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Confusing, Incomplete Content Creates the Most Usability Issues

If you haven’t witnessed a usability study before, you may have wondered what types of issues test participants find, and how many issues they typically uncover. 5 issues? 50 issues? 500 issues? Gulp.

Of the 100+ issues I uncover in a typical usability study, more than one-third are content-related.

Types of Usability Issues

I conducted my first usability study in 2006. I asked someone in the IT department to haul an extra PC into an empty conference room for me, then I recruited 6 or so participants via our customer database. It was about as unsophisticated as you could get — no recording software, no observers. It was just the participant and me (taking frantic notes).

Since then, I’ve conducted more than 400 usability test sessions — in formal labs, not-so-formal labs, in coffee shops, remotely and even guerilla-style (where I ambushed some willing moms at the mall).

When collecting usability study findings, I usually classify them into 1 of 5 categories: design, content, labeling, functionality and wayfinding. Depending on the type of project, there might be a 6th category, such as merchandising for an e-commerce site.

Types of Usability Issues

I think it’s a good idea to classify usability issues because this extra step can help make divvying up the workload after the study easier. For example:

Divy Up Usability Issues

Categorizing usability issues also helps the project team more easily understand how to solve the issue.

For example, if a user cannot find the “Continue” button — is it because of the button label or because the button is located in an unexpected place on the page? As the facilitator, I know that test participants did not scroll down on the page far enough to see the button. Categorizing this finding as a “design” issue, rather than as a “labeling” issue helps ensure the team solves the right problem.

Usability Results: By the Numbers

Disclaimer: The following represents my own experience. Your results may vary.

To answer my earlier question about which type of usability issue is most common, I pulled out the findings from 10 recent usability studies. The following data comes from 8 websites and 2 web applications from various organizations.

There were 5 to 8 participants per study, but most had 8 participants. All 74 usability test sessions were 1 hour in length and included anywhere from 5 to 8 tasks per session.

On average, each study revealed 113 usability issues. The studies uncovered as few as 67 issues and as many as 178. In total, 74 test participants found 1,126 usability issues across 10 websites and apps.

And so without further ado, here were my findings:

Common Usability Issues

Together, content and labeling issues made up 38.6% of the total usability issues on these 10 sites.

We’ve heard it a million times: content is king. However, I like to put it another way: content is the user experience.

Often user experience isn’t about navigation or drop-down menus and radio buttons. A website can be flawless functionally and visually, but if the information users expect isn’t there or they don’t understand it, nothing else matters.

The great news about finding content usability issues is that they are the least expensive type of issue to fix — little to no developer time is involved. Of the 5, wayfinding is potentially the most expensive. If people cannot find their way to critical information, something is fundamentally broken.

Apply My Findings to Your Next Usability Study

So now that I did all this analysis… what is the big takeaway?

I am a huge fan of prototype testing. Usability testing wireframes – or even hand-drawn sketches – saves a ton of money vs. waiting until everything is coded and “perfect.” But here is where I would use caution when prototype testing…

Use real content in prototypes

Since content is such a huge part of the user experience (and number of usability problems), I implore you to use as much real content in your prototype as possible.

Lorem ipsum (AKA placeholder text) might be passable for wireframes, but absolutely not for prototypes.

Test participants almost always inquire about greek text — “what is that, what language is that, I can’t read that” — and you end up wasting valuable time telling them to ignore it.

Hire a writer who specializes in web writing

If you haven’t done so already, hire a web copywriter to write content for your prototypes and make sure they — plus the design and development teams — observe all of the usability test sessions.

Test, then test again

Early prototypes also will likely lack design elements, such as color and information hierarchy — so it is critical to test again during the design phase. But I wouldn’t wait until the design is complete to test it for the first time. Testing early may yield brand-new ideas, increase scope, decrease scope or even confirm that you are on exactly the right path.

Happy testing!

Related Articles

UX Word of the Day: Content Chunking
The 5-Step Process I Use to Plan + Conduct Usability Studies
Steal These Mobile-First Content Patterns

Cutting Out User Research Costs You Money

User research (that is, talking one-on-one with your target audience) ensures that your website requirements are aligned with your customers’ needs. In the long-run, user research saves time, reduces revisions and second-guessing, uncovers lost revenue opportunities and identifies wasted resources.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing things because your competitors do them. Further, you run the risk of squandering money on web features your customers don’t want or need.

