Applets, Plug-ins & PDF files

If your Web site uses applets, plug-ins, or PDF files, you should provide equivalent text that is accessible to a ‘screen reader.’

A screen reader is a device that allows people with specific disabilities (blindness, for example) to be able to hear Web pages spoken out to them rather than being displayed on the screen.

If alternative text is not available, a screen reader will not be able to accurately convey what is being displayed by the scripts.

Applets

Here are some tips on how to design accessible content with.

Applets

Most browsers used by people with disabilities do not work with Java applets. While Sun Microsystems – the creators of Java – have incorporated accessibility features with Java, most Java developers do not make use of these features.

Therefore, these users might not be able to access all of the information unless you provide an equivalent alternative.

Where browsers don’t support a particular applet or plug-in, the accessibility goal is to inform the user of the existence of the applet and to provide an equivalent alternative in HTML.

For example: Inform the user of an applet’s purpose by adding alternative text to the APPLET element.

<APPLET CODE="menu.class" ALT="Java menu applet"></APPLET>

You should include equivalent HTML in the content of OBJECT elements too.

When a browser does not support an applet, the browser renders the HTML content in the OBJECT element.

<OBJECT CLASSID="java:menu:class">Java menu...</OBJECT>

Plug-Ins

Some video (e.g. “.mov” files) and audio (e.g. “.wav” files) players are compatible with screen readers.

However, an alternative to the audio content is needed for users who are deaf or hard of hearing. An alternative to the visual content is also needed for users who are blind or have poor vision.

PDF Files

PDF files are used as an accurate way to reproduce and transport documents for printing or reading. They are created using Adobe Acrobat, Acrobat Capture, or similar products.

Download Adobe Acrobat Reader

To view and use PDF files, you need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader plug-in, that anyone can download. Once the Acrobat Reader has been downloaded to a computer, it will start automatically whenever a user views a PDF file.

Accessibility Tools for Adobe PDF Documents

Visually disabled users find it difficult to understand the contents of a PDF file. Screen readers often can’t read the text in that file, because a PDF file can contain complex layouts and large graphics. Access.adobe.com provides a set of free tools that allow visually disabled users to read documents in Adobe PDF format. These tools convert PDF documents into either HTML or ASCII text, which can then be read by screen readers.

Web-Based PDF Conversion Tool

Adobe also offers a useful service whereby a PDF document is converted on the fly to HTML and returned immediately to the user’s Web browser. A screen reader can then read the document.

E-mail PDF Conversion Tool

PDF files that are stored on a user’s computer system (local hard disk), CD-ROM, or local area network (LAN), can also be converted by attaching the PDF file to an e-mail message. The converted PDF file is returned in the body of a new mail message, as plain ASCII text, in a matter of minutes.

AskAlice Web Site Accessibility Checker

Receive an online report containing:

  • A thorough assessment of your site’s accessibility;
  • An analysis of the opportunities accessibility offers your organization;
  • Information on how you can make your site accessible.

Provide Equivalent HTML Files

Even with all the tools Adobe offer to assist visually disabled users, the best solution is to offer a HTML version of the PDF file in your Web site.

Web Accessibility Design Guidelines

It’s a sad fact that a lot of information on the Web is not directly accessible by people with disabilities.

Why? Because most Web site managers and developers are ignorant of the needs of those people with disabilities who cannot use the Web in the standard way.

Web Accessibility Design Guidelines

Here are some examples of common accessibility design considerations:

  • Include alternative (ALT) text for every image on your site
  • Provide text links in addition to image map links
  • Provide alternatives to multimedia content
  • Make sure colors don’t hinder the accessibility of your content (it is often said that 10% of the population suffer with color-blindness)
  • Provide alternatives to Web pages using frames
  • Make sure all text is readable
  • Make sure content is accessible to assistive technology, such as screen readers

Even following these basic guidelines will make your site most accessible than many. There are thousands of sites that use graphics in situations where a paragraph of text would be adequate.

Even if you want to use graphics to illustrate a point, make sure you also supply text for those who cannot (or choose not to) view graphics!

Web Accessibility Facts

Consider these accessibility facts:

  • The 1996 Chartbook on Disability in the United States estimates that “19.4% of non-institutionalized civilians in the United States, totalling 48.9 million people, have a disability. Almost half of these people (an estimated 24.1 million people) can be considered to have a severe disability.”

    Source: LaPlante, 1995

  • “Approximately eight percent of web users have a disability. Nearly half of those users are blind or visually impaired.”

