Dissertation on Evaluating Usability Theory for the World Wide Web- Solved
Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences
MASTER OF SCIENCE IN COMPUTER SCIENCE
Evaluating Usability Theory for the World Wide Web
A B S T R A C T
This report looks at the increasing significance of usability for the World Wide Web. Theoretical models such as usability theory and the mental and conceptual models are used to predict and interpret the situation. Views of the web experts, such as Jakob Nielsen, Chris Pullman and many more entering the field are analysed with what theories they suggest. The contradictory opinions are highlighted and set the stage for constructing the ‘Category Based Usability Theory’, which indicates that usability of web sites should be accounted for on the basis of the category the web site is in. This theory is introduced due to the lack of attention in this area. It hypothesises on possible relationships between the designs of popular web sites in order to identify trends within specific categories.
The results are obtained from the 30 most popular web sites of 2001 voted for by the general public. A home page test is used to analyse the selected web sites. The data analysis is mainly consistent with the hypotheses put forward by the theory. Organisations within specific categories had similarities in the designs and had accounted for usability issues highlighted in the literature review. The reliability and accuracy of the findings is tested using statistical models.
The conclusions drawn from the findings are analysed as to which design techniques were closer to the category average than the overall average. Some further assumptions are made as to the results of testing the category based usability theory and its potential impact on web design.
C O N T E N T S
Chapter 1 Introduction
The WWW & the Increasing Significance of Usability . 2
Chapter 2 Literature Review
Usability Theory . . . 8
Chapter 3 Methodology
Category Based Usability Theory . . 33
Chapter 4 Data Analysis & Discussion of Results
Home Page Analysis . . . 47
Chapter 5 Evaluation and Conclusion
The Resulting Theory (?) . . . 62
Chapter 1 The WWW and the Increasing Significance of Usability
The number of world wide Internet users has increased dramatically, from 18 million in 1995 ( 2000) to 196.7 million in March 2002 (NetRatings). Many studies have focused on how people use the Internet. Researchers are constantly seeking the reasons for the rapid rise in Internet use.
“More Online, Doing More,” a study sponsored by the (2001), investigated peoples use of the Internet, including: connecting with people through e-mail; gathering general news; gathering information – financial, medical or job related; doing research; entertainment – information about interests, or surfing just for fun; and transactions to buy and sell ().
The Internet, like all technological innovations, has its positives and negatives. It offers a huge array of possibilities but together with a list of drawbacks. For instance, easy access to information and news via the Internet is accompanied by the problem of verifying information and data, and the threat of easy access to pornographic material for children. The convenience of cyberspace shopping is accompanied by doubts regarding the security of customer’s financial information.
While the Internet is a powerful communication tool that can be used to build and strengthen relationships, its use has also proved to distance people from one another.
To shed some light on the issue of innovations appealing to different sets of users (1971) wrote, “It is the receivers perceptions of the attributes of innovations, not the attributes as classified by experts or change agents”. Various attributes of Internet use affect all users differently since users are not uniform in their background, personalities, needs and the level of their satisfaction with traditional mass media.
With this brief introduction of the Internet and its users we can highlight that this study’s primary purpose is to research the increasing significance of usability on the World Wide Web.
1.1 The World Wide Web and the Increasing Significance of Usability
With 43 million Web sites (NetRatings) and the number constantly increasing there is still no individual or organisation who knows which Web sites are being used. Many have made an attempt of devising methods to test the usability of a site which has directly given rise to certain issues that can be considered, however there are still contributing factors for usability that are being highlighted, due the increasing functionality that is available using the information super highway.
It has been recognised that the initial objective of the World Wide Web is changing and this is creating changes in what users are expecting from the Web. Organisations are using this free medium to enhance their growth, in terms of productivity, hence the focus has diverted from the Web being just a simple way of getting some exposure. Integration is just one recent function that is possible using the Web.
Every organisation, be it University, Industry or Government all have the aim to better serve the student, customer/client and country and hence, they spend a lot of time in finding out more about the users of their products and services to then be able to improve their offering. Between these three organisation there is a different mind set to which an individual maybe using each of their services. Together with a different mind set comes different expectations from each organisation.
The point to make is that society has expectations and instead of corporations trying to show society how to accept if the expectations are not met, they constantly try to meet the expectations by making them more attractive.
To what extent should interaction of the end user be taken into account? This question highlights the next issue of how closely should accessibility linked with usability. If a Web site is easily accessible, does this guarantee that it is going to be used correctly?
These questions brought to light a few example mediums that are commonly used but where usability does not seem like an important issue which has been considered. Firstly when a person purchases a book, they may both know about the author and appreciate the content they write or they may be interested in the category of book it is, be it science fiction or thriller and so forth. Secondly we can look at the television, which is watched by many users. The television program providers constantly make attempts to generate some emotional attachment between their programs and the end user, but often the user is just switching through the channels until there is something that either catches the eye or interest in the mind.
With these two mediums it is not immediately recognisable that usability has been considered as there is limited interaction between the program and the user. This is where the World Wide Web and its content come under the most scrutiny as there is actual interaction that attempts to take place. This virtual library seems like the link between the two by having the ability to bring the book to life and having a screen whose content the user controls. This can take us back to the underlying fact about the Internet, in that no one owns it and anyone is free to use it. This has possibly contributed to the choice that users have when they use the WWW. The user is given the freedom to browse the WWW at his/her free will without having to explain why and what for.
1.2 Challenges faced by enterprise users
Since the increased exposure of the Internet users have been challenged to make the right decision when using this medium. The following needs have been identified as being the most common.
Ø Casual e-mail services
Ø Access to research and advertising information
Ø Purchasing products via Ecommerce
Ø Download statistics, music, games, videos, etc
However due to the healthy competition in the market users are left to decide for themselves for which supplier they want to use in order to meet their needs. This decision is based on the usability of a Web site. Users experience the usability of a site before they have committed to using it and before they have spent any money on potential purchases.
In the book, ‘Designing Web Usability’ it states,
“The Web is the ultimate environment for empowerment, and he or she who clicks the mouse decides everything”
This statement indicates to suppliers that usability is a prime factor in Web design. Usability dictates the use of the Web. If the customer cannot find a product then they will not be able to buy.
1.3 Challenges face by providers
Providers are required to acknowledge that users need and demand a reliable service with guaranteed levels of performance and security. Competing with the demand means that they can no longer be as hopeful about the service they provide on the Web. Providers are competing with quality of service, price matching, design of Web site, speed of connection; the list could simply go on forever as there is no set limit on how much is available. But providing too much can result in receiving very little. This grey area is the reason for extensive thought when designing a Web site.
Providers also face limitations in the speed and throughput of routers. The pressing issue at this time is which evolving architecture should be used. The overall challenge providers face is that they must take into account the designers limitations, for skills in certain technologies, whilst considering the budget they are to work in and then making attempt in the design to ensure usability. They then face the challenge of marketing the web site and getting some exposure to ensure that people know where it is on the web or through which search engines they can gain access to it. Overall the challenges are immense but it all possibly depends on the objectives of the web site in the first place and how important it is to the objectives of the organisation.
1.4 And then came…….Ecommerce
Ecommerce has heavily contributed to changing people’s objective when using the World Wide Web. Ecommerce allows organisations to sell products and services on the Internet allowing for shopping to take place on-line, whereas traditionally the Internet was almost entirely about information. This is fast becoming a growing method of doing business as businesses are able to sell their products and services to a global market. Yet, in a recent study carried out by Jakob Nielsen (2001) who watched that out of the 496 attempts that were made at performing tasks on 20 ecommerce sites only 56% returned a success rate. Hence it can be suggested that ecommerce has made the Web more complicated and has had a knock on effect on usability in a big way.
1.5 Aims and Objectives
The aim of this report is to look at the subject of usability regarding its increasing significance for the World Wide Web. With primary focus on the usability issues of speed of delivery and presentation of information this study will highlight many contributing factors that are represented in web site design today.
1.5.1 Research Questions and Objectives:
- To determine the increasing significance of usability for the WWW.
- To analyse theories that support usability
- To assess objective and subjective factors.
- To formulate usability hypotheses.
- To evaluate test results.
1.6 Chapter Details
Chapter 1 is the introduction to the WWW and usability. Including Terms of reference and objectives for this project.
Chapter 2 is a literature review highlighting all the research for purposes of this project.