By conducting user research, you will find out if it’s worth the sweat and tears of publishing a blog, or if Twitter would be a better investment of your time. You’ll find out if your customers ever attend webinars or read whitepapers and why. Or what keeps prospects from purchasing or signing up.

Declining to conduct user research (and ideally, a competitive analysis, too) breaks the system of checks and balances. Without conflict or corroboration between information sources — there is no confidence, no prioritization, no red flags, no focus.

How to: Create a Cookie-Cutter Web Strategy

I was once in a very uncomfortable situation where a client told me that my ideas were boring. I admit, she was right. After looking at their website and reviewing my client interview notes, I wrote down some ways the client could improve their site. They were common best practices found on many B2B websites: add a blog and whitepapers, include customer testimonials, organize the portfolio by industry and so forth. I offered few unique approaches or fresh ideas.

Did I have confidence this was even the right strategy? Not really. But with the limited knowledge I had about this company, it was the best I had to offer. But I also knew it was not the caliber of work I was used to delivering to clients.

So what was different about this project?

Before the project was assigned to me, the client cut user research and the competitive analysis from the budget — tasks I had always conducted for other clients. Now, the discovery phase included just one meeting with the client team. After the meeting, I understood more about the company — but still only at a 10,000-foot level. So guess what happened? Because I never got to ground-level, I delivered a 10,000-foot web strategy. Mediocre input yielded mediocre output.

It’s very difficult to spot “aha” moments at the 10,000-foot level. Sometimes you can easily spot them. And sometimes the light bulb doesn’t turn on until the second or third time you see them.

Finding “aha” moments during user research can mean:

  • finding simple ways to delight your customers
  • lowering the abandonment rate
  • realigning the messaging to be more relevant
  • introducing a value-add service
  • clarifying pricing and benefits
  • reducing call center volume or talk time
  • hundreds, thousands or even millions in incremental revenue

How-to: Create an Insights-Driven Web Strategy

During a typical discovery phase, the web strategist will likely ask about your business, your competitors and your customers – who they are, about their background, what challenges they face, what information they need, why they visit your site and so on. The customer part of the discussion usually lasts 15 minutes to an hour.

All of this information about your customers is invaluable. But it should only be a jumping off point to a larger study about your customers. Nothing can replace talking to your customers one-on-one.

To do our jobs to the best of our ability, web strategists need to hear from your customers first-hand:

  • their personal anecdotes
  • the words they use to describe your products and services
  • their attitudes
  • who and what influences their decisions
  • their questions and concerns
  • why they chose you and not a competitor
  • what they worry about
  • where they access your site (at a desk or on the road)
  • what other sites they visit and why

User research – in the form of surveys, interviews, focus groups, usability studies – sets up your entire project for success. User research doesn’t need to be complex or expensive. In many cases, the findings that are uncovered will pay for themselves within days, weeks or months of launching. If after conducting research, you find that you don’t learn anything new — well, isn’t that good to know also? Validation is actually the best possible outcome: no scope creep (yay!).

Don’t wait until your next redesign to begin conducting user research. Set up an informal focus group at your office or at an upcoming trade show. Send out a short online survey to 10% of your database. Watch a handful of customers use your website. Set up a poll on Facebook or tweet questions to your followers on Twitter. Listen in on customer service or sales calls.

Finally, be open-minded.

I’m curious… If your company has never conducted user research before, why not? Is it a budget issue, or are there other reasons why? Tweet me @KristineRemer.

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6 Ways I Would Improve the Usability of Etsy

UPDATE: I launched a shop on Etsy about 2 weeks after this post was published. A lot has changed on Etsy since this post was first written in 2012.

I first discovered Etsy in 2006 and was immediately addicted despite my poor success rate of finding anything I actually wanted to buy.

Here was my typical experience: search, surf awhile, refine my search, surf for awhile, refine my search again, surf for a few more minutes, and then finally hopelessly give up at 1 o’ clock in the morning.

Fast forward 6 years later and my behavior is pretty much the same, except now I religiously use the “favorite” feature (or pin to Pinterest) because now I know I will never find that same item ever again.

Etsy homepage

If you’re not familiar with Etsy, it is a collection of independent shops who sell (mostly) handmade items such as purses, jewelry, clothing, toys, accessories, furniture, food, and art. Buyers purchase items directly from sellers, and then Etsy collects a small listing fee and commission on each item sold. It has easily turned millions of stay-at-home moms and starving artists into small business owners. (Yay!)

