Thursday, March 06, 2008

3 Important Usability Challenges for Designing Web Apps

Finding the Application, Setting Proper Preparation Expectations, Matching the User's Flow ...

"A benefit of joining the Hertz #1 Gold Club is a simplified experience for reserving a rental car. As a member, the web site remembers your billing information, frequent flyer preferences, and frequent cities you travel to, eliminating time consuming steps from the reservation system. This enhances customer loyalty, since busy travelers can make a reservation in less than a minute.

Unfortunately, our testing shows club members coming to the site to book a reservation frequently miss the optimized experience. When they are focused on their potential reservation, such as getting a quick price quote, they are very tempted to fill out the reservation form presented on Hertz.com's home page.

Yet, to take advantage of their club membership, the user has to skip the home page reservation form and, instead, log into the system. Logging-in, once the reservation process is started, requires restarting the entire reservation.

It's clear, watching these frequent customers, that, for many of them, the flow of the application (log in first, then start the reservation,) is not the natural flow they'd like to use. If they are intent on starting the reservation, they'll be stuck later on, when they realize their personal information isn't pre=populating the fields.

Matching the user's natural flow is just one challenge a web-based application developer needs to address during the design and development process. To help our clients, we've compiled a list of three challenges they'll want to keep their eye on.
Challenge #1: Finding the Application

Some web-based applications are very lucky. They are the only function provided by the site, therefore, they are easy to find -- usually right on the home page with nothing to hide behind.

Most applications, however, live within an ecosystem of other information and applications. For example, on your typical airline site, there could be dozens of self-service applications, from making a reservation to updating an itinerary to flight check-in to reward miles redemption. Some applications, such as checking flight status, may be used thousands of times each day. Other applications, such as requesting frequent flyer points for a missed flight segment, may only see a handful of users.

In addition to having many apps on the site, users also need to know what the application is called. Industry jargon and the propensity to brand everything can make it difficult for users to recognize their desired application.

A few years back, Disney.com offered customers a very cute Winnie-the-Pooh bear with a custom message embroidered on its belly, such as "Get Well Soon!" or "We Love You." In usability tests, customers thought the product was adorable and several of our users wanted to purchase one. Unfortunately, many didn't realize they needed to click the "Send a Pooh Gram" link to initiate the customization application. The link was cute, but not helpful for identifying the application.

To handle this challenge, we recommend clients regularly conduct usability tests of the site, to ensure users can find the elements of the entire application suite. Of course, they don't want to say, "Find the Pooh Gram Application." Instead, they'll need to be resourceful, with tricks like showing the user a finished product, like the embroidered doll, and ask, "How would you order one of these for your niece?"

Another great resource for developers, to ensure they've covered the right terms, is to look at the search terms used, both by referring search engines and the site's internal search function. By looking at the terms users enter, the team can get a good sense of the users' own language."    (Continued via UIE, Jared Spool)    [Usability Resources]

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