Chapter 3 includes a methodology for this project, which highlights the theory, assumptions made and the setting of variable to be tested. It concludes with details of the testing to be carried out.
Chapter 4 in this chapter the test results are analysed and discussed in detail with reference to graphs and data in the appendix.
Chapter 5 evaluates and concludes this project
Chapter 2 Usability Theory
Usability, Human Factors, Cognitive Ergonomics, Human Computer Interaction, User Involvement. All these terms denote the same discipline. Human factors, is the term most commonly used in the United States. The Europeans prefer Cognitive Ergonomics. Human Computer Interaction became the international term about a decade ago. User Involvement is still under question. However, now one most often speaks about the collective term Usability.
Human interaction is a title that has been commonly used to assess the way the human mind works, along side scientific theory for how long a human mind takes to grasp a concept. The result of using models and theories should provide an insight into why usability is of concern and what attempts have been made to test the user.
Due to the development of technologies and tools used for Web design it has become popular for new designs for Web sites and innovative Internet services to be thrown at the wall to see if they stick. This mud throwing theory of usability is being used in the Web development industry today however what sticks to the wall is still under question.
Launching a bad site with poor usability is a guaranteed way to waste money since it will have to be redesigned. Along side, launching a site that is difficult to use may deprive a business of its best customers. If users have a bad experience, they may not only be lost as customers but they may also be lost as potential future advocates for the site. Once a user has had a bad experience on a Website, it is very difficult to convince him or her to come back.
There is an assumption that speed is everything. There is also an assumption that customer satisfaction is everything. As there is no conclusive evidence or result that can be reached there is yet to be defined a theorem for usability for the Web.
We can begin with setting the scene for the usability by calling upon the so called gurus of usability to provide some background as to where this issue has risen from and attempt to grasp its definition. We shall analyse the three key areas of usability being User Involvement, Speed and Presentation.
2.1 Usability the Issue
“Usability engineering for the Web grew out of the software development discipline of Human Computer Interaction” ( 1999).
In early computer application design the user and the programmer were the same person and hence there was little need to spend time designing user interfaces as it was the same person who was going to use the application. Furthermore, if you built an application yourself, you already know how to perfectly use it, and if you had a problem you were immediately aware of how to correct it.
A bit later on, the programmers designed applications for others to use, but still using the same principles as before. If the user ended up calling the programmer due to the application not working, the programmer would generally state it was their fault. The application would determine how the user needed to act and the programmer expected the user to understand how it worked. It is quiet obvious that this is not true in most cases. Even more specifically, ‘most users do not want to know how the application works; they just want it to do what they want it to do. This is where usability pops in’ (1996).
Nielsen begins in his book on Designing Web Usability by highlighting the fact that ‘usability has assumed a much greater importance in the Internet economy than in the past’, thereby stressing the point that in the past usability was not a concern when designing Web sites. It is true to say that with the growing number of Web sites loaded on to the Internet, there is more choice available to the user and hence there must be something else that governs their use of the Web.
In a report released by members of the Institute for Software Technology in Vienna members touch on the point that Web sites have become cluttered with useless and confusing new features. They comment that ‘most users have low tolerance for anything that either did not work, that was too complicated, or they did not like’. One can assume that because of the choice that a user has whilst on the Web that they may not spend so much time on a single site if they are experiencing problems. As a result we can comment that it is important to make sure the Web site works and then put efforts to make sure that it is usable.
2.2 Design and User Involvement
A fact that has not been mentioned as yet but during the review is becoming clearer is that it is the designer’s responsibility to take into account all usability issues when putting together the design for the Web site and its content. “The designer should be asking, who is my target audience?” (). It could be suggested that it is the designers of old that have to an extent contributed to the usability issues that we face today.
When the Web site was a new found concept in the early 90’s and information delivery was its primary use, designers worked on the presentation of information. With the increase in technological development designers were given access to tools to make the Web sites flashier, which is a concept they seemed to favour. As time has gone by and the objectives of the Web changed users views have also changed as to how they wish to view this information and, therefore designing for the user is being addressed.
“Good design is founded on a deep understanding of both broad human characteristics and the specific intentions of a particular constituency, so that it can marshal the appropriate information, processes and technology to allow theses constituents to achieve their goals, both professional and personal”( 2001). From this it can be said that when referring to the constituency he is talking about the user and how much the designer should take into account the users reasons for using the Web site and what they aim to achieve by its use.
With reference to understanding human characteristics we can look at models that are in place to help us identify what the users expect to see before them and to what extent the designer can take this into account. In a book titled, Human Computer Interaction ( 1993) it is stated ‘When designing objects you should always keep in mind the mental models of the user’, and ‘if you design something which is not in line with the mental model of the users, they will make errors using your design’.
We can first define what a mental model is, by ‘everyone has a model of the world that has been developed over time as a result of different experiences a person has’ (1988). This model is commonly known as a mental model. Inherently, this means that each person has a different mental model, although one can suggest that some mental models can overlap. For example, if a user is on a Web site and the standard content is in black. If there is any content that is in blue (sometimes underlined) they would assume that it is a link to another area.
Bonnie and later in the book imply that if the user makes a mistake they tend to blame it on themselves and to remedy this problem ‘allow your design to react appropriately on the errors of the user, and give proper feedback’. To a certain extent this subjective view coincides with what suggests by learning more about human characteristics.
Rather than focus primarily on the mental model takes one step further by introducing the conceptual model as ‘the model we infer by looking at the object in front of us’. This model tells us the possible actions and outcomes we expect. The model that is created is an assumption related to the mental model. He also highlights that ‘the conceptual model can be false’. If the designer did not think about the conceptual model the object creates, improper usage can be the result.
By analysing both the mental and conceptual model in the context of this report one can suggest that some prominent users of the WWW have had enough time to build a conceptual model in their minds of the objects or design of Web sites that appeals to their eye. With this view in mind it could be that the designer should be predicting what the user wishes to see and providing the appropriate design to ensure the usability problem is solved.
To aim for some clarity in deciding how much a user should contribute to the design , a world-wide renowned Web guru and publisher, states that the ‘first rule of usability is not to listen to the user’. Although this title for his report does not directly imply it, the title could be interpreted as not to take in account what the user wants.
However Nielsen continues by pointing out that designers should not pay attention to what the user wants to happen on the screen but should focus on watching the user navigate through the site to better understand what the user is doing. This view suggests that a user’s direct involvement is not necessary during the design phase but only at the testing phase. Nielsen moves on to point out a very objective view by moving in the direction of helping customers do business on the Web. One could then assume that designs for ecommerce sites and information sites should be different as the user will have different objectives for each.
Whilst still on the subjective view of usability, surely with the development of the Internets move to ecommerce, the objective behind people using the WWW does somewhat change how much effort should be spent in assessing what the user wishes to see. If a user is using an ecommerce site, for example Amazon.com to purchase a book, if it is 20% cheaper to purchase from the Web then it may not matter what the Web interface looks like as the users objective and hence mental thinking is to purchase this book for the cheapest price.
Ecommerce sites force the user to interact with the Web site; if a user wishes to make a purchase then he or she must click on the appropriate buttons and insert the required information. Recognising that this form of interactivity directly involves the user many other organisations have made attempts to gather their user information to help them in providing the user with what they want. This especially applies to businesses, although most recently Leader of the Commons in the UK, Mr Robin Cook claimed that he is looking to provide the service of voting over the Internet to encourage younger people to vote.
User involvement is definitely a usability issue that has been given a lot of attention by Web gurus as being a major concern, but their differing comments have made it difficult to be precise as to the level of involvement required. At which point the user should be involved is also unclear. We may have thought the user should be involved at the early stages of design, like one may with a software application design; after all certain applications can be customised for the user. This however does not seem to be the case with Web design and many have suggested and tested different roles for the user to play.
2.3 User Involvement Testing
For direct user involvement testing to take place no one has yet been able to introduce a conclusive test and have thrown the whole issue into doubt by using questionnaires as a means of testing. By asking users to fill out these target questionnaires the results are relative as a user can now fall into many different categories, from a new user, a prominent user to an expert user.
For example, if we were to design a Web site by selecting a specific target market then would this solve the user’s problems? The first problem with this idea is that, with anyone in the world being able to access the Web site, it is inconclusive for one to be able to target a certain market, and even if this were possible what guarantees the conceptual model is going to be the same for all users.