Etsy handmade itemsAs much as I love the concept of Etsy and adore the many items I have purchased over the years, I do not love the user experience. In a word, it is horrible. At present, there are 9.3 million items on Etsy. Yes, that’s right. Nine Million Products. With that many products on a website, search and navigation must be absolutely impeccable.

But it is not.

If I were director of user experience at Etsy, here are 6 ways I would improve the usability of the site.

1. Establish photography standards.

Without a doubt, the poorly lit and fuzzy photography that runs rampant on Etsy negatively impacts the entire user experience. Plus, it puts shops with great photography at an unfair disadvantage. The more bad photographs users must wade through, the less likely they will reach the shop with the great photography and fabulous products. In my experience, shops with great photography tend to have many more sales. (Funny how the 2 are correlated.)

Etsy tags

2. Add filtering.

If you have 8 hours to kill, use the left navigation to shop on Etsy.  Using the site this way means viewing hundreds of thousands of items in each category and tens of thousands of items in each subcategory. The only way to find anything on Etsy is by searching. When you enter a keyword in Etsy, the search engine uses product names and product tags to display items by relevancy.

Shop owners can add up to 13 tags plus up to 13 material tags (e.g., wood, felt). Tags are a fantastic way to add meta data to a website – if done correctly. Unfortunately, Etsy does not standardize tags, rendering them pretty much useless. Let’s pretend a user searches for “aqua diaper backpack,” but unfortunately, the seller tagged the item as “turquoise” and “diaper bag.” Consequently, buyer and seller will never find each other.

 

Etsy pagination

3. Eliminate pagination.

Pagination is dead. Or at least I think it should be. Pagination was chiefly invented by publishers as a way to increase page views so that they could make more money on advertising.  Large sites such as Twitter, Google, Linkedin and Facebook are already moving away from pagination.

What do I mean by “pagination?” Instead of viewing 10 items per page, then clicking “next page” to view the next set of 10, users click “show more” and now view all 20 items on the same Web page – making it easier to compare and return to previous items.

Pagination is especially devastating for Etsy. When the number of search results is almost always in the thousands or tens of thousands, viewing 40 items at a time is, well, time-consuming and exasperating.

4. Build a (better) recommendation engine.

If Etsy has a recommendation engine, it’s not at all obvious to me. I have “favorited” hundreds of items and dozens of shops and purchased many items in these past 6 years, and yet Etsy has never shown me relevant products on the home page. Instead I’m shown a group of items curated by an Etsy member, of which rarely match my tastes. Or they show me “items matching my taste” — based on a quiz I took on Etsy — which rarely match my tastes. You see the humor in this, right?

5. Eliminate duplicate categories.

There are multiple ways to browse for toys on Etsy. You can select “Toy” in the left navigation. Or, you can select “Children,” and then “Toys” from the subcategory list. But there are consequences if you choose the wrong path.  You will see two entirely different sets of toys.

Note: The categories are actually helpful when searching on Etsy. You can use them to help filter your search results.

Etsy filtering

6. Display personalized search results.

If Etsy wants to dramatically grow revenue, it is imperative that they build an intelligent search engine. That is, display results based on a combination of factors: past browsing and purchase behavior, popularity (e.g., purchases, views), relevancy of keywords, social media influence (e.g., number of backlinks), and predictive selling.

A smart search engine would eliminate the loophole that allows some shop owners to “game” the system by constantly relisting their items and adding non-relevant tags to their items in order to appear on the first page of search results.

In addition, search results should include “layered” or multiple sets of search listings, then allow users to choose the set that works best for them. Examples of search sets:

  • Regular search listings
  • Most popular items
  • Recently viewed items
  • Editor’s Picks
  • Sponsored items

After poking around on Google for a few minutes, I discovered that Etsy routinely conducts usability studies – which is great news! It is clear that Etsy works hard to support its shop owners in other ways also – with community discussion forums, shop makeover labs, featuring sellers, partnering with West Elm, craft nights, and, of course, an extensive how-to guide for new sellers. It is rare to find a brand that gives so much back to its community. You can’t help but root for such a special company.

Now, your turn. If you were director of user experience at Etsy, what would you change? Tweet me @KristineRemer.