Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Web Litmus Test in Action

[Continued from The Web Litmus Test]

The best way to understand the web litmus test is to see it in action, so let's try three examples.

Example #1

Let's start with an example of a site that is known to be good: Amazon.

Amazon is a retail site, so the things visitors want to find are items to buy. Which means they want to find the item, find out more about it, and then buy it. Most of the finding is finding items for sale and most of the doing is buying. (You might want to add comparing items as an activity, but you don't really need to go into that much detail.)

is equally easy. Most visitors will be trying to fix a purchase gone wrong -- not arrived, wrong item, broken item, need to cancel, need to return, etc.

Starting at the Amazon home page, you will see that finding and doing are well covered. The top of the page includes a set of tabs for browsing goods by department and a search box (which can also be filtered by department). Having found an item, the description includes many different pieces of information to help the visitor assess it's suitability (such as the vendor description, customer reviews, etc.) They even include information of items that other visitors purchased after viewing this item as a form of comparison.

Fixing is also easy on Amazon. It is not the primary activity for the site, so it is less prominent. But to make up for that Amazon provides at least three ways to reach it. Both "My Account" and "Help" on the top control bar provide information on returns, cancellations, and other changes. The most common fixes ("where's my stuff?", "shipping & returns", and "need help?") are also provided on the footer of every page. Barring all else, the help pages have a "Contact us" button.

Note that Amazon provides many, many more functions to support these and over activities. The goal of the litmus test is not to test everything; just the most obvious. And in this case it easily passes the test.

Example #2

On the whole, large retail sites will all pass the web litmus test. As well they should considering the money spent on them. If nothing else, they tend to learn and copy from each other as functions and capabilities prove successful. But smaller sites and non-retail sites are a different story. As our second example, let's look at a site that misses the mark.

Just to set the record straight, I did not pre-select this example. I thought about sites that have interesting usage models and randomly chose the United Nations.

So, why would people visit the United Nations site? What do they want to find, do, or fix? The quick list I came up with was the following:

  • Find: find out what the UN does, find out who is in the UN
  • Do: visit the UN building in New York, participate in one of their programs
  • Fix: Contact the UN delegation for your country

(There would be a separate list of activities for people who are in the UN. But my suspicion is that they have a separate intranet for those individuals. So it would not be fair to assess their public website on those functions.)

So let's look for the primary tasks. After selecting a language, there is a home page that covers a number of topics: "development goals", "news centre", "about".... One's first reaction is that the majority of these items are telling -- what the UN wants you to know -- not focused on the visitors' goals. But "about the United Nations" certainly sounds like it might cover our two finding goals. And sure enough, the first three headings on the left are "background information", "main bodies", and "main documents" (including the charter and other documents).

> > >

Unfortunately, the first link under "background information", (labeled Basic Facts About the UN) is an advertisement for a hardcopy book you must purchase. So, trying to find out what the UN is about starting from the home page and following the most meaningful links takes three clicks and leads to an offer to sell you a book. (Note the following links under "background information" do lead to meaningful information, but it is not clear that any but the most persistent visitors will find it.)

Our second finding goal is a little more successful, since the "About..." page also includes a link labeled Member States on the right-hand side. The resulting page is slightly odd since it is labeled "useful tools and documents" and does not mention the member states until halfway down the page (in reference to a press release). However, there is a link close to the top of the left-hand menu that provides a list of UN members. So it takes four clicks, but you do find the information.

> > > >

The site doesn't do nearly as well in the doing. There don't seem to be any links on the first few pages that would help you visit the UN. (In fact, I had to visit the site twice to find the appropriate information.) However, if you are persistent and visit the About the United Nations page and scroll down (it is not visible at first) you will find information on tours of several UN buildings, including the headquarters in New York.

When it comes to participating in UN activities, things get even worse. I did finally find a site that portends to help you "get involved" called UN Works. But by then I was far beyond the three minute limit, on my second visit, and found little more than ways for me to donate money.

Finally, as one might expect from the difficulties just doing, fixing is even more challenging. Although I was able to find a list of member states (during the finding task) the list is static and contains no links! There is no way to find out more or to contact the individual delegations. However, if you back up a page and ignore the body of the text, lower down on the left-hand navigation menu is an option for Permanent Missions > New York > Home Pages. this leads you to a form that lets you select a member state and get redirected to the US mission home page. If you select the United States, their home page does have an option to "contact us".