    Source: Georgia Tech’s GVU WWW Survey (April 1998)

  • Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act state that “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability shall, solely by reason of his/her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity.”
  • Section 508 (Information Technology and People with Disabilities) amendment to the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 “requires that Federal agencies’ electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public.” This change was originally projected for August 7, 2000.

    Source: Americans with Disabilities Act

Web Accessibility Tips

These facts are extremely important as they demonstrate that good accessibility can be reinforced by the law. Therefore, considering the accessibility of your site to those with disabilities is not only a wise business decision, it’s a wise moral and legal choice too.

Usability Heuristic Evaluation

A ‘heuristic’ is a general guideline or conclusion that aids in an investigaton or analysis of something. A heuristic evaluation in usability, therefore, is when a group of usability experts evaluate your site’s usability against a list of accepted guidelines and commonly accepted principles.

If you don’t have the resources to hire usability experts, you could conduct the heuristic evaluation on your own site. It’s not an ideal solution but any evaluation is far better than none at all.

Here are fifteen Web site usability heuristics.

Aesthetic and Minimalist Design

This heuristic states that your Web site should:

  • not offer more than is required for the user to perform a task: The more you have going on, on a Web page, the more effort the user has to put in to filter out the noise. Likewise, unneeded ‘advanced’ features can also make your page too confusing for new users. If you have to provide advanced features, put them on a separate page; and
  • be aesthetically pleasing: Removing unneeded elements from your site does not mean you have to get rid of design features or visual cues that make your site attractive. Great design is a perfect combination of minimalist and aesthetically pleasing design.

Usability Heuristic Evaluation

Consistency and Standards

Be consistent and follow accepted industry standards in your site design. There are many accepted conventions on the Internet.

Here are a couple of them:

  • The local navigation bar is usually displayed on the left of a page. Users may find it inconvenient and annoying, if the bar is moved to the right side; and
  • Most users know that blue underlined text represents a hyperlink. Changing the color, or removing the underline would likely confuse users.

Error Prevention and Recovery

Help users recover from an error by giving a precise description of what the error is, why it occured, and possible solutions for recovering from the error. Better still, prevent the error from occuring in the first place.

For example, make sure the links on your site aren’t broken. In the event that your users find a missing page, provide a user-friendly “404 – File not found” error page, with help on how to find the missing page.

“404 – File not found” Redirection Advertising Services

Under no circumstances should you use a “404 – File not found” redirection advertising service in your site.

Your users are already frustrated when they don’t find the page they are looking for. By redirecting them to another site, your users would be totally baffled. This is a good way of losing the visitor forever! It just isn’t worth the extra cent or two that you make on the referral.

This clever advertising concept only benefits the service provider in the long run, not you, the site owner!

Flexibility and Efficiency of Use

This heuristic states that your Web site’s interface should be flexible and efficient to use.

Flexibility

You should offer your users a number of options when it comes to finding content on your site.

These include:

  • Hyperlinks;
  • Basic search form;
  • Advanced search form;
  • Site map; and
  • Alphabetical index.

Efficiency

Your users should be able to achieve their goals in an efficient manner.

To maximize efficiency, you should:

  • word hyperlinks properly; preferably with the title of the page the link leads to;
  • make sure search results should include a description of the link, in addition to the title of the page;
  • design your site map in a logical manner; and
  • provide an alphabetical index which includes as many categories, content areas, departments and keywords as possible.

Help and Documentation

All Web sites require some form of help and documentation.

Help and documentation should:

  • be easy to find;
  • be focused on the user’s tasks;
  • list possible solutions to assist the user in their most common tasks;
  • be organized in a manner that makes sense to the user; and
  • focus on helping the user achieve their goals.

Inverted-Pyramid Style of Writing

Traditionally, when you write, you start with a ‘foundation’ and gradually build to a conclusion in a pyramid style. You might write an essay or article using the following structure:

  1. Problem statement;
  2. Related work;
  3. Methodology;
  4. Results; and
  5. Conclusions.

Journalists, on the other-hand, use an inverted pyramid style. They generally start with the main conclusion and get progressively more detailed, like so:

  1. Conclusion;
  2. Supporting information; and
  3. Background and technical details.

Since Web users typically scan text, it is important to position main points at the beginning of the article, then go into more detail as needed.

Match the Web Site to the Real World

This heuristic states that the elements and terms used within your Web site should match those used in the real world as closely as possible.

Here are two examples:

  • Your Web site should use the user’s natural language, not jargon or technical terms, unless they’re Computer Science graduates – try to use “Cost Per Click” instead of “CPC”, for example; and
  • In the real world, books have an “Index” to help readers find what they are looking for. You should also include one in your Web site to help your users find what they are looking for.