2.4 Initial Observations
These initial observations lead to the assumption that there is an objective view to usability which is stressed upon by and a subjective view which is favoured by Cooper. However one can observe that the reasons for involving both an objective and subjective point of view with usability is that there is no instruction manual or set of guide lines that are associated with a Web site. If we purchase a TV, we receive a manual; if we purchase an application we receive support, training and a manual. Within the WWW “….there’s no such thing as a training class or a manual for a Web site. People have to be able to grasp the functioning of the site immediately after scanning the home page — for a few seconds at most” ( 2000). One can confidently suggest that the demand for good usability is probably higher for WWW user interfaces than for other user interfaces.
2.5 Presentation of Information
As people continue to become educated in the advancement of online communication the way information is presented and communicated is significantly changing over time. As already mentioned designers in the early days used tools to design flashy Web sites as the traditional aim of displaying information, was possible the only objective. Now flashy Web sites are being condemned by the gurus of Web design and they recommend simplicity as being the key to good presentation.
With the vast amount of research available for Web design it can be suggested that presentation of information is about the look and feel of the Web site. The user is able to bond with a site they are using as they form a conceptual model of what the site should look like and if it answers both their objective and subjective desire then they are sure to return to the Web site.
‘Usability is the science of improving screen technology to the maximum benefit of user and owner.’ The Usability Company
The above conclusion that was released in 1999 clearly implies that it is both the user and Web site provider who have something to gain from good presentation.
Presentation of information includes everything that the user sees on a Web page, from the time we input the Web address and click to the time we input another address or close the connection. All the content, images, graphical pictures, animations, navigation links and site links should all be included in the Web page layout.
‘We seek clarity, order, and trustworthiness in information sources, whether traditional paper documents or Web pages. Effective page design can provide this confidence. And when he refers to the user he states a designer should ‘make their (the user) interactions with your Web site more enjoyable and efficient.’ ( 1999)
2.6 The objectives have changed – “The Internet, an advertising billboard”
This slogan implies that the Internet is static, like a billboard, which never changes, and simply viewed as a portrait to admire, drive or walk on bye. However the explosive growth of the Web has been due to the increasing realisation of its true potential. The Web is moving beyond the electronic publishing model to a dynamic, two-way flow of information for which frequent change of appearance and content is the norm. The poster for the billboard is being folded ten to twenty times and designed in a format that fits onto a screen.
Nielsen suggests that, “before you transform your page into an online art exhibit, you ask yourself just what it is you’re trying to accomplish”. We can interpret this to imply that the objectives behind people wanting to display Web sites, has a direct result on which design they should opt for.
It is the objectives that we should highlight, as there are objectives set by the designers and objectives set by the users, as to the way in which they expect to see information displayed. For example, if we look at a newspaper site, the presentation may not appeal if there were large images all across the sites that took too long to appear on the screen (a speed issue), and then to view the whole page the user had to scroll down and then to the right as this may take too long.
We can take a look at Web technologies, referring to page design as it is “the most immediately visible part of Web design” ( 1999), as a guide to learning more about presentation and its effect on usability.
The development of Web sites moving from static to dynamic has forced the designer into looking at the design from a user’s perspective.
2.7 Static vs Dynamic Web Sites
In order to support regular users, promotion or online sales the development of dynamic sites is rapidly becoming a necessity for everyone who expects to use the Internet effectively.
Some of the dynamic features the Internet user increasingly expects are listed here:
- Time sensitive rather than encyclopaedic content
- Periodic interface makeovers that improve navigation and embody trends in style and design
- Compatibility with new generations of hardware, software and standards for information delivery
- Support for communication with the site visiting audience
- Effective management to handle ever increasing quantities of available information
With the number of Web sites increasing constantly the parallel problems associated with maintaining dynamic Web content will only rise. As a result dynamic sites must provide:
- New information available with each visit
- The interface must reflect the current trends in style and software
- Personal control and customisation of content
- Reduced server traffic to prevent lockouts
Successful dynamic sites are at the forefront of the interactive revolution. Sites such as provide up to the minute access to news and events. Also, search engines such as Yahoo manage shifting databases with tens of millions of individual entries.
The Internet allows two-way information exchange.
This concept uniquely allows the Internet users to add content in a meaningful way, making the dynamic Web site a unique identity in its own right. Through the use of email, online forms and links to their sites allows visitors to make major contributions to dynamic Web sites.
The additional level of dynamic change is controlled by the consumer, as well as the content producer. The dynamic sites capacity to respond to visitor input blurs the boundary between producer and consumer, and makes its implementation fundamentally different from a traditional broadcasting channel. Supporting dynamic sites requires data to be constantly updated, with the introduction of new content including design/interface features. The more thought an organisation puts into maintaining and updating a Web site the greater will be the fruition of it.
When considering dynamic site development one must not get confused with interactive systems. Newton’s third law to computers explains Interactive systems by stating that. ‘Computers provide an equal reaction to each action taken by the user’, for example, when designing the onscreen buttons as roll over images which change in colour or shape when selected by the user.
Interactive features do not create dynamic Web sites, but simply provide a sophisticated interface to unchanging content. In comparison dynamic systems add content from the outside. A very simple example is a text only Web page posting weather report with no links. Even though the user cannot respond to a change in content it is still highly dynamic.
Dynamic sites are becoming more common and are changing the ‘look and feel’ of the Web site as the objectives are being changed. It is considered no longer enough to have a dynamic site if the look of the site is not user friendly and hence the usability problem is not solved, but being added to.
2.8 Web Technologies that Affect Usability
“There are almost no (reasons) to put anything on a Web site other than text and a few simple pictures,” says Nielsen, co-founder of consultants Nielsen Norman and author of Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity. “The goal should be a playground for the user and not a playground for the designer.”
The user interface upon which information is presented has developed from text in ASCII, to static HTML and using style sheets to dynamic Web content. The technologies that are commonly in use by designers are Frames, Layout Tables, CSS Style Sheets and Layers. All these technologies contribute to the method data, graphics, images, etc, are laid out on a page.
“Frames can be the key to organising your site and making it easy to navigate”. ( 2000) Each frame is simply a HTML page whereby a designer has the option of displaying as many frames on a Web page. By dividing Web pages into multiple, scrollable regions – you can present information ‘in a more flexible and useful fashion’ (1999). Each region, or frame, has several features:
- It can be given an individual URL, so it can load information independent of the other frames on the page;
- It can be given a NAME, allowing it to be targeted by other URLs, and;
- It can resize dynamically if the user changes the window’s size. (Resizing can also be disabled, ensuring a constant frame size.)
These properties offer new possibilities:
- Elements that the user should always see, such as control bars, copyright notices, and title graphics can be placed in a static, individual frame. As the user navigates the site in “live” frames, the static frame’s contents remain fixed, even though adjoining frames redraw.
- Frames side-by-side design allows queries to be posed and answered on the same page, with one frame holding the query form, and the other presenting the results.
From the above Web page we can see that the company name and logo sit in a stationary banner frame that is consistent throughout the site. The dynamic frame on the left hand side of the window includes the table of contents and is regarded as being easy to navigate. Finally, the main area of the window is devoted to the contents frame whose data changes each time a user clicks on a new topic in the table of contents.
Despite the ability to display multiple documents at once as an innovative idea, the current implementation of “frames” has several serious shortcomings when referring to usability, with the main argument being that ‘users of frames-incapable browsers cannot use the site properly’.
The implementation in Netscape 2.0 of these frames immediately meant that all other browsers suddenly appeared to be “outdated” because they could not handle this new extension. This has led to a great number of sites that insult their visitors because their browser does not support frames, rather than provide alternative content in a more user-friendly manner. (1997)
As can be seen on the Web page, by using frames to divide the browser screen, readers are forced to scroll both horizontally and vertically to see the full contents of each frame. The other problems discovered are that some users dislike the use of frames and hence turn off frames in their browser settings and when users wish to save a Web page, at times they may have only saved the frameset as opposed to its content.
By using frames, at times users are required to spend more time and effort when browsing the Web site. Although they aim for the navigation to be clearer, as it is always in the top bar or along the left, the mere fact that so much scrolling is involved can frustrate a user.
‘The way most designers use frames assumes that the user has a standard computer with a reasonable large display’ ( 2000). Thereby suggesting that screen resolution size is also an important issue to consider for usability when using frames.
