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When NASA asks you to help organise its information, you must be doing something right: New Zealand consultants Optimal Usability has been propelled into the galactic market with its simple online tool

As a writer I’m often looking for the best contact at an organisation. Because I’m usually looking down the barrel of several deadlines at once, I need to do this fast. This is where the Internet should come in handy.

Trouble is, I am never sure where on a website to find the right person. They might be in the About Us section, or in the ever-so-friendly Our People section.

I might end up having to phone or, worse, filling in a faceless Contact Us form. The form means I have no idea if my message will ever make it to the right department. As far as I know the tea lady will delete it. An automated reply does not reassure me.

At this point, companies I would have liked to speak to get bypassed for others where I can quickly find the right person.

This is happening millions of times all over the world right now. Not just with journos but, much more importantly, with customers. And countless websites are losing untold millions in revenue.

At Optimal Usability, consultants specialise in taking the frustrations out of your technology, especially online technology. They ensure it works the way your customers expect it to. The premise is simple: technology needs to be nicer to people.

In the course of their work they have encountered hundreds of examples like mine. So, in 2004, the company designed its own information-sorting software tool. Called Optimal Sort, it is based on existing systems where website users sort cards into categories that make the most sense to them. The cards represent content on the website. Repeated multiple times, the process shows where most users expect to see certain information.

For instance if most users of your retail site think swimwear belongs under Sporting Equipment and not in the Clothing section, it pays to put it there where they can find it and buy it.

Optimal Usability’s founders are Trent Mankelow and Sam Ng, an engineer and an industrial designer respectively, so it was natural for them to transfer the card-sorting exercise to an online system, at www.optimalsort.com.

The program allows you to do either an open sort or a closed sort. An open sort means the users can choose the names of the categories they put cards into. This means you are effectively recruiting users to help you design your website. A closed sort is where you decide what the categories are called. This can be used to test an existing site.

One of the most effective ways to use the programme is to run an open sort, design the site to match those findings, and then run a closed sort to check you have actually improved things.

To Optimal Usability’s surprise, its recent decision to release Optimal Sort into the wild has boosted the company from local consultancy to global business solution provider in less than 12 months.

“We were kind of scratching our own itch,” says Ng. “I was probably chief sceptic about how much revenue this could generate at the time. I was saying, ‘Let’s just make it freeware and make friends and connections.’ I have been proved pleasantly wrong.”

The company is based in Auckland and Wellington and has just set up an additional office in Sydney. It boasts NASA, Nokia and Amazon.com among its clients, as well as several of the world’s leading banks, telecommunications providers, computer hardware manufacturers and services and software companies.

There’s no point having the most gobsmacking design online if no one can read the text or contact you. “It’s a constant challenge to balance good graphic design and usability, but the rewards for sites that achieve this balance are high”

Optimal Usability’s success, fittingly, has come from taking an existing idea—the card sort—and making it easily accessible. It underlines the broader point that although designing a website might seem like rocket science, the basic principles are actually fairly simple. People return to sites, and spend money on them, if they find them easy to use.

A website does not have to look like it was made for Mr Spock. And there’s no point having the most gobsmacking design online if no one can read the text or contact you.

“A usable website does not have to be visually unappealing. It’s a constant challenge to balance good graphic design and usability, but the rewards for sites that achieve this balance are high.”

It’s easy to forget that properly executed research with real customers is the only way to check if something makes sense and works properly, not whether the people who designed it can make it work.

“It’s easy to end up designing in a void,” says Ng. “And sometimes budget and time restraints can force people into making bad decisions.”

If it’s a retail site, you could try imagining your online presence as if it were a shop on the high street. For example, think about flashing offers and capital letters: would you instruct staff to bellow the latest offers at the top of their lungs at any person who walks through your door?

If your site has popup pages with no obvious way back, this is the online equivalent of an area of your store where the door slammed closed behind the customers and they had to walk back round the building to get in the front door again.

“The key is to start looking at things from the users’ point of view, and how you might be angering them. It’s really as simple as that,” says Ng.