Minimize Download and Response Times

Web users often say speed, or rather the lack of it, is the biggest problem they face in using the Web.

Download times should be as low as possible.

Studies show that most Web users will tolerate a maximum page download time of eight seconds, before giving up, unless they are certain the page will contain the information they need.

The time is takes your Web site to respond is also important. Your site’s search engine shouldn’t take ten seconds to respond. Unlike with an application, it is harder to give a visual or audial cue to a Web user to reassure them that something is going on, so keep it quick!

If your site is inaccessible, because the server is down, users are also likely to give up on your Web site, so monitoring your server’s uptime is also essential.

Protect Users’ Work

Make sure that users never lose their work as a result of error, be it on their part, or the fault of the system.

For example, let’s say a user fills up a shopping cart with products. Then, accidentally, their browser is closed, or it crashes. When they return to your site, the shopping cart should still contain the items they had previously added.

Nearly all users would be most frustrated to find an empty shopping cart. Many users probably couldn’t be bothered to find and add the items to the user’s shopping cart again, resulting in a lost sale for you.

Readability

Text should have high contrast to be easily readable. This means that the color or brightness of the text should be as different as possible to the background it is placed upon. Black text on a white background is the best option.

Be sensitive to the commonly accepted rules of the Web. If you’re offering professional services you shouldn’t really use a light colored text on a dark background. For example, white on black. This is really only suitable for entertainment Web sites that want look trendy or cool.

Don’t forget to pay particular attention to the needs of the millions of users who suffer from color, or low-vision deficiencies. There are many people who cannot differentiate between green and red when they’re right next to each other.

Real World Conventions

Use real world conventions by making information appear in a natural and logical order.

For example, traffic lights always have green (go) below red (stop). Don’t reverse the order, or use different colors to signify “go” and “stop” in your Web site’s interface. Ideally, you should also provide a textual cue, for those who are color-blind.

Recognition Rather Than Recall

Make objects, actions, and options easily recognizable and understandable.

For example, if you use icons in your site’s navigation, use icons that are easily recognizable. If the user has to work out from memory what an icon is about, the icon needs to be improved. Don’t make the user think too much!

Scannable Text

It is widely accepted that Web users scan Web pages rather than reading them in full.

We want to find the answer to what we are searching for, with minimum wasted effort and time. Life is short and time is expensive!

So, make your text scannable. Use bold headings, sub-headings and short paragraphs.

Try to get your message across with as few words as possible, without losing the value of what you’re trying to say. As a general rule, in most documents you should be able to remove 25-50% of the words, without losing anything of real value!

User Control and Freedom

This heuristic states that you protect users from mistakes and give them the freedom and power to undo a mistake when they make one.

For example:

  • Don’t make important irreversible actions easy to perform;
  • Offer undo and redo options;
  • Provide clearly marked “emergency exit” signs; and
  • Ask for ‘confirmation’ whenever you can, without being annoying or overprotective.

Visibility of Web site Status

This principle states that your Web site should always keep users informed about what is going on at any given moment.

For example, let’s say your e-commerce site is processing a credit card transaction. Your Web site should inform the customer that the transaction is being processed.

Most Web sites do warn users that it may take 30-45 seconds to process their credit card, before they submit their order. I recommend that you take this one step further.

For example, you could display a small animated hour-glass while the credit card is being processed. Yes, this is a cheap and simple trick. But it works! The user would get the impression that their transaction is being processed and the system hasn’t stalled.

Common Usability Problems

The majority of Web sites have usability problems, which can result in confusing users, and ultimately, loss of revenue.

The next few sections highlight some of the problems that users can encounter on a site with usability problems, which ultimately lead to confusion and lost revenue:

User Has Difficulty in Finding What They Are Looking For

One of biggest signs that your site has usability problems is that users struggle to find the information they’re looking for.

You might find that:

  • you’re not getting as many enquiries as you think you should be;
  • your recent redesign resulted in sales toppling; and
  • while visitors make plenty of searches, few follow through with the results.

These situations usually occur when users have to struggle to use your site. And sadly, this is one of the most common problems that Internet users encounter.

Usability Problems

Logically, the larger your site, the more difficult it will be to find something within it. But more commonly, a poorly structured navigation system, poorly worded links and ineffective site search engines contribute to this common usability problem.

Make sure you provide lots of assistance and visual cues to help your users find what they are looking for.