For the Web there are two basic uses of tables, the first being as data tables which is the format similar to Excel, with column headers and row headers visible. Data tables are generally used to present information in a grid or a matrix. The second can be used to structure the whole Web page. “Often you don’t know the page you’re looking at is awash with tables; instead it just appears to be a very well structured site” ( 2001).
It is advised to have a complete idea of what the designer wishes for the Web page to look like before they start putting tables all over the page. A table has the flexibility of offering the designer a large amount of control. Another advantage is that tables contain borders which can be hidden and padded to where the text or image should begin within a table. A Web page can contain a large amount of tables all with different content or images that seamlessly fit together.
This Web page contains five tables and that are consistent throughout the whole Web site. Tables allow for less scroll as the table can stretch according to the set screen size. This is of enormous benefit for the designer as he/she does not need to worry about what screen size the user has set and therefore takes into account a usability consideration. This point is stressed by Nielsen as he states in his book, ‘it is impossible to predict what size monitor the user will have and what size window will be used to display a page’.
Tables can bring some consistency to the design of the Web site and the user may appreciate this. The fact that the Web site can be designed for any screen size immediately makes it easier for the user to use.
On the down side using tables effectively requires skill and consideration as if not used properly ‘the page can look terrible’ (Bates 2001). Tables are complicated to implement and there is not always a consistent representation amongst browsers.
2.8.3 CSS Style Sheets
‘While the original inhabitants of the Web – mostly scientists and other academics – were more concerned with content, the second generation of Web designers and the rest of us insisted on being able to change the colour of a word or choose a particular font’ (2001). As a result designers wanted more control over the look of their pages and hence the World Wide Web Consortium went to work on a system that would keep HTML universal while allowing designers their desired result through the use of Cascading Style Sheets.
Before CSS if a Web site had a hundred pages with three paragraphs displayed and the designer wanted to change the text colour or size for all the paragraphs, they would need to physically look up three hundred references to then change the text. This would lead to inconsistency as there maybe more than one designer changing the field and would take a long time.
With the use of CSS a designer is able to remove any presentation aspects of the site and store them in a separate style sheet. Thereafter the advantage of designating a style attribute, be it font, size, etc, to the text from one style sheet element which can be applied to any page. If used correctly it almost ensures consistency which aids usability. The designer can make changes in a centralised place and all the pages are updated immediately.
The downside to this useful tool is that not all browsers will accept it and that it may lead to inconsistency as there is CSS Level 1, 2 and work is ongoing for Level 3. We can suggest that despite the disadvantages, the use of CSS is in favour of the designer and the user, and has contributed to solving usability problems. If the designer is aware that the users are dissatisfied with the colour of the content then it will not take too long to make the required change.
The use of style sheets has heavily contributed to solving usability issues, as it has given designers the flexibility to offer consistency in design which can be passed onto the users, through the Web sites presentation. The look and feel of a Web site can be achieved more easily.
By introducing layers into a Web page the designer is given the control to fix certain settings and positioning on a page. Traditionally when HTML pages were static elements they were placed in a specific order using tables and div tags which determines the alignment of a section of the page.
Layers are a component of DHTML that allows designers to precisely position elements on a page Web page by using the page’s x and y coordinates. There are many Web sites today that use layers as it aids usability by allowing the designer to be more consistent with pages designed for a Web site.
As we can notice that the concept of consistency by using CSS and Layers does aid the design and the method of presenting a Web page to the user.
Having briefly introduced Web technologies being used there is a choice that is made by the designer in how he/she wishes to present the content to the user. Remembering that the designer not only has to decide how to program the content but also keeping in mind usability issues that may arise, we can suggest that the responsibilities are increasing.
‘Visual and functional continuity in your Web site organisation, graphic design, and typography are essential to convince your audience that your Web site offers them timely, accurate, and useful information. A careful, systematic approach to page design can simplify navigation, reduce user errors, and make it easier for readers to take advantage of the information and features of the site’ ( 1999).
Hence we can now move onto another factor that the designer commonly takes into consideration.
2.9 Speed of Delivery
With the increasing options a user has for connecting onto the Internet it can be suggested that speed is by far the main concern for usability. Engineers have and are still looking at making the Internet as useful as possible by developing mediums that allow for a faster method for ‘surfing the net’. has casually commented in 1997 that, “Every Web usability study that I have conducted since 1994 has shown the same thing: users beg us to speed up downloads”.
When referring to speed we are looking at the download time for a Web page, with all its content, to appear in front of the users screen. The mediums being engineered are for connection speed, via a phone line or infrared, or a faster connection using a broadband connection.
‘When you write Web pages, you need to remember that someone on the other end of the net is going to download and read them. Because of this, you want to make sure that they load as quickly as possible,’ says who currently maintains over 5000 pages of a corporate Web site. As a result, what connection speed the user is using has to be taken into account when designing the content for a page and the method of its representation.
The human factor also contributes to usability, as time is of concern to all users. If the time it takes for the user to make a purchase on the Web is longer than it would take for the user to physically go to shop and buy something, then will the Web fulfil its objective? Prominent users of the Web have built up a subjective view of how long it should take for a page to load. The result of Nielsen’s extensive research and testing claim that the, “human mind is prepared to wait no longer than 10 seconds for a page to load”. This subjective view leads one to render the question of how the human mind is tested, when the conceptual model of the user is deemed impossible to test.
By the designer taking the human mind and connection speed in context of usability it can be suggested the ‘safest bet’ is to design the Web page in order that it downloads as fast as possible. “Eight seconds isn’t fast enough any more, the acceptable time is down to four seconds or less,” says Research Senior Analyst (2000).
We have already introduced the fact that there are many different objectives behind users who surf the net, with the aim being to find what they are looking for and hence identify their objectives. This is where attention has been given to speed, with the implication that, “if a user surfs the net faster then they will eventually find what they are looking for” (2000).
(2000) a renowned speaker on ‘effective user-interface’ keeps page download as one of the three tenets of good design, thereby implying that the speed of a page to download is the designers responsibility. If we take a step back and look at the overall responsibilities of the designers, it is clearly visible that the presentation of information on a page has a direct relation to the speed at which a page loads.
Despite this attention given to speed by some of the experienced Web gurus, in a recent study Spool states that ‘we should not be overly concerned about page-load speed’. He makes this comment after using a group of users to carryout specific tests on a series of Web sites. The result showed that ‘there was no correlation between the actual load speeds and how the group ranked the Web sites’. From this result we can suggest that the download speed does bare a reflection on how much a user likes a Web site.
To contradict, as a Sun Microsystems Engineer, in 1998 stated that “fast downloads are the single most important usability consideration in Web design”. This was in context to a test he had carried out for Sun. Three years later in a report published by Nielsen he contradicts this view by saying that, “he no longer considers page load speed to be the most critical”. From this we can derive that he, either has no idea what he is talking about, and the fact that there is no clear defining line for Web usability has made him confused, or we can look at what factors changed his view.
The latter of these options is probably more acceptable for this report and we can look to the comparison between Modem and Broadband connection to provide a further insight.
2.9.1 Modem Connection versus Broadband Connection
The Internet is a worldwide network of computers connected together by anything from a single telephone wire to a huge bundle of fibre optic cables. When one connects to an Internet service provider (ISP) we become part of this network. A computer can talk, transmit and receive data to any other computer on the network.
This network is made up of three types of computer:
- Clients – our home or work computers, set up mainly to receive information
- Servers – powerful computers we access to view Web pages, retrieve email messages or retrieve data files
- Routers – mapping computers that make sure the data finds its way to the right place
When we type in a Website address the client computer contacts our ISP, who sends the request over the network using the router computers. They find the best available route to where the Webpage is stored, or hosted on a server computer.
The information on the Website is then sent back to the client computer over the Internet. The path taken to and from the site can often lead all over the world, even if the site we are looking at is hosted in the next road.
When we access the Internet using a modem and a normal phone line this is called narrowband. The data travels along a phone line and the amount of space or bandwidth that’s available on a line originally designed to carry voice signals is limited, hence the term ‘narrow’. The modem is designed to transfer the computer code into sound. Broadband uses lines designed to carry much more information.
Broadband is a method of faster data delivery meaning your connection to the Internet is much quicker. There are two main methods of delivering broadband – ADSL and cable.
ADSL uses normal phone lines, but transmits computer data ‘above’ the area used for phone calls. Your normal phone conversation takes place on a specific band of frequencies. ADSL uses higher frequencies to send and receive information.
Cable modems, on the other hand, use fibre optic cables that use light instead of electricity. These cables are installed in your home for cable television and telephone and can carry large amounts of information.
