Six UCS Design Methods

User-centered design (UCD) is a project approach that puts the intended users of a site at the centre of its design and development. It does this by talking directly to the user at key points in the project to make sure the site will deliver upon their requirements.

The stages are carried out in an iterative fashion, with the cycle being repeated until the project’s usability objectives have been attained. This makes it critical that the participants in these methods accurately reflect the profile of your actual users.

Focus groups

What are they?

A focus group involves encouraging an invited group of intended/actual users of a site (i.e. participants) to share their thoughts, feelings, attitudes and ideas on a certain subject.

Organising focus groups within an organisation can also be very useful in getting buy-in to a project from within that company.

When to use

Focus groups are most often used as an input to design. They generally produce non-statistical data and are a good means of getting information about a domain (e.g. what peoples’ tasks involve).

Issues

It’s necessary to have an experienced moderator and analyst for a focus group to be effective.

Usability testing

What is it?

Usability testing sessions evaluate a site by collecting data from people as they use it. A person is invited to attend a session in which they’ll be asked to perform a series of tasks while a moderator takes note of any difficulties they encounter.

Users can be asked to follow the think-aloud protocol which asks them to verbalise what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

You can also time users to see how long it takes them to complete tasks, which is a good measure of efficiency (although you should bear in mind that using the ‘think aloud’ protocol will slow users down considerably).

Two specialists’ time is normally required per session – one to moderate, one to note problems.

When to use

Usability testing can be used as an input to design or at the end of a project. It represents an excellent way finding out what the most likely usability problems with a site are likely to be.

Usability testing can be used generate non-statistical or statistical data.

Issues

Usability testing requires some form of design to be available to test – even if it’s only on paper. Testing works best if it focuses either on gathering non-statistical feedback on a design through ‘talk aloud’ or statistical measures.

Card sorting

What is it?

Card sorting is a method for suggesting intuitive structures/categories. A participant is presented with an unsorted pack of index cards. Each card has a statement written on it that relates to a page of the site.

The participant is asked to sort these cards into groups and then to name these groups. The results of multiple individual sorts are then combined and analysed statistically.

When to use

Card sorting is usually used as an input to design. It’s an excellent way of suggesting good categories for a site’s content and deriving its information architecture.

Card sorting can be used generate statistical data.

Issues

Providing participants with a trial run on some easy cards (e.g. sports, animals, etc.) can reassure about what they are expected to do and result in a more productive session.

Participatory design

What is it?

Participatory design does not just ask users opinions on design issues, but actively involves them in the design and decision-making processes.

When to use

Participatory design is usually used within a mini-project to generate prototypes that feed into an overall project’s design process.

An example would be a participatory design workshop in which developers, designers and users work together to design an initial prototype. This initial prototype would then feed into a more traditional design process.

Projects which only utilise participatory design are very rare.

Issues

Participatory design sessions can be very fluid and require an experienced moderator with thorough knowledge of the domain to guide them.

Questionnaires

What are they?

Questionnaires are a means of asking users for their responses to a pre-defined set of questions and are a good way of generating statistical data.

When to use

Questionnaires are usually employed when a design team:

  • Can only gain remote access to users of a site

  • Is seeking a larger sample size than can be realistically achieved through direct contact

It is for this reason that questionnaires are usually administered through post or electronic means.

Issues

Questionnaires allow statistical analysis of results, which can increase a study’s credibility through its scientific appearance. This makes it all the more important that the questionnaire is well-designed and asks non-biased questions.

Interviews

What are they?

An interview usually involves one interviewer speaking to one participant at a time.

The advantages of an interview are that a participant’s unique point of view can be explored in detail. It is also the case that any misunderstandings between the interviewer and the participant are likely to be quickly identified and addressed.

The output of an interview is almost exclusively non-statistical – it’s critical that reports of interviews are carefully analysed by experienced practitioners.

When to use

Interviews are usually employed early in the design process in order to gain a more detailed understanding of a domain/area of activity or specific requirements.

Issues

Interviewing places a high premium on the experience and skill of the interviewer and analyst.

Conclusion

This has been an introduction to the major user-centered design methods. It’s vital to remember that although each can be extremely valuable, using them in the right way, for the right reasons and at the right time is critical.

Exactly which method to use, and when and how to use it will differ from project to project.

This article was written by Tim Fidgeon, Head of Usability at Webcredible. He’s crazy about usability and runs Webcredible’s web usability training and writing for the web training.

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Search Engine Usability

The secret benefit of accessibility part 2: A higher search engine ranking

An additional benefit of website accessibility is an improved performance in search engines. The more accessible it is to search engines, the more accurately they can predict what the site’s about, and the higher your site will appear in the rankings.

Not all of the accessibility guidelines will help with your search engine rankings, but there are certainly numerous areas of overlap:

1. ALT descriptions assigned to images

Screen readers, used by many visually impaired web users to surf the web, can’t understand images. As such, to ensure accessibility an alternative description needs to be assigned to every image and the screen reader will read out this alternative, or ALT, description.

<em>image description goes here</em>

Like screen readers, search engines can’t understand images either and won’t take any meaning from them. Many search engines can now index ALT text though, so by assigning ALT text search engines will be able to understand all your images.

2. Text displayed through HTML, not images

Text embedded in images appears pixelated, blurry and often impossible to read for users utilising screen magnifiers. From an accessibility point of view this should therefore be avoided.