For example:

  • Site search engine that includes a description, in addition to the page title, of each returned link;
  • An optional advanced search system;
  • Site map;
  • Alphabetical index;
  • Prominent display of popular content above-the-fold on the home page; and
  • A customized “404 – File not found” error page which helps users try to find an alternative to the page that is missing.

The Concept is Unclear

New users to your site will quickly look for visual and verbal cues to work out what your site is about. Common missing visual cues include a logo, title, brief description of the site, and the benefits of using the site.

Try to look at your home page as if you’ve never seen it before. Where do your eyes drift first? What are you looking for? Ask yourself if, as a new user, you would you be able to work out what the site is about.

However, don’t spend too long thinking about it. Try to come up with your initial conclusions in just a few seconds, as that’s as much time as you are likely to have to sell your site to your new site visitors.

You can also use your family, friends and work colleagues to help you. These are all people that you know and trust, but who will not be as familiar with your site as you. If they can’t work out what your site is about, then your site is at fault, not them. Remember that!

User Misunderstands What They See

Often what designers think and what users think are quite different.

For example, one site had a link called, “Glossary” that linked to a glossary of keywords.

Few users clicked on it. Why?

Usability testing revealed why. A lot of their users weren’t sure what a “glossary” was, so they were hesitant in clicking on the link. When they changed the word “Glossary” to “Dictionary”, a great deal more users used the link, since nearly everyone knows what a dictionary is.

Confusion has arisen in e-commerce situations too. Several high-profile sites decided that instead of a ‘shopping cart’, they would have a ‘basket’ or a ‘product trolley’. Ultimately, the conclusion was that if you stick to what users are already familiar with, even if it is wrong, you will have more success.

Page Has Too Much Noise

Some Web pages are so busy and cluttered that it can be extremely easy for users to miss the link or feature that they are looking for.

There are two overall solutions:

  • Reduce the Noise Level of the Page:
    • Remove, or tone down, background images;
    • Use fewer and dimmer colors (a common method is to stick with 2 main colors per page);
    • Trim down the content on the page;
    • Increase the ‘white space’ between text and images;
    • Reduce the amount of movement on the page, such as animated banners and buttons; and
    • Use only 2 or 3 main fonts on a page. One for headings, one for the main text, and another one to attract attention where necessary.
  • Increase the Prominence of the Important Items:
    • Move the item to a more visible position, such as the top of the page;
    • Add images to the item to attract the user’s attention;
    • Add, or increase the font size of the, headline or title;
    • Increase the text size;
    • Change the text color;
    • Change the background color of the item;
    • Separate the item from the rest of the content. For example, surround the item with a box; and
    • Create movement in the item by using animation – but only if animation adds value to the item.

Web Site Usability Testing on a Budget

One of the biggest myths about usability testing is that it costs thousands of dollars a day to run the most basic of tests. Sure, many high-profile engineers will charge you over $10,000 a day, but if you want to conduct a test yourself, you could easily do it for around $250.

All you need is five users, an average home computer, camcorder with tripod, stopwatch, $250 and a few hours of your time.

Number of Users: Five
Type of Users: Any Internet User (Targeted users preferred)
Test Location: Your/Customer’s Office
Test Supervisor: You
Observers: None Present
Test Schedule: Anytime
Test Preparation: List of Tasks and Questions
Costs: $250 ($50 Per User Per Hour)

Number of Users

According to Jacob Nielson – a usability expert – testing five users could uncover about 85% of your site’s usability problems.

In your effort to minimize usability testing costs, you should try not to use co-workers, or anyone else who has a hand in creating the site, as test subjects. Even using other Web designers could be a big mistake. Their prior experience with the site, the technology and a bias towards pleasing you could easily spoil the test results.

However, it is acceptable – and economical – to use co-workers to run through, but not complete, the usability tests to make sure there are no problems with your test plan.

Usability Testing

Types of Users

To a certain extent, a basic familiarity with a Web browser is the only experience that your test subjects need. Ideally they should have been using the Web for at least a few months, and understand all of the basic concepts.

Of course, the ideal scenario would be to recruit users that fit the demographic you are targeting. But that could be much more difficult and increase the costs.

However, there are exceptions, if you are targeting:

  • Clearly defined demographic groups: If your site is targeted at teenagers, by all means conduct testing sessions using only teenagers;
  • Clearly defined interest groups: If your site targets fitness enthusiasts, conduct at least one round of testing with fitness enthusiasts; and
  • Groups that require certain knowledge: If your site is targeted at certain professionals, such as doctors, you should conduct at least one round of testing with users in the profession.

Test Location

You can test anywhere that has a computer – in your office or even at your home.