So it is possible to complete the fixing task, but it takes an unreasonable amount of detective work and far exceeds the 3 minute limit. What is worse, if you give up in frustration (which all but the most ardent visitors are likely to do) and look for a way out, some pages have a Comment link in the left-hand menu. However, rather than provide a way to provide feedback to the UN, the first two links on the comment page focus on feedback for the website only. The last link is for "comments" to a generic email account. But even that is tempered with the warning that "we may not be able to reply individually to all e-mail".

So, in essence, the site fails all aspects of the web litmus test. For sites with so many problems, the test isn't really necessary for uncovering issues. However, it can still be useful if you are trying to fix such a site. Since the number of individual problems can quickly overwhelm any repair work, you can use the test to stay focused on the primary themes and not get distracted. (Being able to see the forest for the trees, so to speak.)

Example #3

The preceding examples demonstrate the extremes. But most sites fall somewhere in the middle. Particularly for small to medium size business sites, the web litmus test can help you quickly identify gaps and dead ends.

As an example, let's look at a business site that is focused on products but not necessarily commerce. For this example, the appliance manufacturer Maytag.

Maytag makes home appliances. I suspect their primary income is generated from third-party sales -- through department stores such as Best Buy and Sears or through local appliance stores. I would further surmise that, like other manufacturers, they do not want to undercut their existing vendor relationships by competing with online sales. However, their website is very ambiguous about this.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's get back to the test.

  • What would visitors to the Maytag site want to find? What appliances and models are available, as well as more detailed information about the products.
  • What would they want to do? Buy an appliance or compare models.
  • What would they want to fix? Repair their Maytag appliances or get replacement parts or manuals for said equipment.

Now that we have identified the key activities, let's see how the site fares.

The Maytag website is very handsome. The home page has the obligatory flash animation and focuses on telling you about their latest products. However, this can be forgiven because the site overall is well structured with consistent presentation and navigation, making it easy to move around.

The primary navigation gives you three tabs: Products, Accessories, and Support, which fairly closely map to the visitors' needs to find, do, and fix. However, as attractive as the site is, its looks are deceiving.

Finding Maytag's current products is well supported. The Products tab categorizes the products by location (kitchen and laundry) and then by type. Within each type you can further filter the results by various features (such as color, size, etc.). Selecting a specific model then lets you see details concerning its features, available colors, and so on.

Doing is a little more confused. Maytag's catalog of appliances looks striking like the product catalog from a retail site such as Amazon. They even have the shopping cart and "My Account" in the top left corner. But wait... when you click on a specific model, there is no "Add to Cart" button. So, can I buy an appliance here or not?

Even more confusing, if you click on the Accessories tab, the accessories do have "Add to Cart" buttons. So, do they sell appliances or not?

If you look closely, the controls in the top right contain not only a shopping cart and account, but also a link to a "store locator". This is a common interface element for sites that sell primarily through brick and mortar retail stores. So the site -- as attractive as it is -- confuses the user by presenting contradictory interfaces. Is it online or retail sales?

This often happens because the site's sponsor is well aware they can't sell online but forgets that visitors may not know. There are any number of simple solutions to this dilemma once it has been identified. For example, you can add a "Find a Store" button on the appliance page right where the "Add to Cart" button appears for accessories. This clearly tells the visitor they can buy the item but need to do so through a retail store.

Finally, Maytag has tried to support fixing as well. And in general they are successful. But again, the missing features that the sponsor takes for granted are not apparent to the user and can cause confusion. The Support tab provides access to online copies of the manuals. (Which are also available from the individual product's details page -- well done!) It also provides a FAQ and "Service & Parts".

However, Service & Parts is really only "Service". Despite the name of the link, the page only lets you schedule a service call or find a qualified repairman. There is no way to order parts. So the site only gets 50-70% for addressing our presumed visitors' expected fixing actions.

Again, the solution is simple once the problem is identified. Adding a single sentence on the Service page stating that parts can be ordered through local service franchises (if that is the case) would be sufficient. It is not necessary to do everything the visitor needs, just provide a way to get it done.

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