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28 March 2002Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Excuse-ability
Businesses that feel out of touch with their customers are focusing on usability at the expense of innovation and design.

by Martyn Perks

The internet services industry often worries about how to keep customers loyal.

Websites might be fun to use, but do they succeed? Will the customer make the right choices, and come back again and again? It is a problem that's made worse by the fact that everybody focuses on the customer, and little else, for answers - as captured by Brian Hadfield, UK managing director of IT company Unisys (1): 'The customer is not just king, but dictator.' (2)

Companies are spending more on behind-the-scenes technology for their websites, but they often overlook web design. The buzzword currently doing the rounds in business is 'customer relationship management' (CRM) - gathering data on how customers engage with products and services online. By using CRM, businesses hope to learn from their customers' behaviour, and to use the data to sell appropriate services back to the customer.

Many now see CRM as the way forward, and the spending proves it. Research company Gartner (3) recently claimed that the CRM technology market will more than double over the next five years, from $23billion in 2000 to over $76billion in 2005 (4).

While spending on technology is seen by some business as a possible salvation, few have the same enthusiasm for design. Now, Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed, a new book written by leading usability specialists, aims to lead the way in readdressing customers dissatisfaction with bad website design.

Jakob Nielsen, 'the reigning guru of web usability' according to Fortune magazine (5), is co-author of Homepage Usability with Marie Tahir. The book prescribes 113 guidelines for effective homepage design and how to make a usable site. (Note: being usable does not automatically mean being useful. That's a different matter entirely.)

Nielsen's 'law of the internet user experience' sums up the crisis: 'Users spend most of their time on other sites than your site.' (6) According to Nielsen, the homepage can make or break a user's experience, and ultimately defines their expectations. If the homepage is misunderstood, then the customer could be gone in a click: 'the homepage's impact on a company's bottom line is far greater than simple measures of ecommerce revenues' (7).

Homepage Usability will probably become another bestseller, even though it seems to reach the same conclusions as everything else in this burgeoning genre (Amazon lists over 40 books on usability (8)). It is a hands-on book, and deals with the practicalities of webpage design by examining 50 popular websites. The book might have flimsy pages and feel cheap, but don't be fooled: Nielsen's company charges $10,000 to evaluate a homepage (9).

Nielsen's company charges $10,000 to evaluate a homepage
The first section of the book deals with the authors' methodology and the importance of the homepage. Next come their guidelines, summarising their research findings. The final section consists of the 50 website reviews. For web geeks, it's fun reading what Nielsen has to say about websites that we regularly use, and that some of us might even have designed. But on closer inspection, the book reduces web design to a mundane level.

While some of the book's guidelines are common sense, others are banal. For example, 'show the company name and/or logo in a reasonable size and noticeable location' (10) - and 'don't use clever phrases and marketing lingo that make people work too hard to figure out what you're saying' (11). This doesn't express a high opinion of businesses or internet users.

As with Nielsen's last bestseller, Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity (12), the reader is left with circumspect, anecdotal answers, often demeaning the reader (customer and designer alike) by doing little more than count commonly used features and make assumptions about their usage. It would seem that an absence of scientific rigour doesn't matter when it comes to usability - mention that your customers are being disregarded, and everybody will sit up and take notice.

The book also neglects one crucial aspect of companies online - that they are different from one another. Instead, Nielsen makes broad generalisations and lumps different businesses into the same categories. So the vast news website BBC (13) is treated the same as up-for-grabs auction website eBay (14). We learn little from treating companies with different markets and audiences as if they were the same.

As is evident from the enormous amounts spent on CRM, most companies are attempting to outdo each other in reaching out to their customers. Nielsen and Tahir tap into this mood, taking the popular approach of attacking brands for being irresponsible and failing to uphold their customers' interests. Their protest at the corporate swindling of naive customers has much in common with the work of Naomi Klein, the anti-brand author of No Logo (15).

Nielsen and Tahir champion customer rights by attacking PETsMART.com (16), a site devoted to pet foods and accessories. Rejecting the photograph of an Alsatian dog on the homepage, they accuse the website of being dogist: 'Since the site serves several categories of pets, it would be good to show a few types of animals. Otherwise users might think this site is only for dogs.' (17)

But surely there is more to usability than being patronising and stating the obvious? What exactly is usability and where did it come from?

The idea of usability, sometimes known as 'human factors', existed long before the web. It involves observing users engaging in tasks and mediating between design and the end users' needs - ensuring that customers can achieve the original aims of the product, whatever that product may be. Today, everybody is into usability.

Nielsen and Tahir accuse a pet website of being 'dogist'
Usability originated in ergonomics, information design and software design, and was epitomised in the 1960s and 1970s by military displays and cockpit panels. Now it has come of age. It used to focus on product design - for example, trying to make your video remote control work properly. Today, a combination of ubiquitous computing power and the internet has made internet usability appealing to just about every business worried that it might be out of touch.

Nielsen and Tahir are well known among usability and design professionals. Tahir is head of strategy for the Nielsen Norman Group (18), and Nielsen has written bestselling books on usability and a regular column on the subject on his useit.com website (19).

