Monday, April 21, 2008

Show me don't tell me

Nothing is quite so fun as the web design debates that begin with "If I was coming to this site..." Of course, this is generally an inefficient way to actually get a usable web design.

As humans, we naturally start from an inwardly directed sensibility of how to frame and solve a design problem. But for usable website design, we need not rely on major assumptions built on inwardly derived beleifs. And while 'there's never enough time to do it right, but always enough to do it over" may be a common experience, it is useful to think about ways of incorporating a learn-as-you-go expectation into the design process. Afterall, online a good design is a design that works.

Jakob Neilson has a set of principles that make sense in "Bridging the designer-user gap".

But the Six Revisions site lists Seven Useful Tools for evaluating web designs.

Interestingly in the Six Revisions list is that these tools (which are mostly open-source or free) provide realtime data around what users actually do on your site...where their mouse hovers, what they click on, how long the pointer hovers as examples. For the record, we've been using the free Google tools that are part of the analytics package.

One implication of these tools is that it takes the notion of usability testing...learning what works...and puts it into the production phase...learning as you go.

So what?

Usability testing has often been relegated to the pre-productioon phase. There, it is oftentimes deferred due to rushed production schedules or the perception of limited budgets. And then the opinionated debates about design fill the vacuum created. These tools, though, enable something akin to the multivariate testing that has allowed ads, direct mail and search engine marketing to be tested and refined. The online world is ever changing. Our design decisions should reflect the real experiences and needs of real users. Empirically driven tools can help show us the way.

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