Between these two mediums there is a substantial difference when it comes to connection speed. How long it takes to download information from the Internet depends on how fast this information travels between the network and your computer. It can be assumed that the larger the Web site the longer it will take to download. This is especially noticeable using a 56K modem as it is slower to download, whereas with a broadband connection it should be much faster.
Although the number of broadband providers is increasing the users are yet to follow, as was expected in the ‘year 2001 to grow up to 62% of Internet users’ (). We could possible suggest that maybe the users are not constrained by speed for using a Web site.
2.10 Statistics for the Usability Issue
From the statistics below and opinions selected it is clear that usability is a topic that many have an opinion about. This section has been included as it contributed to the research findings and in forming opinions for the methodology.
Research by User Interface Engineering, Inc. shows that people cannot find the information they seek on Web sites about 60% of the time. This can lead to wasted time, reduced productivity, increased frustration, and loss of repeat visits and money. Hence this could also be a reason for usability issues.
Studies by Forrester Research estimate several costs of bad site design. The two most striking is:
- Losing approximately 50% of the potential sales from a site as people can’t find what they need
- Losing repeat visits from 40% of the users who do not return to a site when their first visit resulted in a negative experience
“Studies of user behaviour on the Web find a low tolerance for difficult designs or slow sites. People don’t want to wait. And they don’t want to learn how to use a home page. Jakob Nielsen
Usability is the measure of the quality of a user’s experience when interacting with a product or system — whether a Web site, a software application, mobile technology, or any user-operated device. Usability.gov
Having only highlighted a few introductory topics one can see that there are many ways in which information can be gathered about the users of the site. If we can collect the information then the next stage would be to make use of it and assess what improvements could be made from the results that we have found.
From this research it is found that there are many usability issues that have risen over the years and without doubt it is increasing in significance for the World Wide Web. Having never thought of usability to be of such importance it was necessary to begin with the history of the Web in order to discover usability. ‘HTML was designed by engineers and scientists who never envisioned it as a page layout tool. Their aim was to provide a way to describe structural information about a document, not a tool to determine a document’s appearance’ (Chris Pulman, 1999). With this view in mind and from the research carried out we can understand the level of responsibility for the designer.
When we talk about presentation of information, it particularly refers to the page layout. This has been highlighted with a brief look at the tools the designer has available. If the page layout is dull, confusing with navigation, inconsistent with other pages and does not fulfil the user’s objectives, to name but a few, then we could comment that usability issues may not have not been accounted for during the design.
In this review we have extensively looked to the Web gurus and effective Web users to provide an insight into the topic under discussion, yet is seems as though Web design and Web usability is spoken for in very general terms without being specific to any industry or category. Surely the Web gurus are not implying that a designer should follow their ‘10 Commandments’ for designing all Web sites. After all if they are setting the principles of designing Web usability and expecting designers to follow should not there be a more specific answer.
In marketing we are taught to target a specific sector of the industry and to focus all efforts in one single area. This involves providing a business service to the people that require the service being offered; hence we make attempts to locate the audience. If we take this concept to the Web then could we comment that it is the provider’s responsibility to ensure that the user has the maximum experience whilst on his/her Web site? If this is true, then would the provider have accounted for all the usability issues when designing the Web site?
Another issue that could be brought forward from the literature review is that in business we have categories, which are not just between sectors of the industry but even between the target audience who may wish to purchase the products or use the services the business offers. By identifying categories a business should be better able to target its audience. With the vast number of Web users all who have a different mental model, which for the Web has been built into a conceptual model, ‘is it possible for the designers to follow the Web guru’s guidelines when designing a Web site without being specific to a category of Web site and a category of user?
The research has shown that there are some standard conventions when designing for Web usability, however being able to ensure a user’s constant requirements from the Web site is possibly in doubt with their constant change in objectives.
Chapter 3 Category Based Usability Theory
The methodology of this report relies on the methodology behind the theories and models of the subject under consideration. In this case it is the ability to determine usability for the World Wide Web, which is concerned with explaining, testing and predicting the level to which different factors will solve the usability problems that are faced by organisations today. It says little about what the actual determining factors should be, as this is an entirely subjective judgement that would devalue the theories and results from previous testing that has been compiled. Objective elements married with subjective consideration will be taken into account for determining the usability of Web sites.
An organisation’s Web site is the gateway to its information, products and services and hence it should ideally be a reflection of the needs of the users it serves. It is by no means a new concept, but one that is increasing in its significance due to Web design and development being driven by technology or organisational structure or business objectives, rather than the users needs. Organisations have realised that there are other contributing factors and begun to acknowledge and address the issue of usability. The conclusions and consideration go beyond a simple design issue, even considering the mental mind set of the user; they could also possibly offer more conclusive information about the link between the user and the designer. These aspects have been discussed in the literature review, along with critiques of the theories and statements.
3.1 Category Based Usability Theory
The majority of the research carried out for this project has thus far not been from any personal experience of being a prominent Web user for the last six years but based on what the usability gurus books and research has shown. It is therefore felt that Web gurus dictate Web usability rules onto Web designers based upon their own research and reasoning. Due to the lack of expected impact of a Web site for a particular business, the provider has looked to the Web gurus for an answer. They have provided general guidelines but it is felt that with the Web’s objectives changing, the user’s objectives are also changing. Therefore it can be suggested that the mind set of the user changes when using Web sites with different objectives, hence identifying Web categories.
My theory is based on that, if the conceptual model of the user is to be observed then true usability must come from analysing current practices of Web design of the most popular Web sites within a category or field, and not merely by following recommendations from so-called Web usability experts.
A theory consists of two parts: the assumptions, including the definition of variables and the logic that relates them, and the set of substantive hypotheses (Watts and Zimmerman, 1986).
1) The Web site providers aim to optimise the user’s experience.
Larger organisations aim to make their Web sites more popular by designing with the user in mind. They have become more concerned about the usability of their Web sites as they would have the resources, to be able to test the users of their site and make the required changes.
2) The mental model exists; hence the conceptual model exists for Web users.
Although the whole world is yet to grasp the Internet we can assume that the prominent users of the Web have built up a conceptual model of what they expect to see on a Web site.
3) The conceptual model, by its very nature is not determined by Web gurus but is induced by the most frequently used site.
4) Popular sites, since being popular they are in effect usable and achieve their objectives in term of fulfilling the users needs.
5) The users have a different mindset when using Web sites that are from different categories. Thus implying differing requirements and objectives for the user and hence web sites split into categories account for usability.
6) The user has no manual or prior instructions when using a site, and must use their previous experience in using both the Web and a Web site in the same category.
1) Web Site Category
This is a controlled variable. 5 key categories of Web sites will be selected with the primary objective being to select those that have highlighted usability to be a concern. Web categories like Search Engines and Web Email services are not selected.
2) Web Site
This is a controlled variable. 6 Web sites will be selected for each category identified, based on the popularity within each category. All Web sites must have an established number of regular users.
3) Home Page Analysis Test
This is the title assigned to this variable for reasons that are explained in section 3.3 (Research Strategy). This test is to analyse the general layout of the page and hopes to recognise any similarity between page layout for each category. Each of the following sub-variables are explained in section 3.4 (Home Page Analysis Test)
- Screen Size
- User Aids
1) Significant differences will exist between most category averages, implying certain conventions existing within those categories.
2) Web sites within a certain category will be better represented by the results of the category than the overall results.
3) No Web sites will load within Web Guru Jakob Nielsen’s 10 second download guideline on a 56.6K Modem Internet connection. However the majority of Web sites should do so with a 1Mps Internet Connection.
4) Web site’s with an ecommerce objective will download noticeably quicker than those that only provide information.
3.3 Research Strategy
This report has focused so far on secondary sources such as books, articles and information from the Internet. This has provided the basis for the introduction and the literature review. In order to answer the question at the very heart of this project, a primary source of information, Web sites, must be used with an analysis carried out.
Usability has been highlighted, and the fact that it is a growing area of concern was established in the literature review. The actual method of testing usability on Web sites needs to be analysed.
Initially it will be required to select a list of categories based on which category can be clearly identified. Categories will be selected within the objectives of providing information and providing products and services for sale (ecommerce). The list of categories is accounted for as variable 1.