Usability is typical of an approach that places customers' needs above the search for compelling products. Nielsen's insistence upon testing your ideas with 'real' users ensures that all innovative ideas have to contribute to overall customer satisfaction, from the initial spark of inspiration to the final assembly line.

Few challenge Nielsen's belief in testing ideas to death - and why would they? Ever since marketing guru Regis McKenna wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the 1990s would 'belong to the customer' (20), business has seemed preoccupied with constructing customer experiences, doing away with traditional product development and market research. Forget the product - knowledge of the customer is all-important.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being 'customer-centric'. But when usability is combined with risk aversion, it acquires a completely new meaning. Most major companies now have risk management departments, which vet all new project development. Low technology stocks, increased shareholder value and chasing the customer all allow usability to hold court at the company board. Customer knowledge is key - and moving outside your audience is intolerable in today's burnt-out technology market.

Nielsen and Tahir have promoted their book on a world tour (21), talking about usability to a number of international audiences. They are in vogue at a time when business wants solace. But while they preach customer awareness, there is little discussion of compelling ideas that could foster broader growth.

If business is not prepared to invest, then its preoccupation with the user will certainly hold it back. As Sandy Starr points out elsewhere on spiked, the customer tends to be seen as a target market without any latent future needs: 'If we're always on the lookout for ways to develop today's products according to how they are used now, new scenarios for use will arise only haphazardly, instead of developing from an ambitious vision.' (22)

Nielsen and Tahir's irritation with contemporary web design misses a basic point. When a client spends time and resources defining their needs (over and above their customers' needs), which means spending money on projects, then interface design issues become marginal and easy to fix.

Companies end up chasing the same customers using the same ideas
Amazon is a favourite with customers because it has a great business model: a vast catalogue, reliable fulfilment, highly developed (expensive) systems. Buying books from Amazon and getting them delivered the next day is easy (or would be, if only the Post Office could guarantee delivery). With an infrastructure that evinces Amazon's optimism about developing technology, interface design challenges become easier to solve. But imagine the reverse. Designing for a business that uses a clapped-out infrastructure, and has little stomach for investment, will not inspire or encourage the designer.

If you suffer from 'customeritis', then more often than not you end up chasing the same customers using the same ideas. In banking, most banks have offered the same services for over a decade. In 1989, First Direct (23) revolutionised the industry by launching telephone banking, and today most banks offer online services. But the online services do not differ significantly from telephone banking - apart from the branded colours and logos.

As Wayne Greenwood points out 'really good, innovative, useful products tend to inspire brand loyalty' (24). He should know - he is chief design officer for Cooper Interaction Design (25), and works with Alan Cooper, who invented the precursor to Microsoft's widely used programming environment Visual Basic (26). Greenwood is unusual in that he describes risk as a necessity within product development: 'There's no denying that innovation can be risky, but not innovating can be even riskier' (27).

Without innovative solutions that are imaginative and that promote the talents of the producer, the designer is left solving narrow, piecemeal issues that don't add up to much. Which is why Nielsen and Tahir reduce everything to the banal. They accept that the interface is the most critical aspect of the product, losing sight of the possibilities of the product itself.

The combination of industry downturn and general malaise in generating new ideas will produce much soul-searching about usability, but little else. Although usability is important, great innovative ideas which capture your customers' imagination should surely precede any user testing session?

By all means buy Homepage Usability. Just don't expect it to change anything more than your homepage.

Martyn Perks is a user experience consultant, and a writer and speaker on design, IT and business. See his website

Read on:

Hiding behind the user, by Ben Eliot

(1) See the Unisys website

(2) Customer relationship management: the personal touch, Andrew Fisher, Financial Times, 7 December 2001

(3) See the Gartner website

(4) Gartner Says CRM Spending to Reach $76.3 Billion in 2005, Gartner, 7 March 2001

(5) Imagining a web beyond the browser, Mark Gimen, Fortune, 21 February 2001

(6) Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed, Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir, New Riders, 2001, p37. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(7) Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed, Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir, New Riders, 2001, p1. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(8) See the Amazon (UK) website

(9) See the charges on the Homepage design review section of the Nielsen Norman Group website

(10) Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed, Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir, New Riders, 2001, p10. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(11) Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed, Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir, New Riders, 2001, p14. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(12) Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity, Jakob Nielsen, New Riders 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(13) See the BBC website

(14) See the eBay website

(15) No Logo, Naomi Klein. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(16) See the PETsMART.com website

(17) Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed, Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir, New Riders, 2001, p243. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(18) See the Nielsen Norman Group website

(19) See the Alertbox column, on Jakob Nielsen's useit.com website.

(20) 'Marketing is everything', Regis McKenna, Harvard Business Review, January-February, 1991

(21) See the User Experience World Tour section of the Nielsen Norman Group website

(22) Moving on, by Sandy Starr

(23) See the First Direct website

(24) The high risk of low-risk behavior, Wayne Cooper, Cooper Interaction Design Newsletter, December 2001/January 2002

(25) See the Cooper Interaction Design website

(26) See the Visual Basic .NET section of the Microsoft website

(27) The high risk of low-risk behavior, Wayne Cooper, Cooper Interaction Design Newsletter, December 2001/January 2002

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