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Ireland: We're Just Getting Started
Guest Article by
Irish e-commerce is in its infancy and we have made many mistakes, but it is still an exhilarating and exciting industry. webBusters estimates that Irish websites are operating at an efficiency and effectiveness level of only
46%, due to shortsightedness and a failure to properly prepare, plan and test work.
In this article Jude Murray of webBusters (www.webBusters.com) argues a case
for usability in Ireland.
The 'Rush and Tack' Syndrome
Irish e-business remains relatively untapped, with only 9% of companies using their presence to sell
online, compared with 73% that are capable of doing so (Source - Amárach Consulting research). Usability is all about effectively and efficiently realizing this potential. Too many companies have fallen prey of the 'rush tack' syndrome, a usability nightmare that results when companies rush websites and tack them onto an existing business offering. Without proper preparation, planning and testing, your website will only ever limp along and will eventually break down. Companies are then faced with the prospect of re-designing the whole ball of wax. The bottom line is that a website cannot exist in isolation.
Making your website is a lot like building a house. Without deep foundations, it is sure to keel over. A website in isolation is a house without electricity or plumbing, a bucket with a hole. A badly designed website will lose a company business and drive customers away. To succeed in e-commerce, a company needs to compile a complete package, right down to the delivery of parcels to a customer's doorstep. That's where usability comes in.
There is an urgent need for usability in
Ireland. It is already a multi-million dollar industry in America, with usability experts such as Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug claiming $35,000 for a day of their time. All they really do is comment on and test websites, but their recommendations remedy customer dissatisfaction and save companies a fortune in lost revenue. What is usability? It is the study of online user experience. In other words, it measures how easy it is for visitors to find their way around your website or purchase goods online. It aims to cut out waffle and eliminate fog from your website. It aims for total clarity of vision.
The Practice of Simplicity; The Art of Common Sense
User testing, heuristic evaluation, task metrics and comparative analysis combine to make your site a more effective, efficient and satisfying place to be. It sounds a bit academic, but it needn't be. At the heart of usability is the adage that users are unpredictable. What designers build and what users see are often two different things. The best way to see if a site does what it's supposed to do it to test it with real users under real life conditions.
Unobtrusive and Cost-Effective
Many companies don't bother with usability because they think they don't have the time, money or expertise. But good usability is unobtrusive and cost effective. User testing is slotted into the development process in a way that causes minimal disruption and it doesn't have to cost the earth either. In fact, it's best to test iteratively, with small groups of users, over a period of time, to get the best return on your investment. IBM is one of the big names that advocate usability:
'every dollar invested in usability returns $10 to $100'.
Time is a scarce and costly material in design work. Time is money, but that doesn't mean that time spared is money saved. The building industry has a couple of mottos that hold true for web design: 'Get it right first time' and 'Measure twice, cut once': wise words from an ancient trade. Whether your raw materials are bricks and mortar or code and graphics, it is often the case that a lot of perfectly good materials are wasted because a job has been poorly planned and rushed. The job is condemned and it's back to square one to start again. So, time saved is not necessarily money saved. Effective use of time can even cut costs. Ineffective use of time actually increases costs, because the work has to be redone.
Meeting All Requirements
The task of usability is to get maximum benefit for all users of your website.
Your website will be used by people from all walks of life, at different levels of computer literacy, so your website has to deliver the goods, regardless of user competency. Customers and potential customers must be able to easily use your website. The website should also make sense to the people who commissioned and will look after the website, be that a company's boss with zero computer know-how or the heavily involved middlemen.
Real users should be involved at every stage of the design process, and afterwards too, because your website is alive. It grows, shrinks and evolves with business advances and changing customer needs.
Virtual Main Street
When you switch on a TV, you allow the world into your sitting room. It's a one-way traffic system; they send, you receive. The Internet facilitates two-way traffic flow. When a user enters a site, they invite a business into their home or workplace. When a business posts your website, it invites the entire Internet-using world into its place of business. It's a doubly daunting thought! We've come a long way from the paper-and-ink method of doing business and salespeople have long dreamed of entering potential customers' homes. With this new possibility comes fresh responsibility. We are asking consumers to step off Grafton Street and shop instead on 'Virtual Main Street'. The same rules apply for Grafton Street and 'Virtual Main Street'. Shop fronts (home pages) must be appealing, clutter-free, and informative. Goods (products, services, content) must be displayed properly and easy to find. Service has got to be excellent.
In Ireland, we are in a unique position to learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before us. The Irish market value for consumer e-commerce purchases in 2002 will be £736 / €934m (Source: Consumer and Business), so the pickings are there for the taking. Companies that take usability seriously and invest in user testing will be leagues ahead of their competitors. They will gain the loyalty of people who are tired of hard-to-use websites that continually fail to deliver. Usability will be employed as a parallel development tool, to plan, build, test and maintain effective and efficient websites. It is time to get down on the ground and work with real users.
Without usability, we are all listening to the sound of one hand clapping.
WebBusters (www.webbusters.com) is an award-winning Internet services company in Dublin, Ireland. The five strands of the webBusters offering are web development, usability, online marketing, email marketing and virtual
webmastering. Jude Murray is a usability consultant. She wants to meet Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug.