Expert interview: David Hamill, Good Usability

Many corporate websites are managed by a person or team for whom the website is not their only responsibility. They rely on expertise from third party suppliers for designing, building and maintaining their website.

Companies with dedicated in-house online teams also sometimes lack a particular skill at a given time. Even with the combination of in-house support and an external agency, calling in an expert can provide many benefits.

But who are these experts, what do they do and how can they help? In the first of an occasional series, we speak to David Hamill of Good Usability. He’s an independent usability expert who’s worked on a number of high-profile websites and intranets, for companies such as RBS and the Share Centre.

Read the interview from the beginning or jump to a question that interests you:

David, thank you for taking the time to speak to Corporate Eye. Many people will be aware of the term, but perhaps you can begin by giving us an overview of the concept of ‘usability’?

Hi Helen, thanks for choosing to interview me. Usability is essentially how well something works for the people it was designed for. So a usable website is one whose target users can do the things they arrived at the site to do, without assistance and with satisfaction.

People often think usability is about simplicity and ease of use. But this isn’t always the case; it’s all about what users want to do. Sometimes they want complex detail. I recently wrote an article on this very subject.

How does usability sit alongside other well-known (but little understood) terms such as ‘user experience’ and ‘accessibility’?

User experience is a bit of a trendy word for usability really. Ironically, usability professionals use a lot of internal language that their clients don’t fully understand. Then in the course of their work they tell clients to stop using internal language on their websites that their customers don’t understand.

Accessibility is a term that webby types use to describe the extent to which your website can be accessed by people of all abilities. It’s often misunderstood to just mean making your website accessible to blind people.

But there are lots of reasons why people have physical and cognitive challenges when using websites and being blind is just one of them. It’s best to think of accessibility as a sub-set of usability. It’s all about websites being fit for purpose.

Following on from that, are there any legal requirements for corporate websites regarding usability?

There isn’t a specific legal requirement but according to the Disability Discrimination Act, service providers must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure their services can be accessed by people of all abilities.

So, what exactly do you do? How do you carry out your role in an ideal world (that is, with an adequate budget and time scale)?

In an ideal world we’d be doing lots and lots of user-centred design activities. But my ideal initial approach for an existing website is to start very simple.

This is because lots of organisations throw their money away on grand pieces of user research that they aren’t quite ready for. Having carried out a small introductory study, clients are more aware of what it can and can’t tell them.

So I’d start by carrying out usability testing on their current site with a handful of the site’s target users. After we’ve done this they’ll have more than enough improvements to keep them busy and I’ll recommend the next steps.

User centred design is an iterative process, it should never end. So there are always next steps; it’s about the continuous improvement of your website.

I see; explain usability testing to us.

A usability testing study is a series of one-on-one sessions where a facilitator asks target users to carry out real world tasks using the website.

The facilitator doesn’t help them at all; instead they just watch as the participant talks through what they’re doing. It’s remarkable what you can find out about your website and your users, just by watching them using your site.

How would a corporate website benefit from the help of a usability expert? Are there any examples of organisations that have seen tangible benefits?

The benefits depend on the organisation. If you’re an e-commerce website, then the main benefit is increased sales.

Most of the people arriving at your site are leaving without buying anything. Some of them are doing so because of difficulties using the site. This could be things they don’t understand, but also just things that cause enough friction for them to become distracted by the rest of life.

The classic example used to illustrate the benefits of usability techniques is a company that increased sales by $300m by removing a button from its website. I’ve not been quite that helpful to any of my clients yet, but it’s a nice target.

For a non-transactional website, improving the user experience can reduce costs and preserve a positive opinion of the brand. A customer interaction over the phone costs an organisation on average 14 times as much as it does on the web. A face-to-face interaction costs 35 times more.

People don’t persist with websites they have trouble using. Instead they go to another site, pick up the phone or go to the organisation’s office or shop. So there’s a clear cost-saving benefit in making life easy for your site’s visitors.

What do you think of the opinion that usability conflicts with other business objectives on the website, such as branding?

