Top 5 Web site oversights to avoid

Avoid cluttering disorganized information and overly flashy features. Experts offer this, and other tips, to help improve ease of use and content delivery on Web sites.
Written by Tyler Thia, Contributor

Usability and delivering site content in a pleasant, uncluttered manner should be the main priorities for companies looking to develop new Web sites or revamping existing ones, even over achieving business key performance indicators (KPIs), experts noted.

Joy Lee, usability consultant at Blackbox Research, a Singapore-based research agency with a focus on Web site usability, said companies looking to develop their corporate Web sites should always consider the ease of use aspect and not dwell solely on meeting business KPIs.

This, she said, can be done through obtaining user feedback during pre- and post-development stages. Elaborating, the consultant said the pre-development stage will focus on delivering users needs as well as achieve 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' recent site revamp as an example, the consultant said its 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 experience various difficulties in making flight bookings.

Lee added that "problem discovery" could easily be done before launch through user testing and subsequently 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 the airline probably did not carry out "in-depth testing on application and server load", which lead 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 would be stretched, hence leading to a meltdown.

Knowing that a good Web site would make users happy and potentially convert them into advocates for one's brand, Lee, together with Suresh Gunasagaran, director of Web design company Interactive@OOm, shared with ZDNet Asia five Web development oversights companies should avoid.

Cluttering of Web site
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 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 optimization (SEO), insisting that it is more important for users to find the information they need quickly.

"Gear the Web site 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.

Unclear navigation taxonomy
The Interactive OOm director also identified 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 common oversights in this area include using too "fanciful names" or unrelated and colloquial terms.

Lee agreed, saying that having disorganized information can undermine the Web site's objective. As users get more Web-savvy, sites now need to not only have more relevant information, but have it organized in a "sensible manner" too.

That said, she 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.

Not understanding users' needs
The Blackbox Research consultant said another popular development faux pas is the Web site not fulfilling its primary objective of delivering specific content or services. For instance, an e-commerce site should design its site functionalities 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 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.

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

"It'sadvisable 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 color theme used on the site is not random and should be utilized to convey the company's branding and better promote the business online.

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 recognize that users want only to complete their activity in "as little pain as possible".

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