Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Web Litmus Test

[Editorial Note: At first I was doubtful about posting a concept I developed ten years ago. However, just the other day someone called me looking for a designer/developer. When I suggested doing an architectural design for the site content first, he said "we have all the content. What my boss wants is to make sure the site is flashy and cool." I guess we haven't made that much progress in ten years....]

Web design is a tricky business. there are so many conflicting requirements to consider, as well as rapidly shifting expectations on the part of the users as the web grows and evolves.

On the positive side, there is no shortage of guidelines and recommendations for designing web sites to make them usable and functional. However, despite this guidance, there are still sites that are simply "unusable" at a higher level. Sites that aggravate, annoy, insult, confuse, or simply bore their users. Why?

The fact is that most usability guidelines operate at a rather low, micro level dealing with specific interface artifacts and interactions: the placement of buttons, the arrangement of forms, the structure and consistency of the navigation, etc. These attributes certainly impact the usability of web sites and shouldn't be ignored. But often when a web site fails it fails on a much larger, dramatic scale. It fails because it doesn't offer what the user wants.

It is not possible to provide a simple set of design rules that guarantee a successful web site. There is just too much variation in the intent and purpose of sites to cover all circumstances. But there are a few basic measures -- what I call the web litmus test -- that can fairly consistently tell if a web site design will fail or not. Passing the test does not guarantee success; it only means your site has a chance of succeeding. But fail the test and your site is toast.

As I say, the web litmus test can't be used to design sites -- there is much more skill and experience required to design the site right from the beginning -- and that is where the art and science of information architecture comes in. But the test can be a very quick and useful reality check that anyone can perform for designs before they get implemented or for existing sites planning a redesign.

Seven Characteristics of Human Behavior that Affect Web Design

The problem is often not the design but the site itself -- what the site is doing or trying to achieve. It is not failure to implement, it is a failure of intent. The seeds of failure are planted early and concern the basic impulses that drive the creation of the site from the very beginning.

There are two separate sets of goals that control any web site: the goals of the visitors -- or audience -- and the goals of the owner -- or sponsor -- of the site. Those driving impulses are different for every site, but fall into seven basic categories.

For the visitor, there are only four possible goals:

  • Help me find something
  • Help me do something
  • Help me fix something
  • Once I have satisfied all three of the above, entertain me!

As I said, the specifics of what the visitor wants to find, do, or fix are different for each site they visit. (I wouldn't try to buy a vacuum cleaner from, but figuring out why my current vacuum is making so much noise is a likely goal for a visitor to With the exception of people simply "channel surfing" the web, the goals of all of your visitors fall into one of these four categories.

From the other perspective, the web site owner has only three basic intentions:

  • Let me tell you something
  • Let me sell you something
  • Let me impress you!

These three impulses apply to all websites, even non-commercial web sites. (For non-commercial sites, "sell" can be interpreted figuratively to be an attempt to persuade the visitors to take some action: sign a petition, join an organization, etc.)

Achieving Alignment

It would seem, at first glance that aligning the needs of the owners and the audience should be simple: you want to find something and we want to sell something! Unfortunately, in practice the priorities and order of importance are often askew.

Site owners often focus on their last impulse first: let me impress you. At this point, it is fairly well accepted that elaborate flash intros to web sites are more annoying than effective. However they are still very prevalent.

Similarly, the days of commercial internet sites proudly displaying a photo and message from the CEO as a home page are pretty much over. However, many corporate intranets are still littered with web sites that prominently display a photograph of the manager, an org chart, and list of "news" stories and other managerial announcements. How does this help their employees find, do, or fix anything?

But the real problem is that the web site needs to address all of the visitors' possible needs, not just the one or two that match the owners' goals. Even if you can get past the sponsor's desire to turn impressiveness into a requirement, there is still too often a narrow focus on what the company wants to achieve and not what the users expect.

Note that addressing the needs of the visitors is not the same as solving them. If you are a manufacturer, you don't have to sell online. But you can expect at least some of your site's visitors will be looking to buy your goods, so you better tell them where they can buy your items rather than leaving them to vainly search your site and give up in frustration.

How to Use the Web Litmus Test

So, how do you apply the web litmus test? It is simple. Try this 15 minute experiment:

  1. Pick a site on the internet. Any site. (If you have a commercial site on the internet I would suggest not starting with that one. It is hard to be objective the first time.)
  2. Take 2 minutes to make a list of the things that site's visitors would want to find, do, or fix.
  3. Spend 3 minutes trying to perform each activity from the web site's home page.

The key points to note here are that the web litmus test is in no way a complete analysis of a web site. Its goal is to test the site's main features against the visitors' main goals and nothing more. So don't try to go into too much detail.

Keep it short. 1-3 specific tasks for each of the visitor goals is more than enough. And if you can't complete a task in 3 minutes, you are already spending more time than the majority of visitors would before giving up in disgust.

Again, it is not a test of the entire site. It doesn't matter whether a specific function exists on the site, but whether someone can find it in an acceptable amount of time. This is why you should always start at the home page (as visitors are likely to do).

But the best way to understand the web litmus test is to see it in action, so let's try a few of examples...

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