Monday, April 16, 2007

Ditch Simplicity, Embrace Desirability

In the Web Manager’s Academy at CIL2007, Jeff Wisniewski followed Darlene Fichter with a couple of presentations – one on User Experience, the other on why Design Matters. Some great points were made in these presentations & really got me fired up – now I just want to share what I've learned, so...

Jeff began by reminding us of Jakob Nielsen’s law “Users spend most of their time on sites other than your site.” Therefore, we librarians have to keep monitoring how the web is changing and changing user expectations. What’s going on out there? Jeff sees that today’s most beloved websites are very visual, highly personalized, highly interactive, and user-generated.

He noted that a key facet of successful website design is one that librarians have been ignoring – ensuring that a site is not only usable, accessible, and findable, but that it is also desirable, valuable, and truly useful from the patrons’ perspective.

Jeff also quoted Don Norman of the Nielsen/Norman Group, who said – of website design – “simplicity is a myth whose time has passed, if it ever existed.” This rings so true. Just think of the most used sites on the web – Amazon, craigslist, Yahoo – many of these might be described as being too busy or complex by librarians, but they are highly successful among the public. An experiment conducted by Amazon in which it randomly swapped its “busier” original homepage with a simpler model of its homepage (in usability testing, this is called the A-B method) showed that sales went down significantly on the simpler version of the page.

We also know that the Rich Internet Applications (RIA’s) have raised the bar for user expectations of our websites. They’re coming to except AJAX-like functionality, sliders to change data dynamically in the page without reloading it, for example. Google Suggest is another excellent example.

What resonated with me most deeply in this session was this quote from Jeff:

“Is the religion of simplicity something we should perhaps rethink?”

Ah, sigh…

I believe that the “simplicity” model that led so many librarians to argue for an old school design – say, of static html pages with little in the way of graphics and no scripting/programming/interactivity - was probably just the one concept that really stuck in their minds and so they kept reiterating it. Certainly the simplicity mantra seemed to make practical sense. Plus it was easier to achieve. Keep it simple. But really, I think that what the librarians in question didn’t realize was that the back-end had to continue to upgrade, to grow more complex to meet user needs, and that the mantra of simplicity was only applicable insofar as a website should be simple for the end-user to master.

Jeff also talked about how important the visual design of the website is to users. A large body of research now clearly demonstrates that there is a large gap between how people say they judge websites and the criteria they actually use. They often say that they are interested in content, but in reality, we find that the true criteria that people use to determine the credibility of a website – the far and away most important factor is the design look – does the website impress them as being visually attractive and professional-looking? In fact, here’s the breakdown of factors people used to judge a website’s credibility:

  1. Design look 46.1%
  2. Info Architecture/Structure 28.5%
  3. Information focus 25.1%
  4. Motive 15.5%
  5. Usefulness of info 14.8%
  6. Accuracy of info 14.3%
  7. Identity of site sponsor 8.8%

So clearly, look of the site is of the great importance – it is a key factor in the success of your site (so clearly, a key reason to redesign if your site is underperforming). But here’s where the news gets a little worse for most librarian web designers – you have only 50 milliseconds to make a good impression. And then it gets even worse – if a user’s initial impression of the site was negative, even if a website is highly usable & provides highly useful information presented in a logical arrangement, the user will still hold that negative first impression of the site in their mind and this will outweigh the other factors.

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