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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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