Back to the User: Creating User-Focused Web Sites

Back to the User: Creating User-Focused Web Sites

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In: Reviews > Book Reviews

By James McNally

Published on May 1, 2002

book cover Web designers can be guilty of designing for themselves alone. We like to think of ourselves as purveyors of good taste, or even of being on the cutting edge of “cool.” Sometimes we are guilty of forgetting the purpose of our work entirely. We’ve scoffed as “usability experts” have scolded us for our excesses. The fact remains, however, that some beautifully designed sites are excruciatingly difficult to use. We even have cautionary tales (, anyone?) warning us that our excesses can lead to disaster. So why is it still so difficult to get some of us to read a usability book? Perhaps some of us are still smarting from the harsh discipline meted out by Dr. Nielsen? It might be news to some that there has been a rapprochement lately in relations between the two camps. First it was Steve Krug’s excellent book, Don’t Make Me Think, which approached usability with a sense of humor. And now we have Back to the User, from the folks at Sachs Insights, a research consultancy who focus on web and software development.

The first thing I noticed about this book is that the chapter titles made the authors’ point before I even read the chapters. For instance, what do you think they’ll be saying in the chapter entitled, “Use Research, Make It Actionable, Then Act on It While It’s Hot?” The placement of this particular chapter near the very beginning of the book also alerted me to the fact that these usability types really like their research. In fact, the entire thesis of the book is summed up in the introduction:

  • Talk with users
  • Listen to them
  • Make them part of the development team

But far from advocating “quantitative” research (“How long does it take for a user to complete the task?”), the authors stress the need for qualitative judgments (“Can they use the site? And will they use it? Why or why not?”). This focus on the big picture, what they call the “view from 30,000 feet,” is key to their approach. Designers see only one aspect of the web development process, programmers see another, marketers yet another. Only the user sees with fresh eyes, and as someone who sees the site in its totality. This perspective is one that members of the development team need. Quantitative research can lead to the same sort of tunnel vision that other team members have. Only by asking more general questions can user experience testing become the tool it’s intended to be.

After convincing us of the value of research, Sachs and McClain set out to show us how we can use the benefits of their experience with usability testing. Chapter 3 is entitled “Your Homepage Is a 30-Second Window of Opportunity,” and in it they provide advice based on extensive research. Since the book is aimed at all members of the web development team, there is often a fair bit of attention paid to issues of marketing. So, advice such as “Establish your credibility” and “Make sure your design is in service to your concept” exists happily alongside more familiar design-centric advice like “Use your real estate wisely.” Perhaps most importantly, we are told, the homepage should make it easy for users to get to the information they need, whether that information is on the homepage itself, on some other page within the site, or even somewhere else on the web.

The authors spend the next, and ironically rather unfortunately-named chapter, “Understanding How Users ‘Bucket’ Your Space: Better Use Their Language, Because They Are Not There to Join Your Company,” addressing issues of word choices. In it, they advise us quite sensibly to avoid organizing a site around the company’s departmental structure, to banish jargon and acronyms where possible, and to resist forcing users to label themselves to access sections of the site. Nobody likes to self-apply categories such as “baby boomer” or “teen” to themselves.

Perhaps the chapter aimed most squarely at us design types, “It’s Okay to Be Different: Just Make Sure People Know What You Offer” takes on the tendency for us to sacrifice usability for what the authors call “glitz.” The two principles of simplicity and user control should be the mantra of designers everywhere. Overwhelming the user with too much or irrelevant information defeats the core purpose of the site and may cause them to click elsewhere.

“People Don’t Read” will get the attention of most designers, particularly ones who keep a personal site or weblog. The question of whether web users read online is probably the major bone of contention between usability pundits and proponents of the “Independent Web.” But users often visit different types of web sites for vastly different reasons. The most apt comparison would be between a reference library and a literary bookshop. Most visitors to a corporate web site are there to find a specific nugget of information and they hope to find it as quickly as possible and get out of there. Like a reference library, the decor is secondary. What’s most important is the organization, so that the visitor can find the information she is looking for as quickly and as easily as possible. It’s not as important to tell stories to this type of user. In this case, she doesn’t want to read much at all. The authors are not addressing the issue of reading across the entire web, but they do have reams of research to suggest that on an e-commerce site, or a financial services site, or on a corporate site, users looking for product support or hoping to make a purchase are less likely to be patient with explanations and instructions that are too long.

In contrast to some usability researchers, Sachs and McClain don’t advise designers and programmers to repeat the work of other established sites. Just because Amazon or Google’s sites look a certain way is no reason to copy them. However, the authors do state that a good principle to follow is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Specifically, they feel that the left navigation bar is a familiar and useful convention that shouldn’t be tampered with unless the designer has a very good reason. Additionally, the use of a “Home” button is encouraged, even though many designers build in a link to the home page in the company logo that appears on each page. User testing has shown that many users are unaware of this convention and would prefer a clearly labelled button that takes them back to the homepage.

Since I’m already in danger of making this review almost as long as the book itself, I’ll sum up by saying that among the subjects addressed in the rest of the book are plug-ins, help pages, icons, graphics, search functions, navigation, and for the marketers, issues of branding. The consistent thread in all the advice given is, listen to your users.

The purpose of the book is to convince every member of the web design team that involving users early in the process as contributors produces a better web site with fewer headaches for everyone involved. And instead of burying us under pages of dry research, the authors provide us with practical advice, not as a substitute for our own user experience testing, but to show us that usability testing produces results that are measurable and which help us to improve our work. Fittingly, the book ends with an appendix entitled “A Crash Course in Web Development Research” in which the authors provide advice on how to find a research firm and how to structure testing so that it meets the particular needs of your project.

Back to the User is an interesting book for two reasons. First of all, it is in itself a source of common sense ideas for designing web sites. But more importantly, it is also a plea for developers to involve their users in the process from the beginning, and I think that in that aspect it succeeds best. Much of the design advice has been offered by other usability experts elsewhere. The difference here is that the Sachs and McClain still believe that every site should go through its own process of user testing. How appropriate that they, even after all the advice offered from the experts, still send us–back to the user.

Back to the User: Creating User-Focused Web Sites
by Tammy Sachs and Gary McClain, Ph.D.

New Riders, 2002, 360pp.
US$34.99, CDN$54.99, UK£27.50

Related Topics: User-Centered Design (UCD), User Experience

James McNally is a Toronto based freelance writer and web designer. He is desperately clawing his way back into a new media career. His personal weblog is at