Search engines equally can’t read text embedded in images. Well, you can just give the image some ALT text, right? Unfortunately, there’s strong evidence to suggest search engines assign less importance to ALT text than they do to regular text. Why? Spammers. So many webmasters have been stuffing their ALT tags full of keywords and not using them to describe the image. Search engines have cottoned on to this form of spamming (as they eventually do every form of spamming) and have taken appropriate action.

3. Descriptive link text

Visually impaired web users can scan web pages by tabbing from link to link and listening to the content of the link text. As such, the link text in an accessible website must always be descriptive of its destination.

Search engines place a lot of importance on link text too. They assume that link text will be descriptive of its destination and as such examine link text for all links pointing to any page. If all the links pointing to a page about widgets say ?click here?, search engines can’t gain any information about that page without visiting it. If on the other hand, all the links say, ?widgets? then search engines can easily guess what that page is about.

One of the best examples of this in action is for the search term, ?miserable failure?. So many people have linked to George Bush’s bio using this phrase as the link text, that now when miserable failure is searched for in Google, George Bush’s bio appears top of the search rankings!

4. Website functions with JavaScript disabled

JavaScript is unsupported by about 5% of web users (source: The Counter), either because they’ve turned it off (for example to prevent pop-up adverts) or because their browser doesn’t support it. Many forms of JavaScript aren’t accessible to web users utilising screen readers.

Search engines can’t understand JavaScript either and will be unable to index any JavaScript-driven content. Perhaps more importantly, they’ll also be unable to follow JavaScript-driven links. You may really like the look of your dropdown menu but search engines won’t if they can’t access certain pages on your site because there aren’t any regular links pointing at them.

5. Alternatives to Flash-based content provided

Flash, like JavaScript, isn’t accessible to many users, including those using screen readers. Equally, search engines can’t access Flash so be sure to provide equivalents.

6. Transcripts available for audio

Hearing impaired users obviously require written equivalents for audio content to be able to access it. Search engines too can’t access this medium, but transcripts provide them with a large amount of text for them to index.

7. Site map provided

Site maps can be a useful tool for visually impaired users as they provide a straightforward list of links to the main pages on the site, without any of the fluff in between.

Site maps are also great for search engines as search engines can instantly index your entire site when they arrive at the site map it. Next to each link you can also provide a short keyword-rich preview of the page. All links should, of course, be made through regular HTML and not through JavaScript (see 4. above).

8. Meaningful page title

When we arrive at web pages the first thing that appears, and the first thing that visually impaired users hear, is the page title. This latter group of web users don’t have the privilege of being able to quickly scan the page to see if it contains the information they’re after, so it’s essential that the page title effectively describes the page content.

If you know anything about search engine optimisation you’ll know that the page title is the most important attribute on the page. If it adequately describes the content of that page then search engines will be able to more accurately guess what that page is about.

9. Headings and sub-headings used

Visually impaired web users can scan web pages by tabbing from heading to heading, in addition to tabbing from link to link (see 3. above). As such, it’s important for accessibility to make sure that headings are correctly marked up by using <h1>, <h2> etc.

Search engines assume that the text contained in heading tags is more important than the rest of the document text, as headings describe the content immediately below them. Search engines assign the most importance to <h1>, then <h2>, and so on. Make sure you use the heading tags properly and don’t abuse them, as the more text you have contained in heading tags, for example, the less importance search engines assign to them.

10. CSS used for layout

Screen readers can more effectively work through the HTML code of CSS-based sites as there’s a greater ratio of content to code. Websites using CSS for layout can also be made accessible to in-car browsers, WebTV and PDAs. Don’t underestimate the importance of this – in 2008 alone there’ll be an estimated 58 million PDAs sold worldwide (source: eTForecast).

Search engines also prefer CSS-based sites and are likely to score them higher in the search rankings because:

  • The code is cleaner and therefore more accessible to search engines
  • Important content can be placed at the top of the HTML document
  • There is a greater density of content compared to coding

Conclusion

With all this overlap between web accessibility and search engine optimisation there’s no excuses for not implementing basic accessibility on to your website. It’ll give you a higher search engine ranking and therefore more site visitors.

This article was written by Trenton Moss, founder of Webcredible, a web usability and accessibility consultancy. He’s extremely good at web accessibility training and knows an awful lot about the Disability Discrimination Act.

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Search Engine Submission

Don’t submit your website to any search engines

That’s right – this search engine optimisation article is telling you not to submit your website to any search engines. Not Google, not Inktomi, not AltaVista. Sound a bit strange? Read on…

Submitting to all the search engines

Submitting your website to every search engine is an incredibly time-consuming process. There are hundreds and hundreds of them out there – no doubt, you’ve come across the companies who’ll submit your website to 1000 search engines for you.

Search engine professionals know that the vast majority of these search engines have a very low usage rate and will drive hardly any traffic your way. In fact, it’s only a handful of search engines that drive the majority of traffic from search engines to websites.

The major search engines

Some of the most important search engines, probably accounting for over 90% of the search engine market, are:

Not heard of some of these search engines? Have a look at who powers who with this excellent search engine relationship chart.

Please note that the new MSN search engine will roll out at the end of 2004 and will be very important.

Don’t submit to these search engines

?But there’s only six of them – why on earth not!?? Well, aside from saving time and a bit of money (some require a submission fee), quite simply there’s no need. Allow me to explain…

Search engines crawl the web every few weeks (or months) looking for websites to index. Here’s how it works:

  • Search engines start at one website with a large number of outbound links (usually a directory)
  • They follow every link they come across, indexing each page they arrive at
  • Once a page has been indexed they follow all the links from that page
  • And so on until there are no more links to follow

Unless today is your very first day on the Internet, you might have heard that inbound links into a website are extremely important in establishing its search engine ranking. If a search engine can’t find you by itself through crawling the web, then your website doesn’t have any inbound links. If so, you’ll never achieve a decent search engine ranking so what’s the point in registering?

