How to Become Easy To Use Online


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A January 2009 report from the Media Management Center. The goal was to determine what users mean when they describe a Web site as being “easy to use".

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How to Become Easy To Use Online

  1. 1. How to Become “Easy to Use” Online By Stacy Lynch with Vivian Vahlberg, Sunny Oh, and Won-joo Yun January 2009 For more information on this report, contact: Stacy Lynch, 210.627.4326, Vivian Vahlberg, 847.467.1790, Media Management Center Medill School Kellogg School of Management
  2. 2. How To Become “Easy To Use” Online Executive Summary Following up on findings of its previous research, which indicated that being “easy to use” was a critical differentiating factor among Web sites, the Media Management Center at Northwestern University conducted this in-depth qualitative study with 15 heavy Internet users. The goal was to determine what users mean when they describe a Web site as being “easy to use.” Researchers found: • Being “easy to use” is all about fit – about creating a clear match between the information presented and the specific needs and capabilities of the user. What makes some sites perfect for one kind of user makes them a chore for another. Thus, there is no universal, one-size-fits-all formula for becoming “easy to use.” • The approaches currently taken by most news Web sites match the needs of the heaviest news consumers far better than those of light users. Less-experienced news users feel overloaded and unable to find what they want. This creates an unmet need – and an opportunity for news organizations to develop new products targeted specifically to the needs of light, less-experienced users. • For sites to be considered “easy to use,” they must present a volume and complexity of information that matches 1) the level of knowledge their users want to have, 2) the level of knowledge their users bring to the task and 3) how involved their users want to be in the information. • They also need to communicate clearly what the site has to offer; help users know where to look; make it easy for users to tell what’s new; provide appropriate information density; use effective categorization; and provide useful non-verbal cues about meaning and importance. • There are at least two categories of successful news experiences online. One is an “identity building” experience for people who are deeply involved in the news. This experience provides interested and motivated users lots of rich and complex news and information in a way that can engage them for a significant period of time. Another very different experience is an “efficient” experience for people who just want to keep up on the news or a specific story; this type of experience provides a limited quantity of straight-forward information that the user can absorb quickly with minimal effort. Page 2 of 13 © 2009 Media Management Center
  3. 3. This study suggests that news Web sites must aggressively define just who they want to serve and attract – and then calibrate how they provide news to the tastes and needs of those audiences. Delivering on “easy to use” takes coordinated content, design and technology choices focused on clearly defined target audiences and experiences. New research from the Media Management Center will explore the size and characteristics of news audiences with a mind toward delivering “easy to use” experiences. This research will be released in early 2009. © 2009 Media Management Center Page 3 of 13
  4. 4. How To Become “Easy To Use” Online Part I: A Framework The study is built on the findings of three previous Media Management Center studies of online usage: “What It Takes to Be a Web Favorite” (referred to hereafter as the Web Favorite report); “From ‘Too Much’ to ‘Just Right:’ “What makes Engaging Millennials in Election News on the Web” (the Too Much report), and “If It Catches My Eye: An some sites Exploration of Online News Experiences of Teenagers” (the Catches My Eye report). perfect for In the Web Favorite report, participants repeatedly one kind characterized their favorite Web sites as being “easier to of user makes use” than alternative sites. And teens in the Catches My Eye report also stressed the importance of being “easy to them a chore use.” We sought in this study to understand what “easy to use” really means online and also to parse out what it takes for another” to deliver that experience. At its core, we found that “easy to use” is about finding information quickly. We discuss in the next section what site characteristics specifically help users find information better. But first, we suggest a framework for thinking about ease of use and overall Web site strategy. We expected to find some sites were universally liked or that at least a few approaches resonated widely. We saw instead that what makes some sites perfect for one kind of user makes them a chore for another. A Question Of Fit We found that “easy to use” experiences result when a Web site’s offerings match with the users’ needs. Specifically, “easy to use” Web sites match the following two things: Web site volume and complexity Users’ knowledge ambition • Quantity of relevant information • Level of knowledge they want available • Level of knowledge they bring to the task • Complexity of information (technical • Amount of “cognitive involvement” they want: v. simple, raw v. digested, general v. how much sifting, sorting and processing they specific) want to do In ideal situations, there’s a clear match between the information presented and the desires of the user. In “mismatch” situations, there is either too much or too little of the kind of information users desire, creating a negative experience. Page 4 of 13 © 2009 Media Management Center