You should also consider conducting usability tests in your customers’ offices. This way, you can observe your users in the context of their work environment.

If you force your users to work in a sterile ‘examination’ environment, they might feel uncomfortable, and make mistakes which they might not necessarily make in a normal situation.

UPS.com’s site design team often pay live visits to the offices of all types of actual customers to observe how they are using UPS.com in the real world.

You could do the same. Most users won’t mind you observing their usage of their site, as long as you agree to meet all costs, and don’t disrupt them more than necessary.

Test Supervisor

You only require one test supervisor to conduct a usability testing session. Virtually anyone that has patience, is observant, and is a good listener can supervise a usability test. The test supervisor doesn’t have to be a usability expert, but should simply be familiar with the aim of the session.

Observers

The best policy with observers is to keep them away from the testing session. Most people get nervous when they sit a test, or know they are being watched by a large group of people.

Instead, use a camcorder to record the testing session for later review.

This has a number of advantages:

  • You’ll have the option to review a particular testing session over and over again; and
  • All members of the design team can dicsuss a testing session as they are reviewing it.

Test Schedule

You should conduct as many usability tests as it takes to create a user-friendly Web site.

At the bare minimum, there should be at least three rounds of testing:

  1. Uncover your users’ needs: To design a site that meets your intended users’ needs, you should start by conducting some basic usability tests on competitors’ sites. Find out what your users particularly like or dislike about a competitor’s site;
  2. Design your site’s objectives to meet your users’ needs: Translate your users’ needs into specific priorities for your site design. Once the design requirements have been formalized, you should test the site plan to make sure the translation of your users’ needs have been met properly; and
  3. Beta test your site: A beta test – also considered as a “pre-release test” – is a phase of testing in which a sampling of the intended audience tries the product out prior to launch. This round of testing allows you to validate the most critical elements of your site before it goes live. Once your site goes live, you should start over with the first test.

Like I said, you should conduct a minimum of three rounds of usability testing. Ideally, you will conduct more tests throughout the development of your Web site.

Test Preparation

Before you conduct a round of testing, make sure you have the following items to hand:

  • A stopwatch;
  • A camcorder to record the testing session;
  • A list of prepared questions to ask the test subject; and
  • And a list of prepared tasks for the user to complete.

Costs

Most of the costs involved in basic usability testing are to pay the Web users a small fee for their time. Set a reasonable fee that would encourage the Web user to attend the testing session.

Expect to pay US$50-100 per hour for the average Web user. For professionals who have certain knowledge – such as doctors or bankers – the fee could easily be US$200-300 per hour unless you have good personal contacts.

If your test subjects are existing customers, you could reward them with complimentary products and services, instead of cash.

‘Where on the Internet am I?’ Checklist

People don’t always land on a home page of a new site. Sometimes they jump to a inner page via search engine links, links in other sites, or email links.

When users land on a page they aren’t familiar with, they look for indicators to tell them which site they’re on, what the site offers, and where the content that was promised by the link is. They want all that information with minimal effort.

To ensure users aren’t lost when they land on your Web page, every page must provides answers to the following questions.

Where on the Internet

Where is the Content Promised by the Link?

When users click on a link, they expect the page they land on to provide the content promised by the link.

If the user can’t find the promised content, they will:

  • try to find a link that closely resembles what we are looking for;
  • browse the page to see if anything catches their interest;
  • use the site’s search engine to try to find what they are looking for;
  • visit the home page to see if it offers any more information on the content they are looking for; and
  • click the “Back” button on their browser window to return to the previous page.

What is This Page About?

Every page on your site must provide information that clearly and effectively indicate to the user exactly what it is about.

As such you should display a prominent page title near the top of the every page. The page title should also be included in the page’s TITLE meta tag, so it also appears in the browser’s title bar. If the user bookmarks the page, the meta tag title text will appear in their user’s bookmark folder.

Where are the Local Navigation Links

When a user lands on a page looking for content promised by the link, it is logical to conclude that they are more than likely to be interested in content similar to that contained on the page.

So, it is important to provide local navigation links to similar content to encourage the user to explore your site further. Local navigation links are especially useful, when the page doesn’t offer the content promised by the link they clicked.

What is the Name of This Site?

When a user lands on a new Web page, they need reassurance that they are on the site promised by the link they clicked. So you must clearly identify the name of your site by displaying text, or a graphic logo at the top of the page.

Where are the Links to the Main Sections of the Site?