Getting incoming links quickly

So, how do you get incoming links? Well, this is a vast topic which I won’t be discussing now, but if you want to get a few good links quickly then there is a solution: web directories. If your website is listed in the Yahoo! directory (not the same as Yahoo! search) and the Open Directory (which Google uses) all the search engines should find you within two to three months.

There are plenty of other directories you should get listed in too. Global, local and industry-specific directories abound on the Internet. To find them run a search for ?web directory? on your favorite search engine. The directories that come up highest in the search rankings will probably generate the most traffic. You can also check these directories of directories:

Another even quicker solution is webmaster forums. Search engines love forums because they include so much fresh content. Most have an area where you’re allowed to enter your URL to get feedback from other webmasters. Find some forums, sign up, and get posting!

To find out more about building up links to your website please read the article, Build up links to your website.

A quick fix

It can take a couple of months to get listed in some web directories. If you can’t wait that long then it might be worth submitting your site into a paid program and “artificially” boosting your rankings. Again, this is a whole new topic so please feel free to read more about the paid submission options.

Long term strategy

Search engine optimisation is a long term strategy. You’ll be successful if you:

Register with as many web directories as possible and then concentrate your efforts on these two things. Within a few months you’ll start to see success.

This article was written by Trenton Moss. He’s crazy about web accessibility and usability – so crazy that he went and started his own web accessibility and usability consultancy, Webcredible, to help make the Internet a better place for everyone.

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Running a Focus Group

What are focus groups?

A focus group involves encouraging an invited group of participants to share their thoughts, feelings, attitudes and ideas on certain subject. Organising focus groups within an organisation can also be very useful in getting buy-in to a project from within that company.

When and why to use focus groups

Focus groups are most often used as an input to design.

Advantages of focus groups include:

  • Quick, cheap and relatively easy to assemble
  • Good for getting rich data in participants’ own words and developing deeper insights
  • People are able to build on one another’s responses and come up with ideas they might not have thought of in a 1-on-1 interview
  • Good for obtaining data from children and/or people with low levels of literacy
  • Provides an opportunity to involve people in data analysis (e.g. “Out of the issues we have talked about, which ones are most important to you?”)
  • Participants can act as checks and balances on one another – identifying factual errors or extreme views

Limitations of focus groups include:

  • The responses of each participant are not independent
  • A few dominant focus group members can skew the session
  • Focus groups require a skilled and experienced moderator
  • The data which results from a focus group requires skill and experience to analyse

How to plan and prepare for focus groups

Invite around 6 to 8 people to participate for a session to last for about an hour. Then, prepare an agenda including a list of the top-level issues to be tackled (if appropriate).

Prepare an introduction script explaining the purpose of the day and how the day will be run. This can include issues of consent and fire regulations (if relevant). Be sure to always use a quiet room with few distractions and arrange people in a circle (possibly around a table).

Running focus groups

If appropriate, ask the participants to introduce themselves and/or wear name tags. Most importantly, all questions you ask should be open and neutral. It’s also important for the moderator to be aware of participants’ energy and concentration levels and provide short breaks if necessary. The moderator should encourage free-flowing discussion around the relevant issue(s).

Other tips for running focus groups include:

  • Start on an issue people have strong feelings about and are familiar with
  • Phrase issues in terms people will be familiar with
  • Let participants know their contributions are valuable (both through what you say and also your body language)

It’s also important that the moderator realises that:

  • It may be necessary for them to step in and keep the session on-track
  • Disagreements and debates are useful when they lead to new and interesting ideas, but have to be managed carefully
  • Issues of power and privacy need to be managed sensitively

Focus groups should end with the moderator winding-up the session by stressing all that has achieved and casting it in a positive light.

Managing risks

A number of potential problems could arise during focus groups, which will all need addressing:

  • If one participant tries to dominate the session, the moderator should invite each person to speak in turn
  • Avoid interviewing friends in the same group as they can form cliques – if cliques do form, suggest taking a break and changing seating positions upon returning from the break
  • Avoid personal confrontation – allow the group to police itself (e.g. “do others in the group agree?”)
  • Respect someone’s right to be quiet, but do give them a chance to share their ideas 1-to-1 (e.g. during a break)
  • Use differences of opinion as a topic of discussion – the moderator should avoid taking sides

Useful tips to encourage discussion

To facilitate useful, free-flowing discussion during the focus group, follow some of these tips:

  • Ask participants to think about an issue for a few minutes and write down their responses
  • Ask each participant to read, and elaborate on, one of their responses
  • Note the responses on a flipchart/whiteboard
  • Once everyone has given a response, participants will be asked for a second or third response, until all of their answers have been noted
  • These responses can then be discussed

How to report

The minutes, or a summary document, should be produced for each session. A report should be written up, containing relevant profile information about the people who attended the session.

This article was written by Tim Fidgeon, Head of Usability at Webcredible. He’s crazy about usability and runs Webcredible’s writing for the web training and is passionate about user centered design.

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Mobile and Handheld Usability Testing

Mobile phone and PDA usability testing is critical to your business. In fact, mobile and handheld usability testing could be even more important than computer-based usability testing. The main reasons for this are:

  • The number of people accessing the Internet from mobile and handheld devices is increasing at a massive rate – in 2008 alone there’ll be an estimated 58 million PDAs sold worldwide (source: eTForecast).
  • People generally have a lot less experience of using their mobile to go online than they do of using their computer. This means that computer-based users can be assumed to have a higher level of existing expertise than mobile and handheld users
  • The platform through which users access your site is far less predictable when using mobile phones. Computer-based site visitors generally only differ from one another in their browser and operating system (i.e. most people will use a screen, mouse and keyboard), whereas the different types of mobile phones and PDAs differ can drastically.

