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How Well Does Your Website Work for its Users?

Lori Halley 08 May 2008 5 comments

How easy do you think it should be to make a charitable donation?  Getting a charity to accept your money might not be quite as easy as you'd think — if the charity's website is designed to meet its own needs, that is, rather than the needs of the people who visit and use the site.

Here's an example:

When an acquaintance passed away this week, I decided to pay my respects with a memorial donation to a major national charity. In a few spare minutes at lunch hour, I wrote out a cheque and sealed it in a stamped envelope, all ready to mail — all that was needed was a quick Internet look-up of the charity's mailing address.

It was easy enough to google for the charity's website, to be sure. And the site was easy to read. It was quick to load. And the "donations" link was exactly where I'd expect to find it on the web page.

But there I hit a roadblock.

"On the Internet, it's survival of the easiest," web usability expert Jakob Nielsen told us, back in 2000, and that's a trend unlikely to reverse as technology trains us to ever-shorter attention spans and an expectation of instant results.

"Studies of user behavior on the Web find a low tolerance for difficult designs or slow sites. People don't want to wait. And they don't want to learn how to use a home page. There's no such thing as a training class or a manual for a Web site. People have to be able to grasp the functioning of the site immediately after scanning the home page — for a few seconds at most."

I wanted to make a donation, so I clicked to the Donations page, easy and intuitive. But that's where the user-centred experience began to break down.

Only two choices were offered: to pay online by credit card, or to telephone a toll-free number. No accomodation was made for any other payment methods. No mailing address was given anywhere on the donations page; nor was it on the front page of the site, nor on the main contact page. Yes, I did eventually find the mailing address needed to send a cheque — it was several links further along, well buried in the site. Not intuitive, not quick, and not easy.

The message seemed clear: donations by mail are not welcome here.

True, cheques and money orders do require more staff time for handling and processing; they can get lost in the mail from time to time; and if a donation "falls through" due to insufficient funds in a donor's chequing account, the charity can incur a hefty additional bank fee. So perhaps it was a very conscious decision to design the website to nudge users in a particular direction.

From the charity's point of view,  it would seem to make good sense to design the site to make it easy to donate online — and not easy to donate by less-preferred payment methods. 

That's fair enough. Every organization has to make trade-offs between what we'd like to do and what we can reasonably manage...

But how does that work out from the prospective donor's point of view? Is your organization's website really working for its users, or is it needlessly challenging them? How easy is it for users to complete the tasks they come to your website to do?

Usability.gov, a website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, offers real-world examples of government websites that have been re-designed with the focus on the website user. Each of these sites has its own particular challenges and targets a different audience, but many of the "usability lessons" do apply to a broad range of websites. A look at these case studies can lead to a better understanding of what really works on the Web.

If you're not sure where your site stands, here are a few good resources to get started with a website usability assessment — and perhaps a makeover:

Usability.gov: Focusing on Top Tasks.

NetMechanic: Design Usability Checklist and Test Early, Test Often.

PCMag.com: Make It Usable  — Scroll down to the section called Quick Ways To Improve Your Site's Usability for tips on how to assess your website's usability with next-to-no budget for formal testing.

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Thursday, 08 May 2008 at 6:52 PM


  • Donnie said:

    Thursday, 08 May 2008 at 1:11 PM

    This goes to the heart of a core principal for me regarding web design and usability:  Web Development is an ongoing effort; not a one and done exercise!

    In order for websites to maximize the user experience (and I whole heartedly agree that it MUST be user centered) successive iterations must be implemented with continual feedback and attention to user issues.

    Borrowing from sites that do it well can help prevent the re-invent-the-wheel-syndrome, but more importantly, model the best, most trafficked sites because that is how users base their usability experience.  Its time to do a little spring cleaning out there in cyberspace--you are gonna have guests over any second!

  • cat said:

    Friday, 09 May 2008 at 5:54 PM

    Good article (and thanks for the examples - I wasn't aware it they were available).

    I've had a devil of a time with chocolate web sites. For some reason they go for slow loading flash. And although it looks pretty, trying to get an order through is a miserable experience.

    Slow loading pages, having to back out for more information due to bad planning on their end, forms that don't remember details, all can frustrate the user.

    One company ended up getting my credit card info via skype. The other? They never even got back to me. A sale lost. Well, as I'm a huge chocolate fan, it was a number of sales lost.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Sunday, 11 May 2008 at 9:01 AM

    @Donnie, you make several excellent points there - and I think it's especially worth reinterating that users' expectations for how a site will operate 'properly' are shaped in large part by their experiences on the largest, most-trafficked websites. It's great to be original in design, but without some element of familiarity in the basic navigation, at least, users will be disoriented and 'put off' from using the site.

    @cat, don't get me started on the use of Flash for the sake of being 'flashy'! One of the reasons I've always enjoyed your 'Designers Who Blog' site is the spotlight on clean and functional design: proof after proof that a website can be both attractive/innovative in design and yet user-centred, user-friendly, in how it works.

  • vimoh said:

    Wednesday, 14 May 2008 at 9:09 AM

    Seriously. It is not that hard to understand really. Keep the important stuff first. Chuck the secondary stuff. That's it.

    Many sites end up sending out the wrong message with bad design.

  • Cody Robert said:

    Wednesday, 21 May 2008 at 8:47 AM

    Good article.

    It seems that a lot of time, designers simply neglect to think what they are providing for the user in terms of usability. Rather than thinking as the user like they should be. That's where test groups come in!

    By the way, The article page isn't working for me. The main body is floated down below non-profit blogs on the left. (Firefox 3, Windows Vista)

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