Great question Helen. Brands are not just a quirky logo, a set of colours and a typeface. These are important parts of brand consistency, but they are not the brand.

The brand is how your customers feel about your product or organisation. So you see, usability never conflicts with branding because usability is a part of branding.

The experience your customers are having on your website will influence their opinion of the brand. So there are sometimes usability improvements that conflict with brand guidelines. But not the brand.

What are areas of consideration that apply to all websites? For example, content presentation, consistency, navigation issues and so on.

The list is endless. Everything on your website will influence the user experience. If it doesn’t, it’s useless and should be removed.

However I have a special axe to grind that I know you’ll agree with, Helen. And that’s content. Organisations are happy to shell out large amounts of money on a good design and then spend little time looking at the content they are putting on the site.

My advice is not to let anyone write anything for the website until they’ve received web writing training.

What other typical problems do you see across many corporate websites?

There are common problems and considerations you need to make with every design approach. I prefer to think of a website’s usability in terms of what people are trying to do with it.

The most common problem I find is websites without any sense of priority. The majority of your website’s value is delivered by a very small amount of its content. If you take care of the user journeys to this content, you’ll massively improve the usability of your website.

Of course, we’re not just talking about external websites. How about intranets? These have a different audience and a different purpose; do the same problems apply and are there any additional considerations?

If I asked a 100 of your readers what the purpose of their intranet was, over 90 of them would probably use the word ‘communicate’ in their answer. If you see your intranet as just a communication tool, it is not fulfilling its true potential.

Intranets are business efficiency tools. Internal communications is a small but important part of this. If you want people within the company to use it as a communication tool, you need to first make it an effective business efficiency tool.

It needs to help employees to do their jobs. If it does this, you can then use it to communicate, because they will be using it all the time.

Organisations waste a lot of time and money trying to make their intranets popular and benchmarking themselves against other organisations. Benchmark against yourself not other organisations. Find out where you are in terms of usability and then improve. Use efficiency and effectiveness as a measure, not popularity.

You should start by culling rarely-used content and then create a clear set of guidelines on what gets published and what doesn’t. Otherwise it becomes the place where documents go to die.

There has recently been a lot of discussion online regarding websites for mobile platforms. Do you think that companies need to consider separate websites for use with desktop and mobile browsers?

The context of use is a very important consideration in usability, and the answer to your question depends on the context of use.

Do people even want to use your website on a mobile phone? If so, why are they using their mobile? They aren’t at home or at their desk, so what are they doing? Is it easy enough to do these tasks on a mobile phone?

When you know the answer to these questions, the answer is obvious. Just don’t guess the answer. Get evidence. Do user research.

What advice would you give to a website manager who is currently working on a website redesign or looking to hire an agency to do it for them? What questions should they be asking themselves or the agency?

My first advice is to consider not doing the redesign in the first place. How did your website get into the position that you need to redesign it? How are you going to ensure that you don’t get into that position again?

Big organisations like Amazon, Ebay and the BBC don’t do redesigns anymore. Instead they improve the usability and branding of their websites in phased releases. This is because they have been through so many redesigns that they’ve realised they are wasteful exercises.

If you’re choosing a design agency, I have a sure-fire way to whittle down your shortlist of prospective agencies. Take all of the proposals that include speculative design work and throw them in the bin.

These people have already designed your website without knowing enough about your organisation or your users to do so.

Well, that draws our questions to a close. David, thank you very much for your time and for talking to Corporate Eye.

Useful resources for finding out more

If you’d like to learn more about usability and how it could help you, David has recommended the book Don’t Make Me Think (Steve Krug, published by New Riders) as a good starting point for everyone.

You could also try the following websites:

This article also appeared on Corporate Eye, where I write articles on whole-site issues for corporate websites.

One thought on “Expert interview: David Hamill, Good Usability

  1. There are many good observations by David in this interview. I enjoyed reading it. (Finally! had it as a to-read ever since you tweeted about it on Twitter.) I also have things to ponder, but I won’t embarrass myself by admitting what they are. 😉

    Thanks to both of you for a great interview.

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