When a user lands on a new Web page, they won’t necessarily know what the site has to offer. Often a user will look for the primary navigation links to get a quick overview of what the site has to offer. This is another reason why is it important that every page on your site includes primary navigation links.

Where is the Link for the Homepage?

Help, I’m lost! How do I jump to the home page?

If a user lands on a page and the page doesn’t provide the content they are looking for, they will often visit the home page to see if it provides more information to help them find what they are looking for.

As such, it is essential that every page includes clearly marked links to your home page. Also make sure you link your site’s logo to your hopmepage.

Where am I in Relation to the Homepage?

When a user lands on a sub-page of a new site, they need some indication of which level they are on in the site and where they are in relation to the home page.

For this reason, breadcrumb trails were introduced to Web sites. Breadcrumb trails help gives users a bearing of where they are in a site and allow users to jump up a level or two, or directly to the home page.

How Can I Search This Site?

A lot of Web users will use a site’s search form to find what they are looking for, if they can’t find it in the page they are on. So it is essential that you provide a search form at the top of each page, or at the very least, a link to the search form.

Define Your Web Site Objectives

To build a great Web site, you must define its objectives. Only then can you define and prioritize the usability aspects of your site to meet your intended users’ needs.

Let’s take a few this site’s objectives and usability solutions as an example:

Define Your Web Site Objectives

  • Site Objective: 95% of Web pages must theoretically download in two seconds or under on a 56kbps modem.
    • Usability Solution: To minimize the download time of each Web page, we minimized the number of words and graphic files on each page.
  • Site Objective: Content must be understandable by a seventh grader. Since we appeal to an international audience, whose first language may not be English, this is crucial.
    • Usability Solution: All text on this site has been checked for readability.
  • Site Objective: User must be able to find the specific content they are looking for in three clicks or less.
    • Usability Solution: There is a search form at the top of virtually every page for quick and easy access.

Think about defining similar objectives for your site. Don’t forget that the most popular features of your site should be positioned prominently on the home page, so that users don’t waste time hunting for them.

Usability Toolkit

Aside from the classic usability tests, you can call upon quite a number of usability tools to test your site’s usability. Of course, you don’t have to use every single one. Here are 24 usability tools.

Affinity Diagrams

Affinity diagramming is a categorization method where users sort various concepts into categories.

This method is used by a team to organize a large amount of data according to the natural relationships between the items. Basically, you write each concept on a card and users move the cards to groups based on how they feel the concept belongs with other concepts.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Form a team: Gather a team of five or six open-minded people;
  2. Describe the issues: Compose a broad and neutral statement about what you’re trying to accomplish;
  3. Create idea cards: Brainstorm a list of concepts, then record each concept on a separate blank card;
  4. Sort the cards into groups: No one speaks during this process to make sure that no one influences someone else’s decision;
  5. Create header cards: Create header cards for each group. These header cards should concisely describe what each group represents. Subheader cards can also be used; and
  6. Draw the affinity diagram: Draw lines connecting the headers, subheaders, and groups. Connect related groups with lines. The result looks a lot like a typical organization chart.

Usability Toolkit

Alternative Browsers

This may sound obvious, but a lot of people still fail to ensure their Web site displays properly on all the popular browsers.

These include (in alphabetical order):

  • Chrome;
  • Firefox;
  • Internet Explorer;
  • Opera; and
  • Safari.

Ask Questions

Testing your users by asking questions simply takes thinking aloud one step further.

Instead of waiting for users to tell you their thoughts, you prompt them by asking direct questions. Their ability, or inability, to answer your questions can help you spot problems with your Web site.

Blind Voting

On occasions your usability team may not all agree on a particular issue. You can use blind voting to vote on the issue without a team member influencing someone else’s vote.

Blind voting is when everyone participating in a voting session cannot view the votes of other participants, until all votes have been cast.

Card Sorting

Card sorting is a categorization method where users sort cards depicting various concepts into categories.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Write down each concept or item on a separate blank card; and
  2. Ask your user to divide the cards up into groups that they best see fit.

This technique is best used in the early stages of development. For example, you might want to determine how users would group various site navigation links.

Cognitive Walkthroughs

Cognitive walkthrough is a review technique where you construct task scenarios from a specification and get a user to role play the part of walking through the task.

Here’s how it works:

The user act as if the site was real and works through the tasks. You scrutinize each step the user takes. If the user finds they can’t complete a task, it would indicate that something is missing from your site’s interface.

On the other hand, if the user has to take a long winding path – such as too many clicks – through the task sequence, it indicates that your site’s interface needs a new function to simplify the task.

Consistency Inspections

Use consistency inspections to ensure consistency across multiple sites.

