clear navigation system, in particular the categories used to classify different parts of the site, should be "meaningful and easy for users to understand".

    Gunasagaran said that common oversights in this area include using too "fanciful names", or unrelated and colloquial terms.

    "By researching and understanding the 'trigger' words that your customers are using, you will be able to better accommodate and design your site to suit the needs and preferences of your customers," Brixton said.

    Lee agreed, saying that having disorganised information can undermine the website's objectives. As users get more web savvy, sites now need to not only have more relevant information, but to also have it organised in a "sensible manner", too.

    "It's great to get creative, but make sure that your visitors still understand your interface and quickly grasp how to navigate around your retail site," Brixton said.

    That said, Lee admitted that it is a "tricky" task, and "solid user research" is needed to come up with a good taxonomy, not just based on a web development team's method of information classification, she stated.

  3. Not understanding users' needs

    The Blackbox Research consultant said that another popular development faux pas is when the website does not fulfil its primary objective of delivering specific content or services. For instance, an e-commerce site should design its site functionality to facilitate sales, and make that clear to users, Lee explained.

    "E-commerce sites that place utility pages, like their corporate history or press releases, on their front page, while nestling their e-commerce content in the second or third layer of the site would ultimately end up frustrating the user," she added.

    Instead, companies need to adopt a user-centered approach from the beginning, to ensure a "rationale behind everything", and to avoid having a "mish mash" of programming, the consultant suggested.

    Gunasagaran also added that operators should place the most important information on the top fold of the site, and others with lesser priority below this.

    Brixton advocated the use of super menus, to allow customers to access sub-categories and even non-product content quickly.

  4. Lack of "visual hierarchy"

    Lee also called on web developers to focus on developing a "visually clear hierarchy", in that information must be correctly organised and labelled, steering clear of large text and random font sizes everywhere, as seen on sites, such as About.com and Mashable.

    "It's advisable to avoid making the user think hard about site hierarchy while browsing, because for every millisecond that the user puts effort into thinking a teeny bit more, user goodwill will have been lost. In one minute, a visitor could close the window on your site," she added.

    Gunasagaran added that subtle visual cues, such as the colour theme used on the site, is not random, and should be utilised to convey the company's branding, and to better promote the business online.

    Any links on the page should be large enough to be clicked on by users accessing the site by a mobile, Brixton said.

    "If not, visitors will find it frustrating to have to try several times to reach the page they want," he said.

  5. Choosing flash over function

    Lastly, the consultant advised developers to avoid incorporating odd user functions that may seem "cool" from an engineering point of view, but do not add value to the total user experience.

    She recounted a now-defunct site, which was used to promote Singapore's Changi Airport Terminal 3, which had "dials" that users could adjust to access specific information. "It was utterly baffling, as the user would have to spend far too much time figuring out how those dials worked," Lee said.

    She acknowledged that designers often like to include "fanciful" features, such as Flash and HTML 5, but they should also recognise that users want only to complete their activity in "as little pain as possible".

  6. Making changes willy nilly

    Brixton suggested that companies should consider the impact on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) when changing navigation, saying that companies should make sure that they use a 301 redirect on old navigation pages, so that the SEO value of those pages will be linked to the new page, minimising the negative impact on SEO.

  7. Via ZDNet Asia