It's All About the User Experience

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In today's fast-paced and competitive world, where every Internet category has at least four competitors (think pet supplies), many site developers have lost track of the one aspect of Web development that will separate the winners from the losers: the user experience.


When you say "user experience," the average dot-com CEO thinks of usability. But there's more to the user experience than just usability. In fact, "user experience" is one of those very-hard-to-describe-succinctly terms like "brand." Instead, user experience is an amalgam of many user interactions, including these biggies:


• Performance.


• Usability.


• Customer care.


Performance


It's critical to leverage these aspects of your site to create the best user experience possible - and win as a company online.


Performance includes download time, uptime, browser compatibility, HTML compatibility, update speed, dead link errors and other implementation aspects of your site that can result in poor performance in the eyes of the user.


To impress users on their first visit to your site and to keep them coming back, the front page and interior pages of your site should load quickly from all parts of your target market (whether it be the United States or anywhere else in the world). Remember that most of the folks out there are still using 28k-56k dialups, so keep the graphics to a minimum and try to get your front page to load in less than 20 seconds on a 28.8k modem for the best user experience.


It's also important that your pages are compatible with the largest number of browsers possible and HTML standards in general. Obviously, you should strive for 100 percent uptime and use tools that constantly check for spelling errors and dead links.


A great tool that will send you a free report on your site's performance based on all of the aforementioned performance attributes and more can be found at www.websitegarage.com. Simply enter your URL and e-mail address and you will receive a free report that details any problems you have and gives your site an overall rating.


Keynote Systems (www.keynote.com) offers a more comprehensive tool that monitors your site from around the world and compares your uptime and response times to top Web sites such as Yahoo, Amazon.com and eBay. There is a free test available, but this is a paid service.


Usability


Usability is a tough subject to quickly cover in detail, so I'll point you to a great book on the subject: "Designing Web Usability" by Jakob Nielsen. If you're not already performing basic usability tests, they are a great and inexpensive way to figure out if you have any usability problems.


Usability tests invoke visions of rows of users with mirrors and TV cameras and the mystique of two-way mirrors, but don't be intimidated by the misconception that usability tests have to be overly formal.


A great exercise is to make a list of the top 10 tasks that you want your site to accomplish for your users (find a book, buy a piece of hardware, plan a trip, etc.) and then extend the basic tasks into specific user scenarios. For example, instead of "find a book," you may want your users to be able to find a book that was published in 1998 by ISBN number or author or title.


Next, take these user scenarios and put 10 of them in random order. Have real-world users try to use your site to achieve these scenarios. This sounds like it might not reveal much, but try it and you will be surprised at what real-world users do at your site and how they approach these tasks using your site's user interface.


We've found that even the most basic assumptions we make about user interface elements - for example, navigation - are frequently unfounded. Participants in our early usability tests were often unable to achieve what we asked or got to a solution on a much different path than anticipated.


Customer Care


We've all read about the terrible state of affairs for customer support at most Web sites. As a heavy Web user, I can verify that the news is sad but true. After sending hundreds of e-mails to various sites, I have given up on this form of getting support. (Is 24 hours really an acceptable response time? I want help faster!)


Instead of e-mailing, now I try calling first. Unfortunately, 80 percent of the Web sites I encounter don't have telephone numbers, and those that do either dump you right into voice mail or ring endlessly. It's not only smaller niche sites either - for example, see how long it takes you to find a telephone number at www.americanexpress.com (sorry American Express!).


My favorite new support gadget is live on-site (online) support. Unlike e-mail, this feature makes you feel like there's a human out there willing to help (because there is!). If implemented correctly, online live support will work much faster for users than locating and dialing a phone number. But like the phone or e-mail, this works only if there are people available to handle inbound queries immediately.


These three key areas are critical to the user experience of your site. Fortunately, there are ways you can immediately test your site to see if you have any problems in these areas and there are tools to help you fix any problems you uncover.


Let's work as an industry to make the user experience a top priority instead of an afterthought.
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