The next stage involves in essence selecting a number of addresses of company’s Web sites which have a regular and large list of users. This is necessary to test the category based usability theory. We must show that these Web sites are being used in order to test if usability can be recognised as being category based. To analyse the millions of Web sites would be an impossible task, together with analysing one Web site with 50 pages for one sector of the industry, as we may be provided with much the same result as the Web gurus. The fact that it has not been possible to locate a trend in the objectives behind a user accessing a Web site, from generally surfing to making purchases, it is not possible to select just one category to test. For those reasons we will select a number of Web sites within different categories.
It has been decided to test the home page of these companies as it is the first page a user gets to see by only knowing the Web address. “if the homepage doesn’t communicate what users can do and why they should care about the Website, you might as well not have a Website at all” (Nielsen, 2001). It would not be representative to test any page of a site as I would be assuming the users navigation through the site and what page they would wish to look at.
Usability becomes an issue as soon as a user is in front of the home page of a company’s Web site. It has also been decided to ignore Splash pages if we come across any during selecting the company’s web site.
It must be noted that we are not testing the conceptual model of the user as this would involve recruiting a group of user and testing whether or not they have a conceptual model in their mind for each of the Web sites selected to then allow them to perform the test. Hence, the Web sites selected for testing will be those that have an existing user base.
To eliminate any other factors of systems hardware or software that could possible contribute to the results of the test it is decided that a fresh computer will be used. There will be a clean installation of Windows 2000 Pro, running both Internet Explorer 6.0 and Mozilla 1.0. All temporary Internet file caching will be turned off and all temporary and normal files will be deleted. There will be no other applications or functionality on the operating system apart from that which is required to connect to the Internet.
3.3.1 Research Sample
The companies that have been selected are listed in Appendix A. Research was carried out as to how many Web sites would be a justifiable number to test in order to obtain some conclusive results.
Spool has carried out numerous tests using a large number of Web sites, ranging from 200 to 400. However although Nielsen has carried out tests on a large number of Web sites when being asked to by organisations who follow his every comment, he has stated that one should test Web sites that have many users.
I went through numerous suggestions made by the Web gurus and sifted through PDF’s, books and magazines until I noticed a trend being set. So many of the Web gurus and magazine publishers were running ‘best Web site of 1999’ and so forth competitions where the readers or tests would establish a list of top ten Web sites. Hence, I selected a magazine called the Webuser (Issue 23 2001, Web-user.co.uk) that were asking their readers to vote for the best Web site of 2000. In November 2000 they had asked their readers to nominate their best Web sites in each of the seven main categories they set. I am testing the result of this survey. Five categories with six Web sites in each have been selected. The overall research sample is thirty Web sites all of which have an established list of users. This fact has been discovered from the 1000plus outlets the magazine is distributed to in and around Europe.
It was also imperative for the purposes of this test that we had a selection of Web sites that were in different categories, not only from different sectors of the industry but also those that have a different objective which influences the design and functionality, for example, an information Web site as opposed to an ecommerce Web site. It has been assumed that Web usability is a major issue for those Web sites that have a large number of users. The importance of a broad variety of Web sites in specific categories was established from the findings in the literature review and in the realisation of the theory.
3.4 The Home Page Usability Test
“The aim of usability testing is not to solve problems or to enable a quantitative assessment of usability” (Patterson, 1994). However it provides a means of identifying problem areas, and the extracting of information concerning problems, difficulties, weaknesses and areas for improvement. Even if usability testing should reveal difficulties or faults that cannot be corrected with a model under development, the information is still important for the designers in planning for the future release of Web sites (Chapanis, 1991; Dieli, 1989).
A purely comparative technique is to use an organisation’s Web site and place the usability issues relative to it. This offers users the ability to draw their own conclusions, based on what they deem usable. If the comparison were itself simple numbers then this method has many benefits, but in this context, where complex factors are analysed, it would lead to very dubious results. There is also the difficulty in conducting the analysis, and a certain degree of an unscientific approach.
The rise of usability has brought with it methodologies for usability testing. These methodologies are not accumulative as some test for speed of delivery or the time it takes for a user to purchase a product, etc. According to Reed (1992) and Skelton (1992) usability testing determines whether a system meets a pre-defined, quantifiable level of usability for specific types of user carrying out specific tasks. For the purpose of this project we are testing more what usability factors the designer has accounted for to then identify the usability of the Web site. By taking into account the subjective views of the user we may end up with opinions which we will not be able to quantify and therefore statistically analyse.
The assumptions and variables have been set to assist in carrying out the usability test in Fig 1. Testing of the controlled variables 1 and 2 will take place based on testing them for the sub variables identified in variable 3.
Each Web sites home page will be tested for:
Layout we will be testing the general layout of the page by looking at whether the site was designed using tables or frames, and whether the screen was frozen or liquid.
Text here the number of words on a page will be tested and their chosen method of delivery, e.g., is text in colour or animated. Also whether or not cascading style sheets are being used will be determined.
Links we will be totalling the number of links on the home page and testing the designer’s method of displaying these links, e.g., are links standard blue or do they change colour.
Images/ the number of images on the home page will be counted and for what Objects purpose will be determined. The use of flash will also be highlighted.
Screen Size we will test each Web site at two different screen sizes in order to assess which providers have accounted for scroll bars in their page design.
Speed we will save each home page in a file to determine the size of each page and the size of the images on each page. We will use two different connection speeds in downloading each page. Both will be timed and results evaluated.
User Aids here we are looking for standard conventions that should be present to aid the user in using the Web site. The conceptual model of the user generally looks for user aids on a Web site.
It must be noted that in order to test hypothesis 1 & 2 we are not looking for results that may show us a relationship between each single Web site, or whether its better, for example to use frames as opposed to tables, but for similarities between Web sites within different categories. Hence we will be testing the category average against the overall average, to determine the theory that usability should be category based.
For the speed testing a stop watch will be used, it will start after pressing enter, once having inputted the Web site address and stop it when it says ‘Done’ in the left hand corner of the screen. This will be the test for hypothesis 3.
The timings for all home pages will then be tested and evaluated category based in order to determine hypothesis 4.
3.5 Usability Test
|Section 1 – Web Site|
|a) Organisation Name|
|d) Site Objectives|
|Section 2 – Layout|
|i) Frames being used||Y/N|
|ii) Is NO frames option present||Y/N|
|i) Tables being used||Y/N|
|ii) Are tables Nested||Y/N|
|c) Is Layout Liquid||Y/N|
|d) Is Layout Frozen||Y/N|
|Section 3 – Text|
|i) Total number of words|
|ii) Total number of non-linked words|
|iii) No. of Text Colours (not including images)|
|b) Cascading Style Sheets being used||Y/N|
|Section 4 – Links|
|i) No. of Links|
|ii) No. of Text Links|
|iii) No. of Broken Links|
|b) Is there a Pop Up||Y/N|
|c) Text Link Format|
|i) Standard Blue||Y/N|
|d) Text Link Roll Over|
|i) Change Colour||Y/N|
|Section 5 – Images/Object|
|i) No. of Images|
|ii) No of Images not used as Links|
|i) No. of non-standard objects requiring plug-in (Flash)|
|Section 6 – Screen Size|
|a) Scroll Bars|
|800 * 600|
|iii) Do any Navigation frames have scroll bars||Y/N|
|1024 * 768|
|vi) Do any Navigation frames have scroll bars||Y/N|
|Section 7 – Speed|
|i) Total Page Size|
|ii) Total Image Size|
|b) Download Speed from Request to Completion|
|i) 56.6K Modem|
|ii) 1Mbs Broad band|
|Section 8 – User Aids|
|a) User Aids|
|i) Search Field||Y/N|
|ii) Help Field||Y/N|
|iii) Site Map||Y/N|
|iv) Sign In||Y/N|
|v) About Us||Y/N|
Chapter 4 Home Page Analysis
4.1 The Categories
The complete Home Page Test is in Appendix A and will be referred to in this data analysis.
