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MPOW’s Usability Study: Gee, We Shoulda Had a V-8!

(N.b. This piece was victimized by a publication date that made it invisible to those who read the blog through the site. So I munged the pub date. Bon appetit!)

We had usability testing done on the forthcoming new website for MPOW (My [thinly-disguised] Place Of Work), using real subjects representing a range of people typical of our user communities. The findings were great. Naturally I can’t tell you everything about everything, but allow me to generalize.

1. Prepare to slap your forehead a lot. I know you know this, but you can’t be your own usability specialist. Naturally if you see the obvious–a label for lemons leads to limes–you don’t need an expert to help you fix it. But even if you think you know some basic usability, you really can’t see your site when you’re that close to it. “Do you have to pay to access this information?” asked one subject about the newsletter. Doh! (Slap!) How are these ranked? Doh! (Slap!) What am I emailing when I click this link? Doh! (Slap!) To quote a famous bard, “Hurts so good!”

2. White space is your friend. Lots of text scrunched together is your enemy. We have neat new features overlooked because they were text-based links in a sea of text all the same size. When you get familiar with a website, the natural tendency is to start scrunching the page to get rid of all that “empty” space. Bit by bit you give in to the urge to push those search results closer together… make the logo tinier and tinier… shrink the text… add lots of text-based details… etc. Users, all of them, don’t like that, and have trouble deciphering what the pages mean. Our “About” pages are going to have a severe rewrite involving one and two-line paragraphs that get to the point (gee, you’d think they were written by some damn blogger or something…).

3. Tiny graphics can be your friend, too. Not gobs of them, but a few in the right place–email, comment, etc. Utility icons, they call ’em. Very small things to add (use nice ones, provide alt tags, and don’t use 8 million of them), and they can make a difference–they break up all that text, among other things.

3. Logo proudly. If you’re Amazon, you can get away with a tiny logo. But if you’re relatively unknown, you can’t. We’re now in round 2 of logo development, and the designer took the input from the usability specialist to heart, which has been great to watch.

4. A good tagline is a good thing. We came up with a more precise tagline, “Websites you can trust,” and it was received with great enthusiasm. Not only that, the subjects grasped it, including subjects unfamiliar with our site. The tagline helped explain us, which is really important for any site–such as a library site–that offers services not broadly understood (like book catalogs). But: it was too small and dainty. We’ll buff up that tagline, too.

5. Sometimes you do know a thing or two, and that’s nice. The existing site has a search button that says “Search LII.” I had to fight for that labeling, which I chose after our own in-house less-than-perfect-but-better-than-nothing usability testing in 2002 revealed that people didn’t knwo what they were searching when they clicked that button, which I had heard anecdotally previous to that. This year’s usability report, based on formal test findings, recommended using that labeling.

The new design is appealing, saith the report, and people familiar with MPOW noted that the old design looks “hand-made” and terribly dated, statements I heartily agree with that bring us comfort during the slings and arrows of migration.

We’re also right on about the need to change how MPOW is searched–the whole meta-search discussion from a couple of weeks ago. I’m not even surprised by that, just relieved to have that validated. In it goes to next year’s grant request.

6. People don’t read help screens–and that includes librarians, and that includes technically adept librarians, at least not when they’re navigating a site. I know you know this, but it’s good to hear it again. I consider the help screens as documentation for librarians preparing tutorials on MPOW (and besides, you have to have help screens, right? I can’t think of a site without them. It’s like running out before a snowstorm to buy bread and milk; you just have to).

7. Gather ye rosebuds. We are about to launch our third annual survey. Not only does this survey give us important information about our users, but it turns out to be really helpful information for developing the usability study, its questions, and its (human) subjects.

There’s so much more, but that can wait for another day.

Next stops, after implementing a few tweaks prompted by the usability report (and a couple of biggies, such as the spell-checker and advanced search): code validation and accessibility review. That’s on the public side; the internal content management system (CMS) is still in development. I think we’re about 60 days out from actual roll-out, all said and done. I hope so! It’s time!

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