Which mobile phones and PDAs do you need to consider?

Mobile phones and PDAs can differ from one another dramatically, and this will radically change how people experience and use websites. Some of the ways in which handheld devices can differ include:

  • Screen size (small vs. large)
  • Screen layout (portrait vs. landscape)
  • Input device (stylus, numeric keypad, dial-wheel, QWERTY keypad)

Because the mobile phone / PDA that someone is using will have such a profound effect on their experience of your site, you should try to test with as many mobile phones and PDAs as possible.

Of course, testing with every mobile phone and PDA is impossible. Here are some ideas to help narrow down the number of devices you’ll need to test with:

  • Your mobile site visitors may belong to a specific audience. Certain audiences tend to prefer particular types of phones (e.g. phones with big screens that are designed to support online access vs. small-screen models that aren’t).
  • There are ‘phone families’ that offer a very similar user experience (and will not need to be tested individually).
  • You may only want to test with the most popular mobile phones in Europe or the most popular models that are being used to access your site (you can check your site statistics to find out this information).

Who do you want to test with?

The people you want to conduct your mobile phone usability testing sessions with will, of course, depend on your particular business and its audience. Some things to bear in mind include:

  • How much experience they should have of using their mobile phones to access services. This is particularly important as the market for accessing online services through mobile phones is growing and the percent of ‘complete novices’ (i.e. people using the technology for the first time) will be far higher than for computer users of your website.
  • Which mobile phone or PDA they have. We would usually recommend that people use their own mobile phone in a session, so the test can focus on your website and not on the way the handheld device works.

Where should mobile usability testing sessions be conducted?

Mobile phones and PDAs are used in the real world so usability testing of handheld devices should therefore not only take place in a usability laboratory.

Where, when and how a mobile phone is used is critical to a person’s experience of the site they are accessing. Any of the following circumstances could influence this experience and therefore considerations of the site’s usability:

  • Lighting
  • Background noise
  • Distractions
  • Concurrent tasks (i.e. anything the person is doing at the same time)
  • Physical movement

As such, we’d recommend, if possible, that any mobile phone and PDA usability testing is conducted both in a laboratory and also in the ‘outside world’.

How you plan and run mobile phone usability sessions will be based on your business and its audience, but the most popular methods of mobile usability testing include:

  • Lab-based (using a camera to record the session)
  • Diary-studies (asking people to keep a diary of how they have used their mobile phone and any problems they encounter)
  • Paper prototypes (running usability testing on a paper-based version of the site, using mobile phone screen-sized pieces of paper)

This article was written by Tim Fidgeon, a consultant at a leading usability and accessibility consultancy, Webcredible. He’s extremely good at running focus groups and likes to conduct a website review as often as he can.

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Making Money with CSS

Although CSS layouts have been around for years, they haven’t become so commonplace until recently. This was basically due to limited browser support (especially from Netscape 4) – nowadays though, CSS 2.0 (which introduced positioning) is compatible with over 99% of browsers out there (check out the browser stats over at The Counter).

So, why should you convert your website from its current table-based layout to a CSS layout? It’ll make you money. Simple really. And here’s four reasons to explain why:

Reduced bandwidth costs

Web pages using CSS for layout tend to have much smaller file sizes than those using tabular layouts. It’s not unusual to see reductions of 50% or more in file size when switching from CSS to tables. Smaller file sizes obviously mean reduced bandwidth costs, which for high traffic sites can mean enormous savings.

The main reason for this dramatic decrease in file size is that presentation information is placed in the external CSS document, called up once when the homepage loads up and then cached (stored) on to the user’s computer. Table layouts on the other hand, place all presentation information inside each HTML, which is then called up and downloaded for every page on the site.

Additionally, CSS can be used to replace JavaScript image rollovers, again allowing a large reduction in overall page size. See the article, CSS navigation menu for more on this.

A higher search engine ranking

A CSS-based website will appear higher in the search engine rankings for three reasons:

  • The code is cleaner and therefore more accessible to search engines
  • Important content can be placed at the top of the HTML document
  • There is a greater density of content compared to coding

A higher search engine ranking means more site visitors, which, provided your website is usable, should lead to an increase in enquiries or sales.

Faster download speed

A faster download speed will make you money? Well, yes. Slow download speed is often cited as one of the biggest usability complaints for websites. A faster download speed therefore leads to increased usability, and a web usability redesign can increase the sales/conversion rate by 100% (source: Jakob Nielson).

CSS downloads faster than tables because:

  • Browsers read through tables twice before displaying their contents, once to work out their structure and once to determine their content
  • Tables appear on the screen all in one go – no part of the table will appear until the entire table is downloaded and rendered
  • Tables encourage the use of spacer images to aid with positioning
  • CSS generally requires less code than cumbersome tables
  • All code to do with the layout can be placed in an external CSS document, which will be called up just once and then cached (stored) on the user’s computer; table layout, stored in each HTML document, must be loaded up each time a new page downloads
  • With CSS you can control the order items download on to the screen – make the content appear before slow-loading images and your site users will definitely appreciate it

Increase in reach

The more people you can reach, the more visitors you’ll get to your site and the more enquiries or sales you should get. A CSS-based website is compatible with PDAs, mobile phones, in-car browsers and WebTV. Don’t underestimate the importance of this: In 2008 alone an estimated 58 million PDAs will be sold (source: eTForecast) and one third of the world’s population will own a wireless device (source: ClickZ).

