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Practical tips for improving Web site and intranet usability

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2003. Practical tips for improving Web site and intranet usability. Intercom December:15–17.

There's a large body of theory available to guide Web and intranet design, but concentrating too much on theory sometimes leads designers to overlook basic things they can do to improve the usability of sites. This article presents, in no particular order, seven simple ways to make your Web site or intranet more usable.

1. Make static information dynamic

One of the biggest problems with Web and intranet design is that managers often simply move paper documents online without considering how these documents have been or will be used. This practice is common for policies and procedures manuals, which are often used only by the personnel department. If the online equivalents of these manuals are functionally equal to the paper versions, employees are no more likely to use them than the paper copies.

Why not take advantage of the interactive nature of online information to help people use these documents? Although you can develop immensely complex electronic performance-support systems that use custom programming and database applications to help people perform their work, you can achieve surprisingly good results with simple measures that let people use the documents more effectively. For example, rather than referring to the availability of online documents or forms (e.g., user manuals, Excel spreadsheets), convert the reference into a hyperlink that opens the reference material or launches an application in a single click. Similarly, link an online expense account form to the relevant pages of the online policies and procedures manual, thereby providing immediate guidance on how to use the form. Convert static contact information such as e-mail addresses into "mailto" fields that open a new e-mail message when clicked.

These are simple and obvious examples. What other examples could you come up with based on simple HTML technologies?

2. Assign ownership and manage growth

Many sites grow like weeds in a garden: unplanned and unrestrained, with corrective measures taken only after problems become apparent. Unplanned growth generally produces a complex, unusable site. The solution? Each major area of a site should have an "owner" responsible for planning growth, approving new additions, and periodically (at least annually and ideally more often) reviewing the content for currency and relevance. Assigning ownership of individual documents to their authors is another way to keep material up to date—provided that someone takes responsibility for reminding authors to periodically review these documents.

Owners should always consider the effects of their decisions on other areas of the site. Regular discussions among owners keep everyone aware of one another's plans and provide a reality check on these plans. Linking two areas via hyperlinks makes each area more useful, but changes in one area may break links from other areas. If the changes aren't coordinated, links will rapidly become outdated and some owners will eventually duplicate content from other areas, often creating contradictions.

3. Index the site

Search tools are good at what they do, but haven't yet reached their full potential. In particular, most don't yet understand context. For example, they cannot distinguish between different uses of the word "printing": procedures for producing paper output, distilling a Word file into a PDF document, learning whom to ask for permission to print 500 copies of a user manual, and finding troubleshooting instructions for network printers. Moreover, users must know the precise wording used in the document to find it with a search; for example, instructions for typing the letter é might be found under "foreign characters", "accented letters", "HTML entities for European fonts", or the letter itself. An indexer will examine each chunk of information to identify its role, then create synonyms so that readers with different mental models of the information can more easily find what they seek.

My article Index the Web appeared in the June 1999 Intercom, yet little progress has been made in spreading this approach to the Web. Part of the problem has been relatively primitive tools, but better versions are now available (see www.html-indexer.com and www.devahelp.com). Of course, good indexing requires an uncommon set of skills and takes significant amounts of time to do right, and both time and skill may be in short supply. [A look back from 2005: No, I haven't indexed my own site yet. My first priority is to put all my old articles online, with indexing a task for another day.—GH] Yet if you make indexing part of the design process, you can at least plan to include index entries that help users overcome the shortcomings of search engines.

4. Add tables of contents

When a window pops up on your screen, it's impossible to tell what lies below the bottom of the window. The window's elevator bar hints at the size of the document and your position within it, but says nothing about the content; readers are forced to scroll down to see whether they've found the right page. The same problem occurs with home pages for subsections of a site that link to many subordinate pages.

Why not include a short table of contents for each main section of a site or long page? This lets readers see a section's contents at a glance, without scrolling: If the contents aren't relevant, readers can immediately return to a previous screen, but if they have found the right page, they can click any entry in the table of contents to go directly to the relevant section. This approach works well enough that a programmer colleague adopted it for his own work as soon as he'd seen me using it in a help file.

Of course, readers may also want to return to that table of contents after jumping away. The browser's Back button solves this problem, but providing an explicit link at each destination to return readers to their point of origin is a nice touch. A trickier problem concerns how to let readers know whether they've left the original page or simply moved further down that page. Affordances can help; for example, introduce the table of contents with the phrase "This page contains the following topics:" or "This page links to the following additional pages:" to make this information explicit. Alternatively, rather than relying on users to read these warnings, consider opening a new browser window. The original page remains open in the background no matter how many links users follow, so they can easily return to their starting point. However, many users dislike the resulting proliferation of windows, so make sure you confirm with your audience that this is a good solution.

5. Hire an editor

All the organization in the world won't save poorly written text. Because users generally consult online information to find a solution and return to their work rather than reading it for pleasure, the information must be concise and clear. Even good writers can benefit from an editor familiar with how people use online information. Hiring an editor to cut the verbiage and make the text easier to read has obvious usability paybacks. It also has less-obvious benefits if you have to localize your Web site: With fewer words to translate, and clearer text that requires fewer questions from the translator, translation costs should decrease, perhaps even enough to pay for the editor.

6. Hire an information designer

Information should be presented in a manner that supports the user's goals and should be formatted to facilitate skimming. Many editors make this sort of correction as they edit, but information designers have more expertise in designing a Web page to support how people actually use the information. Information-design principles can help designers chunk text efficiently, use white space most effectively, and clarify the site's information architecture (e.g., with clear and distinct headings and navigation cues).

7. Test, test, test!

My recommendations make good sense in theory, but many elegant theories are humbled by inconvenient facts. Only the users of your site can tell you whether your design really works as well as you think. Web designers have a difficult time collecting feedback on their design; sometimes this is because visitors come from around the world, but a surprising number of sites lack even a feedback or webmaster link to let users contact the designers. Intranet designers are more fortunate because they can work directly with the users of their site, who are often in the same building, but many fail to take advantage of this opportunity. When designing a site for co-workers, you have an opportunity to research their needs before you begin and to test your design to ensure it meets those needs before you actually implement the design.

Testing requires both time and expertise, but almost any form of reality check is better than simply assuming that you understand the audience's needs. Whether you are designing an intranet or a Web site, budget some time to discuss your audience's needs and test your design against those needs. Theory and rules of thumb are all very well, but talking to the users is still the best way to produce a workable design that people will actually use.

Suggested readings

Bine, K. 2002. Intranet accessibility and Section 508. Usability Interface: The Newsletter of the STC Usability SIG, August.

Dick, D. 2002. Usability strategies for intranet Web site design. Usability Interface: The Newsletter of the STC Usability SIG, August.

Hart, G.J.S. 1999. Index the Web. Intercom, June:26–28.

Sellers, D. 2002. Innovations team of the Department of Labor and Industries, State of Washington, wins excellence in usability award. Usability Interface: The Newsletter of the STC Usability SIG, August.

Yelverton, B. 2002. How to use FrontPage to design a corporate intranet. Usability Interface: The Newsletter of the STC Usability SIG, August.


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