For example, if you add a sub-site to your main Web site, conduct a consistency inspection to make sure the sub-site’s primary navigation system is consistent with that of your main site.

Make sure all site functions operate consistently in all your Web sites.

You should take every opportunity to see exactly how your site is used in the real world. By observing users in the field, you can determine your users’ usability requirements.

For example, you may find that most of your users like to print out a copy of your articles to read off-line. As such you should consider producing a printer-friendly version of your articles. A usability study in your office may never reveal this useful information.

Focus Groups and Interviews

Focus groups and interviews are formally organized meetings which give you an opportunity to interact directly with users, and question them on their experiences, opinions and preferences with your concept and Web site.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Create a list of questions about your concept or Web site;
  2. Ask your group of users to answer these questions; and
  3. Discuss the issues raised by your each user’s answers.

Heuristic Evaluation

Heuristic evaluation is where a group of usability experts scrutinize your Web site and evaluate each element of the site against a list of commonly accepted principles.

The experts should scrutinize and evaluate each element of your site on their own. They then compare their findings.

Industry Standards Inspections

Standards inspections ensure compliance with industry standards and regulations.

For example, much of the information on the Web is not accessible to people with disabilities because of poor design. Web sites should be designed better, so that people with disabilities can use accessibility tools – screen readers, screen magnifiers, and voice input systems – to help them navigate the Web.

Journaled Sessions

Journaled sessions are where users conduct usability tests in remote locations.

The test subjects’ actions are recorded when they conduct the assigned tasks. Upon completion of the tests, the users return the data for you to evaluate. Journaled sessions allow users to take usability tests virtually anywhere in the world.

Although journaled sessions are used in the development of computer software, there is little information or research about this method being used in the development of Web sites. If you have any experience of using this method of usability testing, let me know.

Market Research Data

To build a great Web site, you must understand the needs of your users. There is a lot of market research data on Web user demographics, habits and preferences. Use this information to assist you in the design of your concept and Web site.

Opinion Polls

Opinion polls are a sample of user or public opinion to acquire information. They can be conducted in person, by phone, by mail, or on a Web site.

Opinion polls conducted on the Web can be pretty cheap. They can also gather opinions from a large group of people in a very short space of time.

Performance Measurement

Performance measurements are targeted at determining quantitative data.

For example:

  • How does the position of the “Order” button influence your customer conversion rate?; and
  • How long does it take a new user to sign up to your service?

During the design of your site, you can set performance goals.

For example, “90% of our new users shall be able to sign up to our service in under 5 minutes.”

Performance commitments can be used as powerful unique selling proposition to new customers.

For example, Datek Online – an Internet stocks trading service – promise that if your marketable online orders are not executed within 60 seconds, the commission on the trade is waived. What a powerful unique selling proposition!

Pluralistic Walkthroughs

Pluralistic walkthroughs are when groups of users, developers, and usability experts walk through a task scenario.

During the walkthrough, everyone discusses and evaluates each element of interaction. This has the advantage of providing a diverse range of skills and perspectives to bear on usability problems and increasing the probablility of discovering problems sooner.

Proofreader

A proofreader will uncover and correct your Web site’s spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. Not only that, but they will also be able to correct the ‘tone’ of your site.

At first glance, incorrect or poor spelling, grammar and punctuation may not be an obvious cause of usability problems. But if a link is spelled incorrectly, it could be rendered useless.

A site with lots of spelling, grammar and punctuation errors will make your company look unprofessional.

Prototyping

A prototype is a partially completed mockup of your final Web site. Prototyping allows you to test certain parts of the final Web site, especially when it is incomplete.

Prototyping is split into two forms:

Vertical prototyping

Vertical prototyping involves testing the exact functionality of a small section of your site; For example, you could test that your shopping cart works, without being able to add everything in your online store into the cart.

Horizontal prototyping

Horizontal prototyping means testing a broad spectrum of your site’s features, without each feature having to work properly; Horizontal prototyping is often used for user preference testing of site navigation, when the actual navigation system links haven’t been implemented yet. This allows evaluation of the navigation system design, placement and accessiblity.

Public Kiosk

Public kiosks may not seem like an obvious usability tool. However, there are plenty of places where you can set up a public kiosk to test public reaction to your Web site, without needing to pay the users.

Places where you can set up a public kiosk include:

  • Trade shows;
  • Shopping malls;
  • Train stations;
  • Conventions; and
  • Supermarkets.

Questionnaires

Questionnaires are an inexpensive way of gathering a great deal of information from a large number of users. Most of the cost involved is in designing (or printing, if it’s offline) the questionnaire.