You can make an additional CSS document specifically for handheld devices, which will be called up in place of the regular CSS document, thereby ensuring your website is accessible to this lucrative market. This isn’t possible with a tabular layout.

Conclusion: Switch to CSS!

Switching your website from a table layout to a CSS layout can be a long, arduous process, especially for large websites. Given the money making possibilities though, it could very well prove to be well worth it.

This article was written by Trenton Moss, founder of Webcredible, a web usability and accessibility consultancy. He’s extremely good at usability testing and knows an awful lot about accessible CSS web design.

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Internet Explorer CSS Issues

Trying to get CSS-based websites to look the same across all browsers can often be difficult. Many of the problems however lie with Internet Explorer implementing CSS commands differently to other, more standards compliant browsers. All is not lost, however, as many of the differences you see across browsers are caused by the same Internet Explorer CSS issues…

1. Page elements are narrower in Internet Explorer

Perhaps the most famous IE and CSS problem is Internet Explorer’s misinterpretation of the CSS box model, which can cause page elements to be narrower in IE. Every HTML element is essentially a box, the width of which is the total of its margin, border, padding and content area. Imagine the following CSS rule:


 div {
margin: 5em;

padding: 4em;

border: 1em solid green;

width: 30em

}

This means that each div is 50em wide in total. This amount is made up of a 30em wide content area, and a 4em padding, 1em border and 5em (invisible) margin on both the left and right sides.

In IE however, the border and padding are included in the width of the content, as opposed to added on. In IE therefore, the width of the content is only 20em (30em less 5em padding and border on either side), and the total width of the div is just 40em.

This CSS box model problem occurs in IE5.x, and can occur in IE6, depending on how you declare the ISO value in the HTML code. There are two ways of doing this:

  • <?xml version="1.0" encoding="iso-8859-1"?>
  • <meta http-equiv="content-type" content="text/html; charset=iso-8859-1" />

The first command is placed on the very first line of the HTML document and the second can be placed anywhere within the <head>. In order for XHTML pages to validate it’s compulsory to use one of these commands. The W3C recommends using the first command as the second will be phased out in the future.

By using the first command however, Internet Explorer 6 will render the CSS box model incorrectly, just like in version 5 browsers. To fix the box model problem, you’ll need to insert a CSS hack to send different width values to different browsers. The CSS hack you use will depend on which ISO value you use, and therefore which versions of IE are rendering the box model incorrectly.

To fix up only IE5.x, use the following CSS commands:


 div {
margin: 5em;

padding: 4em;

border: 1em solid green;

width/**/:/**/ 40em;

 width: 30em

}

To fix up all versions of IE, use these CSS commands:


 div {
margin: 5em;

padding: 4em;

border: 1em solid green;

width: 40em

 }

html>body div {

width: 30em

}

(See the article, CSS hacks & browser detection for more on these hacks.)

2. Text spilling out of its container in non-IE browsers

Internet Explorer, unlike other browsers, will expand borders and background colours so text doesn’t spill out of its containing element.

Let’s say a div has been assigned class="box" and has the following CSS commands assigned to it:


 .box {
width: 40px;

}

Non-IE browsers will adhere to the width: 40px CSS command, so the box won't expand to fit any text that's longer than 40px. IE however interprets width as min-width, and therefore will expand the div to fit the text (the same applies with height and min-height).

To ensure the text doesn’t spill out of the box in all browsers, you’ll need to use the following CSS rule, in addition to the first one:


 html>body .box
{

width: auto;

min-width: 40px

}

IE will ignore this CSS command, as the command has html>body at the front of it (see the article, CSS hacks & browser detection for more on this). As such, this CSS command is only for non-IE browsers. The first CSS rule, width: auto, cancels out the original width rule. The second command, min-width: 40px then assigns a minimum width to the box, so the box will always expand to fit the text.

3. Disappearing background images

IE has a very freaky bug where it likes to make background images (and sometimes even text – particularly if there are floated elements around) disappear. This often happens when you scroll up and down on a web page and you can usually make the background re-appear by refreshing the page.

Obviously you won’t want your site visitors to have to refresh a page to see a background image in full! A freaky solution to this freaky problem is to insert the CSS command, position: relative into the CSS rule containing the background image:


 .foo {

background: url(filename.jpg);position: relative

 }

Occasionally this won't work, so another solution is to assign a width or a height to the element with the background image. You may not want to assign a height or width, so a solution is to assign a height of 1% for Internet Explorer. Because IE interprets height as min-height (see point 2 above) this CSS rule won't affect the appearance:


 .foo {
background: url(filename.jpg);

height: 1%

 }

html>body .foo {

height: auto

 }

The height: 1% CSS command is cancelled out by the height: auto CSS command. Internet Explorer doesn't understand html>body, so by inserting this in front of the second CSS rule this whole CSS rule is ignored by IE.

4. Widths only working on IE

Every HTML element is either a block or an inline element. Examples of block elements include <div>, <p>, <h1>, <form> and <li>. Example of inline elements include <span>, <a>, <label>, <strong> and <em>.

One of the characteristics of inline elements is that you can’t change the width of an inline element. The following CSS rule shouldn’t, in theory, work:


 span {
width: 100px

}

This CSS rule won't work, except in Internet Explorer where each span will now have a width of 100px. In every other browser however, the width of the span will simply be the width of the number of characters contained in the element. The solution? Make the span a block level element:


 span {
width: 100px;

display: block

 }

(Turning the span into a block element will make the width command work in every browser, but it will also make the span begin on a new line. To combat this, you could assign float: left to the span.)

