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Usability Centric Web Design

Nowadays anybody can design and put up a web site. There are more web pages than the entire population of the world. If you wish to design a web site for your business no matter how small your business is, your ultimate goal is to have effective web presence.

Most people choose a web designer based on price and portfolio. One can easily create impressive portfolio with fancy designs. There are many powerful graphic design tools available in the market and it is very easy to create very impressive graphics using these tools.

Various studies show that 43% of on line purchase attempts fail. More than 50% web browsers do not go beyond home page and more than 90% of first time visitors never come back to the same web site.

Yet, do you wonder why Ebay, Amazon, MSN shopping, Yahoo! Shopping, Expedia, Dell,, Wal-Mart Stores, Deal Time and Travelocity are SO SUCCESFUL?

The Answer is Web Usability.

Usability measures the ease with which a user can learn to operate, prepare, input for and interpret outputs of a system or component.

When we extend this concept to the web, web usability refers to how easily users of a web site can achieve whatever it is they want from the web site.

Five dimensions of web usability:

(i) Learnability: How easy it is for users to accomplish basic tasks during first visit?

(ii) Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly they perform task?

(iii) Memorabilty: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily they can reestablish proficiency?

(iv) Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are those errors and how easily they recover?

(v) Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

Why well designed quality web site needed?

(i) Internet does not guarantee competitive advantage

(ii) Customers have too many choices- web site, brick & motor

Usability is a very difficult subject and effective usability centric design requires in-depth study of Usability Engineering, Heuristic Study, Cognitive Science, Behavioral Science, Consumer Behavior, Market Research and Micro Economics. Usability study encompasses wide range of theories and models and usability scholars always debate on these theories. The followings theories / models are most popular and widely accepted.

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and Usability Engineering:

HCI examines all aspects of user interface design from the high level concern of organizational context and system requirements to the concept of usability.

Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA):

Human beings are basically rational and make systematic use of information available to them.

Technology Acceptance Model:

TAM predicts the user Acceptance of a system, which is determined by two factors:

(i) Perceived usefulness: Perceived usefulness is the degree to which a person believes that the use of the system will enhance his/her performance

(ii) Perceived ease of use: Perceived ease of use is the degree to which a person believes that the use of a system will be free from efforts

Perceived Complexity:

Perceived complexity reflects the consumers' perception. Cognitive science researchers have long been recognizing the importance of perceived complexity.

1) Web surfers' preference toward a web site is theorized to be based on subjective as opposed to objective complexity.

2) Web surfer's own perceived complexity, independent of the objective are that actually exists

Usability refers to effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction.

Four Factors of web usability:

(i) System Quality (Functionality)

(ii) Information Quality (Content)

(iii) Service Quality

(iv) Attractor

What impresses customers is not fancy presentation but functionality. Factors that affect Functionality:

(i) Can users find what they quickly and easily?

(ii) Is there a site map or site index?

(iii) Is the web site easy to navigate?

Design consideration of web content:

(i) What information need to be extracted

(ii) The way in which this information to be stored and organized

(iii) The methods for retrieving the information

(iv) How the information should be displayed

Service Quality:

Service Quality is defined as the extent to which a delivered service level matches customer expectations.

(i) Reliability

(ii) Responsiveness

(iii) Assurance

(iv) Empathy

(v) Tangibles

Implication for web usage:

The design of a web site based on technology acceptance and flow theories is a crucial determination of whether visitors are likely to accept and return to the site. An effective site design has significant influence on site traffic and the number of transactions users conduct on a web site.

So web site must not be simply be designed as easy to use thus decreasing web site usage.It is designed: (i) to be stimulating to use and thus (ii) to evoke compelling user experience to increase profitable web site usage.

The online environment must promote a long-term perspective with a user-retention focus and involvement based on intrinsic and extrinsic motives,leading to valuable behaviors and in turn greater expected web usage. Therefore the flow would occur during both goal-directed as well as experimental types of activities.

The basic model:

(1) Assess motivational design aspects during browsing process.

(2) Web sites would likely to assess user demand for new design ideas to facilitate flows.

(3) Users would likely to find a web site leading to an enduring relationship and lessen users' boredom and anxiety.