Server Log File Analysis

Server log files are records of your site’s activity. The log file data can offer you some valuable insights into how your users are using your Web site.

Your log files could reveal:

  • that some Web pages that are never visited; further investigation could reveal that links leading to those pages are broken;
  • where in the secure ordering process do customers abandon the sale; modification of the offending page(s) could improve the checkout abandon rate; and
  • that one section of your site is much more popular than the rest; with this information, you may decide to concentrate and expand that section.

There are plenty of log file analysis and reporting tools that can help you make sense of the data available in your log files.

Surveys

Surveys are similar to interviews with users, except they are not formally scheduled and organized like focus groups.

However, unannounced face-to-face surveys might not prove popular. How often do you try and avoid people in malls who approach you to ask you questions? The lengths people go to to avoid talking to these people demonstrates that tact is paramount.

Thinking Aloud

Thinking aloud is where users speak out their thoughts, feelings, and opinions while they are performing an assigned task. Thinking aloud helps you understand how users use your Web site and what considerations users keep in mind when using it. Only if you can read minds, can you ignore this usability tool!

Variable Internet Connection Speeds

When conducting usability tests, it is vitally important that you replicate the environment to match how your site is used in the real world by your ‘average user.’

Your home page may take under a second to download on your DSL office connection, but your users may have to wait ten to fifteen seconds because they connect at 56kbps (kilobits per second) or less.

Since most unqualified users (those who are not certain your site has exactly what they need) will give up on a Web page if it takes eight seconds or longer to download, you may be losing a large percentage of your users without realizing it.

Some Web sites are popular with busy executives who are often on the road. They may be connecting to your Web site using a 14.4kbps mobile Internet connection or worse! So if this is true with your site, test your site on a 14.4kbps connection.

It’s vitally important that you conduct usability tests on Internet connection speeds that match those of your users.

Know Your Users

To build a great Web site, you must understand the needs of your users. You could use market research and focus groups or even conduct surveys to understand your users better.

This fact-finding step should be completed before any site development or coding is done. To get a better understanding of your site users, you need the following information about your users:

User Profile

Gather as much information as you can about your users. Your users’ demographic profile will give you a better understanding of the types of users your site attracts and how to satisfy their needs.

Here are a sample of questions that you need the answers to:

  • What is the gender split amongst your users?
  • What age groups are they?
  • How Web savvy are they?
  • Where do they mostly use the Internet; at home or at work?
  • What types of products, or services are they looking to purchase?
  • What kind of information are they looking for?
  • Where do they live?
  • What is their annual household income?

If you don’t have any user demographic information, you can use existing market research data, or conduct your own market research to find out the information. The following links lead to some well-known Web sites in the fields of statistics and demographics.

User Likes and Dislikes

Make sure your Web site takes your users’ likes and dislikes into account.

Find out what your users particularly like or dislike about your competitors’ Web sites. What, if any, features do they particularly like? It’s to your advantage, if you incorporate features that your users like with your Web site.

Unless these features have some kind of trademark or patent on them, who says you can’t ‘steal’ your competitors’ ideas?

User Preferences

Find out what features your site needs to satisfy its users. Do your users prefer a site with lots of fun features and they don’t mind the slower download time? Or would they prefer a site with lots of time-saving features and quick Web page download times?

Design a site that your visitors want to use and your visitors will prefer your site over your competitors’.

User Limitations

Find out what, if any, technical limitations your users have.

You may discover that most of your users use a slow 56 kilobits per second Internet connection. As such, you may consider making the cool 500 kilobyte Flash intro you had planned for your site an optional feature instead!

User Habits

Everybody has certain behavioral habits. You can gain a competitive advantage over your competitors, if you can discover and include your users’ behavioral habits into the usability of your site.

Examples of Web User Habits:

  • Most people scan Web pages
  • Some Internet users nearly always head straight for a site’s search form to find what they are looking for
  • Some users like to open hyperlinks to new Web sites in a new browser window, so they can continue reading the current page, while the new Web site is downloading in a separate window

Replacing Users’ Existing Systems

Find out what systems your users are using to carry out certain tasks.

For example, UPS (United Postal Service) reduced the number of routine customer service enquiries by offering online features that their customers could use to achieve the same results they originally had to use the phone to do.

One system they replaced was the need for customers to have to call the customer service department to find out where their packages were. Now the majority of UPS customers track their packages online. UPS managed to cut their costs by not having to have so many customer service assistants. This not only improved their bottom-line, but also user satisfaction.