5. Unstyled version of web page appearing in IE

When your website loads up in Internet Explorer, does an unstyled version of the page appear for a second or two, before the styled version kicks in this? If so, your website may be suffering from what’s known as the Flash Of Unstyled Content (or FOUC).

If you’re using the @import directive (e.g. <style type="text/css">@import "styles.css";</style>) to call up your CSS file then this phenomenon may be happening on your website in IE. It’s weird, there’s no logical explanation for it, but this problem obviously needs to be fixed.

The simple solution to this illogical problem is an equally illogical solution – insert either a link or a script element into the header:

  • <script type="text/javascript" src="scripts.js"></script>
  • <link rel="stylesheet" href="styles.css" type="text/css" media="print" />

It doesn’t matter which one you insert (or even if you insert both). If you provide a print stylesheet, using the link element to reference it (as indicated in the example above), then you’ll never see the FOUC phenomenon.

6. Fixed width web page not sitting in centre of window

Got a fixed width website and can’t get it to centrally align in the window in Internet Explorer? Or you can get it to centrally align in IE but not in any other browser? Fear not, it’s not your fault! Unfortunately, the correct way of centrally aligning content through CSS doesn’t actually work in IE:


 #container {
width: 770px;

margin: 0 auto

}

The second command, margin: 0 auto, basically gives our containing element an automatic margin on the left and right, thereby positioning the containing element in the centre of the browser window.

IE however, will need slightly different commands to make this work:


 body {
text-align: center

 }

#container {

width: 770px;

margin: 0 auto;

text-align: left

 }

This will then centrally align the container in IE too. To prevent the text from centrally aligning too, we insert text-align: left into the container div.

This article was written by Trenton Moss, who’s crazy about web usability and accessibility. He’s the founder of Webcredible, a web usability and accessibility consultancy and is extremely good at usability training and usability testing.

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Innovative User Interface Design

Increasing numbers of websites are developing new types of user interface design, taking advantage of users’ increasing levels of Internet-sophistication and faster connections. These new interfaces often allow users to view and manipulate large quantities of data.

This article will have a look at some of the more interesting user interface design ideas we’ve come across recently:

  • Slider-based filtering
  • Fisheye menus
  • Treemaps
  • Drag-and-drop

The point of this article is not to promote any of these user interface designs, but rather to offer them for the purposes of interest and inspiration. Although we have yet to run any large-scale usability testing on them, we consider each to have the potential (if used in the appropriate circumstances) to offer interesting possibilities for supporting users in the performance of their tasks.

Slider-based filtering

The user interface design of Amazon’s Diamond Search uses click-and-drag sliders to allow users to broaden and narrow a wide range of filtering criteria. The page then automatically updates to show how many results conform to the users’ selected criteria.

This can be used to create an intuitive and informative interface, making it easy for users to search through a large data set:

Amazon's diamond search showing 13593 diamonds available for all shapes, prices, carats, cuts, colours and clarities. For each of these criteria sliders can be used to set a range, thereby filtering the search results.

The number of results is displayed on the right hand side of the page. This means that users only need to submit their search when they’re happy that the number of search results is sufficiently small.

Users can narrow their search criteria by using the sliders, thereby reducing the number of results that will be displayed:

Amazon's diamond search showing 278 diamonds available for the price range $18,000-$87,000

When users are happy with the search criteria, they simply select the ‘See results’ button. The great thing about this design is that users will know if there’ll be no search results, without having to actually run the search.

Fisheye menus

Fisheye menus can be very useful in helping users to navigate and select items from a long, ordered list. These menus dynamically change the size of menu items to provide a magnified-focus area around the cursor. This makes it possible to present the entire menu on a single screen without requiring buttons, scrollbars, or hierarchies.

Fisheye menu showing an alphabetical list of the countries of the world. The magnified focus is on the United Kingdom.

Fisheye menus could potentially be a great way of having users easily navigate through a long lists.

Treemaps

Treemaps display rows of data as groups of squares that can be arranged, sized and coloured to graphically reveal underlying data patterns. This user interface design can be used to present complicated data relationships (such as hierarchical relationships).

An example can be found on the Smartmoney website, where a tool allows visitors to view information on hundreds of stocks at a glance. In the example below, stocks are grouped according to sector and represented in differently-sized rectangles according to their market capitalisation. Colours are used to indicate significant positive (green) and negative (red) price movements.

Further details on a company are available by mousing over their rectangle (e.g. General Electric in the example below).

Treemap representing different sectors for stocks

Drag-and-drop

This type of user interface designs makes use of users’ familiarity with moving elements around (users may have experience of doing this within Microsoft Windows applications, for example). Panic Room’s online store allows users to either click a ‘button/plus symbol’ to add an item to their cart or drag-and-drop the item into it.

To do this is relatively simple. You simply click on the product you want to drag into the basket:
Screenshot from Panicroom, showing three T-shirts and a large shpping cart area at the bottom of the screen. The shopping cart displays the instructions, 'drag any item here to add to your cart'.

Whilst holding down the mouse button, drag the item across the screen and into the basket:
Screenshot from Panicroom, showing a T-shirt being dragged across the screen

Screenshot from Panicroom, showing a T-shirt being dragged into the cart area

Finally, release the mouse button to drop the item into the basket:
Screenshot from Panicroom, showing the T-shirt now successfully placed into the cart area

Conclusion

Innovative user interface design is key to developing new and improved user interaction online. The problem with designing a totally unique user interface however is that users may be unable to quickly and easily learn how to interact with it.