At first glance the results in the layout section did not look promising as the overall average figures for this sub variable being tested added nothing new to analyse and only confirmed the expert’s opinion. The testing of page layout, showed that as expected frames were not being used and 93% of providers had designed their page using tables. An interesting figure that did come out of analysing the Home Page layout is that in the category of On-line Shopping all the Web sites were liquid as is highlighted in the table below, whereas with the other categories only a third and at most in the Entertainment category 50% were liquid and the rest frozen.
|Company Name||Category||Frames being Used||Frames option Present||Tables being Used||Tables Nested||Liquid||Frozen|
|14||Black Star||Online Shopping||N||N||Y||Y||Y||N|
|15||CD Wow||Online Shopping||N||N||Y||Y||Y||N|
Figure 1 – On-line shopping category with 100% liquid. (For a more detailed analysis go to Appendix A)
We refer to sites being liquid when their content width adjusts itself to the users screen size. This is found with sites using table structures, whose width attribute is set to 100%, thus accommodating all the available width that the user sets. The fact that all On-line Shopping Web sites have implemented this function in their design could imply that by squeezing as much content into the window as possible there are more products visible, hence more sales. It also can be suggested that they are more concerned about the users of their sites who open up multiple windows when perhaps comparing prices of products or even, for example the similarities between two Web sites selling a black leather jacket.
It was thought that by looking at the text on the home page we may be able to analyse similarities between Web sites in different categories. Whilst counting the number of words on each home page it was not expected for so much content overall. With deckchair.com being the fastest to count, there could be some plus points for using flash to dominate the home page. The complete results of the count (Appendix A – section 3) were analysed within each category, resulting in the data below.
|Averages||4 a) i) Total No. of Words||ST DEV||Difference from overall average|
Figure 2 – Average of the total number of word per category
From figure 2 it is noticeable that apart from the category of Travel Sites all the other categories are close to the overall average. This point is made clear when plotting the graph in figure 3. There is very little difference in the standard deviation. We could take this to imply that travel sites have fewer words on the initial home page as, if we look at Appendix A – section 8, they have a greater number of user aids fields hence prompting the user to click forward onto another page.
In Figure 3 below we can see that News is the closest to the overall average.
Figure 3 – Average number of words per category
Whilst testing the news sites it was found that the number of words changed as news was updated with ‘latest bulletins’ constantly affecting the word count. Hence three counts were carried out throughout a single day and the average taken. We can also see that with reference site the standard deviation was large compared to the overall average and hence was an unreliable average for that category. If we look at Appendix A –section 4, we can see that in the category of reference sites RefDesk had 2023 words on their site and hence shows that taking the average for this category cannot imply anything for the category.
In the travel site category Expedia and Lastminute.com are close to the average for their category but far away from the overall average. Hence, if we had compared them to the overall average there would have been a big difference, but in their category there is not. We can possibly comment that category based averaging is adding value to this analysis.
Moving on from analysing the number of words it was interesting to find how many of those words were not links to other pages within or external to the home page of each site.
Figure 4 – Total Percentage of non-linked words
Immediately we can identify from figure 4, that from the four categories who have a lower percentage than the overall average, Travel sites in particular have the lowest percentage of non-linked words. Hence at the moment they could be deemed as being not informative at all, more tests may prove different. Entertainment sites had more information than any other category. The fact that 66% of Entertainment sites had pop ups also shows that they may be trying to provide even more information. Ecommerce sites as expected had the lowest number of non-linked words. Hence, implying very little information sits on these pages that do not have the objective of trying to encourage the user to click to a purchase page.
|Averages||Total Links||ST DEV||Difference from average|
Figure 5 – The average of the total number of links per category
Figure 6 – Average of total links per category
The links chart in figure 6 shows that apart from the category of Reference sites all the categories have a similar number of total links on the home page. With a low standard deviation we can highlight that the On-line shopping Web sites all have more links on their pages. This may be expected as they have an ecommerce objective and wish to provide links to showcase their products and services right from the first page. If we look at the data from figure 5, we can see from the standard deviation of Reference sites the average is unreliable and from the complete test figures (Appendix A ) we can see that although the other providers in this category have a similar number of links, Ref Desk have a total of 574 links. This may be due to the true nature of the service they provide.
|Averages||Text links||ST. DEV||Difference from average|
Figure 7 – Average number of text links per category
Figure 8 – The average of text links for the home page per category
By analysing the number of text links each Web site has it can be identified if there are any close relationships between categories. From figure 8 and the corresponding data in figure 7 we can see that Entertainment, News and On-line Shopping all have a similar number of text links on the home page in relation to the overall average. The fact that there are two objectives for these three categories, being Entertainment and News for information and On-line Shopping for ecommerce it may not be suggested that there are similarities between objectives but it can be suggested category based.
With Travel sites having nearly half the overall average number of text links and the lowest standard deviation we can imply that the results of the six Web sites in this category are reliable. The Web sites in this category are consistent with each other.
If we go back to figure 3 we can see that Travel sites also were well below the average for the number of words on a site and if we look at figure 4 they had the lowest percentage of non-linked text implying that most of their text was linked. To make this topic of links clearer we could also test for what percentage of total links were text links to make the testing for this variable more interesting. Hence the results can be seen in figure 9.
Figure 9 – The percentage of total links that are text links.
The percentage chart indicates that from the total number of links the percentage that are text links. This directly suggests that the remainder are internal or external links that are images, etc. The fact that On-line Shopping and Travel Sites have the lowest number of text links, it can be suggested that there are similarities occurring between category and objective. Reference sites clearly have the lowest number of images and hence nearly 90% could be suggested to be text links.
Another interesting chart that was put together is to show the number of words between each link as is visible in Figure 10 and the corresponding data set in Figure 11.
Figure 10 – Average number of words per link.
We can highlight that the number of links between each non linked text was the shortest for the category of On-line shopping and Travel Site.
|Averages||Average no. of words per link||ST DEV||Difference from average|
Figure 11 – The average number of words per link per category.
From figure 11 we can see that with the averages of 15.2 for On-line shopping and 13.3 for Travel sites we can say that both these categories are below the overall average of 18.3. This may imply that the majority of text for an ecommerce Web site home page is links and that in order to find out more information the user must click something. The fact that the other three categories are closer to the overall average and the standard deviation is not too high we can suggest that they fulfil their objective, to provide information.
Figure 12 – A relationship between the number of links and the number of words.
A positive correlation between the number of links and the number of words can be seen in figure 12. The linear trend line (in black) gives an equation of y = 3.3x + 190, as the relationship between the two variables. With the R² value being 0.76 we can suggest that the more words there are on a Web page the more links there will be. We can take this to imply that most web sites home pages provide less information and their primary objective is to get the user to click through to the other pages.
It has been already highlighted in figure 9 as to the percentage of images that are present within each category. This chart clearly shows the ecommerce sites to have the highest number of images on the home page. This could be due to the providers wanting to show the users what they are going to buy and hence providing a picture for it. This is especially true in the case of CD-Wow as the covers of the CD are shown as an image on the home page.
4.1.5 Screen Size
The general level of scroll for each home page was not that different between any particular categories. First all Web sites were tested on an 800*600 screen size which is very common on the smaller 15” monitors. The results (Appendix A – section 6) showed that only 33% in the categories of On-line shopping and Reference sites had a horizontal scroll bar. The fact that this is deemed as very bad design showed that the majority of Web sites may have taken this into consideration. When testing the larger screen size, 1024*768, 10% had a no scroll bars. It is expected that the rest would have vertical scroll bars as they are popular Web sites and hence have a large amount of content to provide the users, especially the information sites.
4.2 Speed – Download Testing
When testing the speed initially only a single download time was taken and due to the testing taking a few days it was discovered that on different categories of sites, especially news sites, up dates were being made constantly. This changed the page size which in effect was thought to contribute to the download. Hence it was decided that in order to obtain some accurate figures to analyse, all the testing would take place on one specific day and three timings would be taken and then the average worked out for each individual Web site as is seen in Appendix B(56.6k) & C (1Mbps).
|Averages||4 a) i) Speed 56.6k||ST DEV||Diff. from average|
Figure 13 – Download Speed for 56.6k Modem
From figure 13, with a small standard deviation in the On-line Shopping category and the fastest download compared to the overall average we can either say it’s a coincidence or imply that the designers of ecommerce sites have put an emphasis on speed and hence changed their design. The results can be are clearer when placed into a bar chart, figure 14.
Figure 14 – The average download speed per category using 56.6k connection.
We have already pointed out On-line shopping to have accounted for speed but Reference sites and News sites are also below the overall average and hence they may have also accounted for speed or there maybe other issues that have been accounted for, for example page size.
To analyse if page size had an effect on download speed a correlation graph was put together, figure 15.