  5. 5. Four Types Of Experiences We visualize the relationship between these two different factors in the diagram below. Both of the white boxes are positive experiences where users find the information they desire. The experiences themselves and the mechanics of delivering them are quite different but both are satisfying to users. The gray boxes show “mismatch” experiences, which leave users frustrated. Low High “Too Much” “Identity Building” Web site volume & complexity User: Low information User: High information High motivation motivation Web site: High volume Web site: High volume or complexity or complexity “Efficient” “Not Enough” User: Low information User: High information Low motivation motivation Web site: Low volume Web site: Low volume or complexity or complexity Knowledge ambition & experience Let’s take a closer look at these experiences: “Identity Building” Most people have a few subjects where their interests are almost without bounds. Users bring a deep knowledge of the subject and an even stronger desire to learn more. Users on an “identity building” site value high volumes of detailed information. Users possess the knowledge to sift through information, make nuanced distinctions and integrate information into their own well-developed opinions. These sites are highly engaging and can absorb hours of attention. A good example from our study was from Rory, a record collector who described his nightly routine. He described an involved habit of searching and sifting items on sale. He moved easily through the site, able to use the most arcane search methods and also able to recognize items of interest without guidance from the site. A list of records that would be gibberish to someone else was, to him, rich with meaning and context. © 2009 Media Management Center Page 5 of 13
  6. 6. “Efficient” Efficient experiences are driven by the desire to complete a task – to find something out and then move on. The visits aren’t enjoyable in the same way as “identity building” visits; users couldn’t possibly lose themselves for hours in them. But a good “efficient” experience is positive nonetheless; it leaves users feeling in control and satisfied. Efficient Web sites deliver information that can be absorbed quickly and with minimal effort. What amount of information is seen as simple and straightforward varies by users. An example of an efficient experience came from Perry, an investment consultant who described his morning news Web site routine. “What I’m looking at is any of the MSNBC, CNN, whatever to get the major national news, international news, what’s going on in the country and the world. Again, not going through the whole site. I’m checking the headlines that interest me and are really important. So, that’s pretty much what I’m doing in the morning. I mean, again, it’s not something I’m doing, just only doing. It’s while I’m doing other work.” -- Perry, investment advisor. “Too Much” Getting more information than they want is a common and very negative experience for participants in this study. As we observed in two previous reports, a “too much” experience creates an immediate, strong desire to leave “A ‘too much’ the site. Users resist and resent this experience much more strongly than if the Web site didn’t offer them enough. We experience observed two types of “too much” experiences. creates an One kind of experience we call the “too many chicken recipes” experience – where a search for a dinner recipe immediate, yields hundreds of similar results that must be sorted manually. The problem here is too many results. strong desire “I’m looking for something and … you wouldn’t think it to leave could come back with 30,000 responses. And granted that’s an exaggeration but it sometimes seems … you the site” just get so buried in there… If I do, I generally, I just give up or I think of a different way.” – Beth, administrative assistant. The second problem is one of too much complexity. Take a search for basic information on a medication. One of our participants, Jamie, described accidentally clicking on medical journal articles that were so technical he struggled to figure out if the information was even related to his search. In this case the information was too complex. Page 6 of 13 © 2009 Media Management Center
  7. 7. “But I guess if you’re going into a site where you don’t know as much about it and it’s giving you so much, I guess it’s maybe overload for you. You’re not really sure where to go. Like some of the medical sites I go on … will bring up subtopics but it doesn’t bring up … (the) specific information that you’re looking for. It’s kind of, um, I don’t know how to explain it. I’m always just like, ‘Where am I at here? Why is it bringing me here?’”—Jamie, investigator at a law firm. “Not Enough” Another kind of negative experience was the “not enough” experience. Although many people described occasions when they couldn’t find information online, they didn’t seem as irritated as when confronted with large amounts of unwanted information. Several participants said that when they couldn’t find something online they would either give up or go off-line. Although it was frustrating, it did not create the strong reactions we observed with the “too much” experience. Implications For News Sites We clearly observed that the same experiences users reported at other sites applied to news Web sites. News “There might Web sites were described variously as a “hobby,” “overload,” “quick break” and, very rarely, as “not be a need for enough.” News junkies use news sites with the same zest and acumen that Rory uses eBay to collect records. several Web Perry described his morning news routine in much the sites, each same language