If you do develop a totally innovative user interface design, do be sure to carry out usability testing before launching. This way you can check if users can grasp what they need to do and what you need to do to make the interface more intuitive.

Do of course make an effort to visit the site we’ve mentioned above, as interfaces are made to be interacted with!

This article was written by Tim Fidgeon, a usability consultant at usability and accessibility consultancy, Webcredible. He knows an awful lot about user interface design and intranet usability.

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Increased Usability with Accessibility

The secret benefit of accessibility part 1: Increased usability

Web accessibility has so many benefits that I really do wonder why such a large number of websites have such diabolically bad accessibility. One of the main benefits is increased usability, which according to usability guru, Jakob Nielson, can increase the sales/conversion rate of a website by 100% and traffic by 150%.

At which point you must surely be asking, ?So if I make my website accessible its usability will increase and I’ll make more money out of it??. Well, not quite. An accessible website is not automatically more usable but there are many areas of overlap:

1. Descriptive link text

Visually impaired web users can scan web pages by tabbing from link to link and listening to the content of the link text. As such, the link text in an accessible website must always be descriptive of its destination.

Equally, regularly sighted web users don’t read web pages word-for-word, but scan them looking for the information they’re after.

Link text such as ‘Click here’ has poor accessibility and usability as both regularly sighted and visually impaired web users scanning the paragraph will take no meaning from this link text by itself. Link text that effectively describes its destination is far easier to scan and the destination of the link can be understood without having to read its surrounding words.

2. Prompt text assigned to form input

In order to make forms accessible we need to assign the prompt text to its form item. This is especially useful when done with checkboxes and radioboxes, as the text becomes clickable too. Checkboxes and radioboxes are small and pernickety for even the steadiest of hands so by increasing the clickable region everyone benefits.

3. Large chunks of information divided up

There are a number of techniques that can be taken to increase the usability for visually impaired users, who have to listen to the information on each page and try to remember it. By structuring information into small, manageable groups, enhanced usability for these users can be achieved.

Methods to accomplish this can include using sub-headings to break up body content, grouping form items with the fieldset command and using lists. Breaking down groups of information is obviously highly useful for sighted web users too, as it greatly enhances our ability to scan the screen quickly.

4. Site map provided

Site maps can be a useful accessibility tool for visually impaired users as they provide a straightforward list of links to the main pages on the site, without any of the fluff in between. Site maps are of course useful for everyone as they provide us with a way of finding pages quickly and help us visualise the structure of the website.

5. Simple and easy language

From an accessibility point of view, this one’s important for people with reading and/or cognitive disabilities and site visitors who’s first language isn’t the one you’re writing in. From a usability point of view, well, it helps everyone. Reading from computer screens is tiring for the eyes and about 25% slower than reading from paper. As such, the easier the style of writing the easier it is for site visitors to absorb your words of wisdom. Wherever possible shorten your sentences. Use, ‘apply’ instead of ‘make an application’ or ‘use’ instead of ‘make use of’.

6. Consistent navigation

Having consistent navigation across pages is also important for maximising accessibility to people with reading and/or cognitive disabilities, but again everyone benefits. Each time you visit a new website it takes you a few seconds to adjust to the unique layout and user interface of that page. Well imagine if you had to do that every time you follow a link to a new page!

By having a consistent interface across a website we can instantly locate the navigation and page content without having to look around for it. In reality, most sites do have consistent navigation across most pages. The main culprit for falling foul of this guideline is the homepage, which some websites structure quite differently to the rest of the site. By having a consistent interface across the entire website we can instantly locate the page content without having to look around for it.

7. No unannounced pop-ups

For web users utilising screen readers pop-ups can be a real accessibility nuisance. Screen readers read out the content of whichever window is on top of the others. Pop-ups display over the top of the main website so will always be read out first. For visually impaired users this can be frustrating as they may not realise that what they’re hearing isn’t the ?real? website.

So, pop-ups are bad for accessibility. As for usability, well I’m sure you hate pop-ups as much as I do. Many toolbars, such as the Google toolbar, now come packaged with a pop-up blocker so allow you to surf the web without the irritation of new windows popping up.

8. CSS used for layout

CSS-based sites are generally have a greater ratio of content to HTML code so are more accessible to screen readers and search engines. Websites using CSS for layout can also be made accessible to in-car browsers, WebTV and PDAs. Don’t underestimate the importance of this – in 2008 alone there’ll be an estimated 58 million PDAs sold worldwide (source: eTForecast).

As well as improved accessibility, CSS-based websites have one large usability benefit: increased download speed. Broadband isn’t as widespread as you may think. In the UK for example, just one in four web users are hooked up to broadband (source: Office of National Statistics) so improving the download speed of your web pages could provide a great usability advantage over your competitors.

9. Transcripts available for audio

One group of web users with special accessibility needs that doesn’t get much press is hearing impaired users, who need written equivalents for audio content. Providing transcripts is in fact highly beneficial to all users. Many of your site visitors probably can’t be bothered to wait for your 3Mb audio file to download and start playing. They may prefer just a quick outline of what’s contained in the audio content.

By providing a transcript, broken up by sub-headings and with the key terms highlighted, non-disabled site visitors can skim through it and get a general idea of the content. They can then make a more informed decision about if they want to wait for the 3Mb audio file to download.