Figure 15: Relationship between the size of the home page and the download speed using a 56.6k modem
A positive correlation between the size of the home page and the time it takes to download can be seen in figure 15. We may have expected the time a Web page takes to download to be longer for the bigger sized page; however the R² value of the trend line at 0.30 shows there is not a great correlation. Hence, we could assume that there are other factors that contribute to download time, such as the server load is high at the time of conducting the test as there are many people accessing the site. Also, that usability is more of an issue for ecommerce sites than others as they may have invested in more servers to handle the load. This observation has been made due to the fact that their page sizes are similar to the other categories and download is not slow because of the investment. This usability issue does according to figure 15 have varying degrees of significance for categories.
Figure 16 – Relationship between the size of the home page and the download speed using a 1Mbps connection
When carrying out the speed test using a 1Mbps connection all the Web sites downloaded from 3-10seconds (Appendix C). As is visible from figure 16there is a very poor correlation and hence we can suggest that page size is of limited significance when connecting to the Internet using broadband. This was as expected as it’s the main selling point for broadband, however are we to understand that the Web site providers have assumed that their users will have a broadband connection and hence designed their Web sites according. With the majority still only having access to a 56.6k modem this is surely untrue.
Obviously page size is not a big issue and companies are still willing to put large pages on the Web, but just to make sure of this another test was carried to see if there was any correlation between the number of images and download speed.
Figure 17 – To test the relationship between the number of images on a page and the download speed using a 56.6k modem.
As we can see from figure 17 there is a very poor correlation between these two variables and we can come to the same conclusion as the correlation between page size and speed. The number of images a designer puts on the web site is of very little significance to the download speed.
4.3 User Aids
From analysing the five user aids (Appendix A, section 8), which were selected and checked for on the home page, all the Web sites to a certain extent had accounted for these aids for the user. However, it was particularly interesting that in the category of on-line shopping all Web sites had a ‘sign in’ field and 83% had ‘search’ and ‘about us’. We could take this to imply that the provider understands that the user wishes to know more about the organisation they are shopping from and wants to maximise the users experience by making it easier for them to purchase by including the search. With only 46% of other categories including a sign in field it can be suggested that the on-line shopping providers plan and expect for return traffic to their Web sites. 83% of entertainment sites also have the sign in field hence it seems as though this could possibly coincide with the earlier observation about them having 66.6% of Web sites with pop up screens. As the majority are providing information it could be suggested that they have lucrative sponsorship deals going on, whereby they wish to a establish a regular clientele in order apply for more sponsorship for entertainment.
The data analysis also shows that only 13% of all Web sites don’t provide a search field for the users. This figure is as expected as the Web sites selected are popular with the users.
Chapter 5 The Resulting Theory (?)
When designing a Web site you must look to the conceptual model of the user and define what is expected for the particular category the Web site is within, in order to account for usability issues.
This statement and the results of the Home Page Analysis testing prove the hypotheses 1 & 2 as the Web sites values were closer to the category average than the overall average and hence prove ‘my theory’. The question then arises as, to what extent has this theory been proved beyond doubt?
In evaluating the resulting data we can identify that On-line shopping, and Travel site categories particularly stood out. The fact that these sites have an ecommerce objective clearly shows in the design of the Web site. The results showed that they were the fastest to download and had the least number of words. This may imply that the majority of text on an ecommerce home page is links, and that rather than provide detailed information they have accounted for usability by giving the user exactly what he or she wants, to be able to make a purchase thereby identifying their objectives.
Other results from the data have shown the design for Reference sites to be particularly different to the other categories. However due to the standard deviation being higher than the category average when testing the majority of variables these results are inconclusive. From the results it is possible to suggest that the purpose of Reference sites is to provide information as they had the least number of images and highest number of links. It was found that one sites result in particular affected the whole Reference category average and hence if we were able to increase the sample size then we may have been able to identify more conclusive results.
The Entertainment category also represented a significant difference, due to the number of pop ups and the amount of information on these Web sites. This indicates that the users acknowledge that they are receiving free information and hence may be prepared to wait for the information to download and even search through the large page sizes themselves. This view may be acceptable for the objective of users who want information, as opposed to sites with an ecommerce objective where simplicity and precision is essential, hence the two different designs.
Further testing of categories could have been conducted by testing more pages on a Web site to see if there are any differences between each category. Although this may have provided the test more data to analyse, it would have been difficult to locate consistent selection criteria. At least with the home page we identified a certain level of consistency amongst all Web sites.
Although it has been possible to identify certain differences amongst categories for the purposes of this project, in order to make attempts to eliminate any doubt associated with the theory we could have increased the number of variables that were being tested. Obtaining information from the designers would have allowed us to make positive judgements about the tools and thought behind the design of a particular Web site. The reasons for designing a Web site are of significance in understanding if the usability of the Web site was regarded as an important issue. We have based the variables of this test on the research that was carried out but if we had a longer time frame and more access to primary resources the result could have been more conclusive and hence proved beyond any major doubts.
Given more time, I would have used a wider gathering of categories and around 50 web sites within each category to test the theory. Working in the time frame I was only able to introduce four hypotheses, but these should be extended and more testing carried out in order to prove the theory. Additionally by introducing more variables for the actual web sites this would have allowed us to look for more significant differences and hence similarities in attempting to identify a relationship between a design and a category.
The results indicated that no Web sites downloaded within 10 seconds on a 56.6k modem and hence we can confidently suggest that the providers are not overtly concerned about the speed of download. The fact that we tested popular sites, voted for by a viewer’s poll also indicates that the users are prepared to wait for the Web sites. This may not always be down to the fact that the Web sites are well designed, but that they fulfil a particular objective. If we suggest the viewers are prepared to wait, then although all Web sites downloaded within the statement made in the hypothesis, then using a 1Mbps connection should make little difference to the user. This can also be recognised by the number of predominant users who connect to the Internet using a modem.
According to the initial hypothesis Web sites with an ecommerce objective did download faster than those that provided information. Particularly the On-line shopping category showed a significant increase in speed of download. We can assume that the providers of these Web sites have in their design accounted for speed, by paying particular attention to presentation on the Home Page. They have not all clattered the page with huge images that may increase the page size, but kept the page design simple. We can also conclude that ecommerce sites have made greater investments in servers to ensure speed is optimum and hence effective for usability.
The category based usability theory can not be absolutely proved or disapproved with the sample size or findings inherent in this report. The basis, on which it had been founded, is well established. The patterns that the theory suggests do seem to be borne out in the data, but not conclusively. This can be partly attributed to the restrictions on the sample, which would have needed to be substantially larger. A sample size of at least 50 companies Web sites, based largely on the selection criteria used in this project would have provided more reliable conclusions. That was of course not feasible for this study, and must therefore be taken into account as a major limiting factor.
From the objectives identified in this report it can be concluded that the Web design gurus advice has been represented in the research sample selected and hence these theories are being used to positively conquer usability issues from arising. There is not enough emphasis on designing Web sites by identifying the category for which the site is being designed. During the literature review it was not possible to find category based advice for designing Web usability and hence the theory has been suggested.
Although it has not been possible to test and hence prove this theory beyond reasonable doubt, it is felt that this theory can sit besides the rest of the Web usability theories that designers have access to. For it to sit above and really stand out further research and testing aiming for conclusive results would be required.
Web design theorists suggest Web sites should be distinctive, hence making sure your Web presence stands out. It is also acknowledged that the user is king, and your site should be as usable as possible. Hence, since unwritten conventions exist within categories on the Web, going against the grain makes your Web site less usable and in the long term, is a less attractive proposition to the user. It can therefore be suggested that by following these unwritten convention of the leaders within a category, ‘your’ site could well be more usable, than by simply following a Web usability guru’s advice.
So to quote an old saying, “when in Rome do as the Romans do”.
The subject area of this project has more significance and importance than I had realised when undertaking it. The approach has been academically challenging for myself, in that I have tried to assess how certain theories work in reality, that is if they do at all, but also how they interrelate in practice to solve usability issues. By bringing my own theory to the analysis I was able to understand more about engineering Web usability by looking at the current practices being followed today. I do not profess the evaluation and conclusions to be definitive, that would be naive. What I have shown through my findings is that most aspects of the category based usability theory, which is primarily based on usability theory, can most probably be applied to reality. What the evaluations and conclusions show are other factors at work, alongside the theories, that are difficult to quantify. That is why no Web usability theory is or ever will be perfect, there will always be a certain amount of unpredictability in the way some Web users are going to act, its human nature. All we can do is state what the overall trend might be, in the vain hope to reliably relate to the vast majority of the sample.