as one woman described quickly and targeting a successfully downloading a form from her insurance provider’s Web site. particular type The same problems also exist, and are even magnified, at of user” news sites. The “too much” experience is very strong for many users, particularly those with limited news interests. This model suggests that perhaps users looking for simple, efficient experiences are finding themselves confronted by information that is either too voluminous or too complex for their needs. This does not mean that the current approach is bad, just that it may be unsuccessful with – i.e. not a match for – some news users. Logic would say there might be a need for several Web sites, each targeting a particular type of user – or for incorporating within a single site clearly different approaches to appeal to different kinds of users. From this research there would seem to be at least two categories of successful news experiences online. One is the “identity building” experience for people who are deeply involved in the news. Another very different experience is the “efficient” experience for people who want to keep up on the news or a specific story. This model also suggests some reasons why light users dislike most news Web sites and a path of inquiry for how to shift from a negative to positive experience. © 2009 Media Management Center Page 7 of 13
  8. 8. Part II: What “Easy To Use” Web Sites Do Better When information-finding goes well, it seems common sense and effortless. When it goes poorly, it can be a major source of frustration. These interviews indicate that finding information on an unfamiliar topic is more difficult than in areas where participants have a strong base of knowledge – and that finding general information can be more difficult than finding specific information. Subjects with large amounts of information can be more difficult to manage than those with more limited information (unless there’s not enough or irrelevant information.) A very common problem for most participants was getting lost in “too much” unrelated information. They described feeling disoriented and having to backtrack to the start of their search. Another common problem was being unable to find information at the level of specificity they needed – a specific form, information on a specific hotel or similar. Narrowing Down The Choices Arnold, a part-time DJ, described the challenge of finding music online. Arnold is always looking for music to play “It is also or sample. He compared the experience of finding music much clearer online and at a store like this: when to take “For example, how we used to buy music where we used to have to go to some record store and what was action given to you at that time or moment was what you had to choose from. … Now you have to change all your when the thinking because now it’s like, ‘Now what do I look for?’ Half of the work is given to you, rather than taken choices are away, because now you have to search everything.” – Arnold, part-time DJ. more limited” Having a seemingly infinite volume of music online is both a strength and what makes it difficult to use. If Arnold is looking for a specific song online but doesn’t know the exact name or artist, it can be extremely difficult to locate. When he wants to browse music he sometimes struggles to identify new music that suits his tastes. If he were at a conventional record store, music would already be deemed worthy and put in clear categories – and knowledgeable clerks would be available to guide him. As he explained, in many ways, he has to be more knowledgeable to make sense of all the music online than he would in a conventional record store. Aside from the challenge of finding things of interest, Arnold said that it is also much clearer when to take action when the choices are more limited. If he saw a rare or new kind of record in his local store, it was clear he should buy it immediately. Online, it’s hard to tell when something is rare or valuable. It all looks the same. Page 8 of 13 © 2009 Media Management Center
  9. 9. Arnold made a direct comparison with how he looks at news: “And then you can kind of relate that to, for example, the news. You can go to all these different places to find the news now and get all the news needed. I believe it’s kind of giving the user more work, if you want to understand and know it all.” – Arnold, DJ. Elements Of Easy To Use Web Sites “Easy to use” sites had the following qualities or did the following things for users. How they did it depended on the target audience. Communicates what the site offers At a basic level, users want to know what to expect from a Web site. What is its claim to fame? What should they expect to find there? It sounds simple, but users don’t “Knowing the want to have to spend time figuring it out for themselves. audience is If they have to, they’re likely to leave. (This echoes the finding from the Too Much report, which found that young essential people value sites with clear, dominant and consistent brand identity; they gravitate to “category killer” sites that for figuring are well-known for something specific.) out the right Helps users know where to look Some sites left users wondering: “Where should I amount of start?” or “What am I supposed to be looking at?” This momentary disorientation had them clicking away in information for frustration. The causes for the experience were many: too much information, too many things competing for the Web page” attention or many items of seemingly equal importance. Easy to tell what’s new Particularly for news sites, users value guidance to the newest, most updated information or features. Users complained if they had to click on stories or features before knowing if they had already seen them. © 2009 Media Management Center Page 9 of 13