Web design and E-Commerce:

Web design is complex because it functions to facilitate the interface between humans and computers and to organize information so that the objectives of the web designer are met. One compelling element for web design is the role of time in people's behavior. People will abandon a web site if they get lost or if the site is difficult to navigate. The practical guide on speed of web site is 30 seconds.

Basic guidelines to select a web designer:

1) Look at the portfolio of the designer and please do not get impressed by the impressive graphics. Go to all the portfolio sites and try to measure the success of these sites. You may want to research about the company and how successful is the web presence of the company. You can research about the company by looking at the customers' testimonials. Be careful about customers' testimonials. Many sites put customers' testimonials without any proper name or contact details. For example, " I am really impressed by the XYZ company's capabilities. Its graphic design is very impressive and the site looks awesome, --N.C ". You do not know who N.C is and you do not have any means to contact this person since no site addresses is listed underthe name N.C.

If it is an eCommerce site use the following guidelines to measure the site effectiveness.

Measurements of eCommerce Success:

Existing measures can be classified into six major dimensions:

(i) System quality: availability, response time and usability

(ii) Information Quality: completeness, relevance and ease of
understanding of information

(iii) Use: the number of site visits and number of transactions

(iv) User satisfaction: repeat visits & purchases

(v) Individual impact: impact on individual

(vi) Organization impact: impact on employees and firm

2) Ask the designer whether he has proven expertise in usability centric web design. It is not easy to find a good usability expert who is inexpensive but there are some companies that offer usability centric design services at highly competitive prices.

3) Education background and qualifications of the designer or all the developers of the design firm are important. There are many people who can design a great web site without any formal education but it is hard to find such people. To be on the safe side, ask whether the designer has a formal college degree in engineering / computer science. Companies hire college graduates for a reason. If high school graduates (no offense) could do all the work then there would not be a single college campus on earth.

4) Ask how long the designer/company is in business and whether the designer has a legal business entity. It is easy to get a freelancer but for all legal purpose it is always better to deal with some body who has a legal presence in the country he is operating.

5) Ask whether the designer/company is in good standing. In USA, the best way to find a company's reputation is through Better Business Bureau. BBB is a nonprofit, self-regulatory organization, dedicated to promoting fairness and honesty in the marketplace.

6) Ask whether the designer/ company provides other supporting services such as hosting, domain registration etc. Many people find it useful to deal with one company that offers all the above services.

7) Always ask about the post completion support and monthly maintenance support. Web sites evolve constantly and you need to update content on a regular basis. You also need to incorporate certain changes periodically as per your business needs.

8) Ask for customer support. It is always better to deal with a company that offers live customer support on phone rather than chat or emails.

9) When you select a designer/company, always sign a formal agreement. The agreement should indemnify you against all copyright infringements and other violations of law.

10) Never, I repeat never rely on overseas freelancers. Most of them make false promises. Many companies I know had bitter experiences while dealing with overseas freelancers. Your web site is the mouthpiece of your company. Your company's businesses depends on it and never leave it to a chance. If your company is located in USA, it's always better to deal with a US company.

11) Do research about the designer/company and find out whether the designer/company has previously executed any unethical project such as pornographic/adult sites or sites that have nudity contents. You will lose customers if they find out that one of your vendors have such unethical business practice.

12) Ask whether the designer/company has a formal project development methodology. You will lose track of your project progress without a proper development methodology.

13) Always ask for the designer/company's quality document. Your web site quality is the most important aspect of your web development project and it is always better to deal with a designer/company that has a quality plan, which conforms to international standards such as SEI/CMM (Software Engineering Institute / Capability maturity model).

14) When you select the designer/company, make sure this designer/company properly documents your project through project scope, data flow diagram, change and amendment document, test plans, maintenance plan etc. You may not find the same designer/company after two years or in case you hire another the designer/company for future enhancements. Project document acts similar to that of a blue print of a foundation of any structure. Without it you can not modify the original designs and you will have to completely demolish your structure.

Just ask yourself whether you want a great looking web site or you want a web site that your customers find easy to use and love to visit again and again.

Some things are better left to the professionals and web design is one of them.

About the Author: Amit Sarkar is a Silicon Valley Veteran and has an MBA from a top ranking US University and recipient of highest national scholastic honor in USA. He has over sixteen years of experience in software development, IT marketing and International business. He has worked with many large Fortune 500 customers and set up operations globally. He is currently the President of Silicon Valley based company that offers usability centric web design

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