10. Screen flickering and movement avoided

Some epileptic web users must be careful to avoid screen flicker of between 2 and 55 Hz. Web users with reading and/or cognitive disabilities and those using screen magnifiers will struggle to keep up with scrolling text (if you do have scrolling text be sure to provide a mechanism to stop it).

In addition to being a bad idea for accessibility, neither flickering nor scrolling text are good for usability either. The former can be distracting when you’re trying to read something and you see flashing out the corner of your eye; the latter isn’t good either as you have to wait for the content to slowly appear. When you see scrolling text do you usually bother to stop what you’re doing so you can read it as it gradually materialises? Or do you ignore it?

The other disadvantage of scrolling or changing text is that you might see something you want to click on, but before you know it it’s gone. And now you have to wait 30 seconds for it to re-appear again!

Conclusion

With all this overlap between web usability and web accessibility there’s no excuses for not implementing basic accessibility on to your website. Outside of the ethical argument there are many reasons to make your website accessible, one of the main one being that its usability will be improved. No one can argue with that.

This article was written by Trenton Moss, founder of Webcredible, a web usability and accessibility consultancy. He’s extremely good at web accessibility training and knows an awful lot about the Disability Discrimination Act.

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Improving ecommerce product findability

On both ecommerce and shopping comparison sites, users can find products in two different ways: searching and browsing. Searching obviously means using the site search whilst browsing involves drilling down through the categories provided by the website.

Regardless of which method is used, users will be presented with a product listing from which to find the product(s) they want. This product listing can contain tens, hundreds or even thousands of products, so finding the right product from this list can be a difficult or even impossible task on any ecommerce site.

Getting sorting and filtering right improves findability and allows users to find the product they want in less time, from this product listing. If users can’t find the exact product they require in the minimal time, there’s a good chance they’ll go to an ecommerce site where they can.

What is sorting and filtering?

Sorting is a method of changing the order of any product listing, where by users can choose which criteria they want the products to be listed by. So, price-conscious web users may choose to list the products in order of price, from cheapest to most expensive.

Filtering is a way of reducing the number of products in a product listing. Users choose which criteria are important to them and view only relevant products. For example, price-conscious users may choose to view only products for under £10 (thereby filtering out all products over £10).

Sort by options

Bringing products with certain criteria to the top of the page can be particularly useful for users who aren’t exactly sure what they want. This is especially true if there are a large number of products in the product listing. (Product listings, or a list of products, can be found either by running a search or browsing through the available categories.)

The Waterstones website, for example, provides extensive options to sort its search results. As well as basic sort by options (e.g. ‘Alphabetical: A-Z’) the site also tailors its sorting to the fact that it’s an online ecommerce bookshop. Users may find it helpful to sort by ‘Bestselling’, ‘Publication date’ or ‘Average customer review’. The latter is an increasingly popular way of choosing products on the web due to its independent nature.

The language of the options is also plain and simple. For example, ‘Price: Low to high’ is used instead of ‘Price ascending’, the former being slightly less ambiguous.

Presenting sort by options

Utilising a dropdown menu for sorting uses up minimal screen space and is generally familiar to users of ecommerce sites. It does however ‘hide’ some of the options as they’re not all visible at first glance.

You could instead offer sort by options as radio buttons. The main advantage of using radio buttons is that all sort by options are visible to users at one glance. Also, there should be less need to abbreviate terms as options aren’t confined to the width of the dropdown field.

As a rough guide, if you offer users four or more sort by options, use a dropdown box. Three or less sort by options then use radio buttons as the options won’t be ‘hidden’ in a dropdown box. Do be sure to restrict radio buttons to one row for easy scanning.

Filtering within product listings

Due to historically poor search results within websites, users are sometimes wary of site searches and will often browse through ecommerce sites to find a product. (They’ll then use the search function only if they can’t find what they’re looking for). For users that are browsing in order to find a product, filtering within a category is crucial to enhance product findability.

Filters let users reduce the number of items within any product listing, by filtering out products that don’t conform to specific criteria. This is often more useful for users who have a certain level of knowledge about the product(s) they require.

Dell offers a number of filtering options for their computers with a wide range of specifications. The product filtering concentrates on the technical specifics and usage but also has the option to ‘View all…’, thereby catering for all users. Filter options must be specific to each product listing and shouldn’t be generically applied across the site.

Using filtering to influence a purchase

Filtering can also be useful when there are many different parameters to a product and can be used as a tool to persuade and influence a purchase. H.Samuel, for example, uses an extensive filtering system for their range of watches. The product listing uses commonly-used filters such as ‘Price’, which many users will be familiar with. It also uses other, more clever filters, such as ‘Occasion: Anniversary, Christmas, Love, Good luck…’ and ‘Who is it for: For boys, For father, For groom, For bride…’.

These additional filters ‘humanise’ the online shopping experience matching users’ real life expectations and requirements. They essentially create an online ‘shop assistant’, matching users’ needs with specific products.

Conclusion

Do be sure to employ sorting and filtering across all product listings on any ecommerce or shopping comparison website. The options you provide for both should speak users’ language and be specific to the actual product listing (and not generically applied across the site).

Sorting and filtering are essential for helping users to find the products they’re looking for. Users’ increasing levels of sophistication when shopping online means they’re likely to ‘flick’ between similar sites in a matter of seconds. Providing effective sorting and filtering for product listings can play a major part in helping users find (and ultimately buy) the product(s) they’re looking for.

This article was written by Jonathan Webb. Jonathan’s crazy about usability – so crazy that he works for Webcredible, an industry leading web usability and accessibility consultancy. He’s very good at conducting focus groups and likes to work on intranet usability projects.

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