  10. 10. Appropriate information density Knowing the audience is essential for figuring out the right amount of information (number of stories, links, photos, words) for the Web page. Heavy users (in any context) like a smorgasbord of information. Meanwhile, light users find the same approach totally overwhelming. For them, it’s like blackjack: once you bust and have a “too much” experience, there’s no coming back. At the same time, even for light users, the site needs to offer a rich enough amount of information to keep their interest. An example of low information density: An example of high information density few words, images or stories Effective categorization There appears to be no magic formula for the number of categories or the way they are organized. The right answer should ultimately match what users think before they come to the site. Heavy users are more likely to recognize nuanced distinctions (and thus see and appreciate more categories) than light users who generally prefer a simpler very intuitive and immediately understandable scheme. Regardless of the approach, sites with a clear, compelling categorization scheme were deemed easier to use. Effective cues about meaning and importance Overall, Web sites have not yet perfected adequate, immediately-understandable, non- verbal ways to send signals to users about a story’s importance or meaning. Most online stories have only the text of the headline to convey what the story is about and whether it should be read. Stories are often presented in undifferentiated lists of headlines. In comparison, newspapers and broadcast news offer a multitude of hints about a story’s importance based on the space or time it’s given, where it is placed, typography, graphics, etc. In many ways, the Web may be operating like newspapers of a hundred years ago, without many of the entry points or devices that are now commonplace. Page 10 of 13 © 2009 Media Management Center
  11. 11. For example, note how few cues the New York Times of a hundred years ago gave readers as to the relative importance or character of the information featured on the front page. Contrast that with a modern newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which uses many different graphic devices, color, type faces, placement and art to help readers understand the paper’s offerings. What Doesn’t Affect Perception Of “Easy To Use” Technology Having the most advanced technology is not strongly related to perceived ease of use. Most participants were not sure what the latest technology might be, thinking of video and audio as the newest things that came to mind. Even with probing, participants just don’t think about technology when they’re online. Technology may be key in delivering a better site but isn’t a natural selling point for users. Attractiveness An attractive appearance was also very secondary to being “easy to use.” An unattractive, “cluttered” site could be an impediment but being only pretty rarely helped. © 2009 Media Management Center Page 11 of 13
  12. 12. Part III: Implications and Recommendations News Web sites should embrace the idea of being “easy to use” as a key differentiator in a competitive landscape, particularly in reaching out to lighter news users. In pursuing this strategy, sites should: • Develop a clear audience strategy that identifies and addresses the different information motivations and needs of various target audiences. Specifically, sites should pay attention to how deep an understanding different users aspire to have, as well as how sophisticated they are about the news. • Acknowledge and respect light news users. They are poorly served by most news sites currently and suffer regularly from a feeling of “too much.” Serving their needs better should make it easier – and more pleasant – for them to become knowledgeable about the news. • Evaluate themselves against the target audience’s profile, paying particular attention to information density. They should work to give audiences neither too much nor too little. • Be editors. Infinite choice creates work for users. A Web site’s ability to focus users’ limited attention on important information has tremendous value. Exploit that skill to make your Web site better. Page 12 of 13 © 2009 Media Management Center
  13. 13. Methodology In-depth interviews lasting 60 minutes each were conducted in August 2008, with 15 research respondents in Chicago. Participants between the ages of 18 and 55 were recruited by a professional service and were representative of the market in race and gender profile. All were very heavy Internet users who say they go online at least three days per week and have high-speed access. We recruited a mix of different kinds of Internet users: some with a heavy interest in news and some with very low interest in news. Participants also completed a survey online prior to the interview about their experiences on the Internet and also about a favorite Web site. Favorite Web sites mentioned included: (Internet movie database) During the interview, we also asked them to look at and react to several popular news Web sites. These included: Googlenews msn (Chicago Sun Times) Related Studies From The Media Management Center 1. “What It Takes to Be a Web Favorite” by Stacy Lynch, with Vivian Vahlberg, 2008; 2. “From ‘Too Much’ to ‘Just Right:’ Engaging Millennials in Election News on the Web” by Vivian Vahlberg, Ellen Shearer, Limor Peer, Vickey Williams and Beatrice Figueroa; 2008; 3. “If It Catches My Eye: An Exploration of Online News Experiences of Teenagers” by Vivian Vahlberg, Limor Peer and Mary Nesbitt, 2008; www.mediamanagementcenter. org/research/teeninternet.asp. © 2009 Media Management Center Page 13 of 13