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23 August 2007

Usability Analysis: EarnMyDegree Dot Com

Here is an interesting topic for those who follow design trends and create websites themselves. Now this particular website was previously reviewed by my colleague David and was heavily criticized for poor design. Instead of repeating his accurate observations, I will focus more on the usability of and create a case study to illustrate where there is room for improvement. Note that the primary notion of usability is that a website is designed with the users in mind and how easy it is for people to use it in order to achieve a particular goal - in the most effective way possible.

What is web-usability? In some contexts the meaning of web-usability is narrowed down to ergonomics for e-commerce websites (i.e. the efficiency in triggering sales and/or performing other business-like transactions). This probably historically derives from the renewed attention web usability received at the time many early 21st century web commerces started to fail. Where during the emergence of internet in the last decades of the 20th century fancy graphical design had been regarded as indispensable for a successful e-business application, web-usability protagonists said quite the reverse was true: the KISS principle, for example (from the end-user's viewpoint) had proven to be much more indispensable for such success.

What makes a website usable? Usability depends on a number of factors including:
  • Learnability (e.g. intuitive navigation)
  • Efficiency of use
  • Memorability
  • Few and non-catastrophic errors
  • Subjective satisfaction

Why is usability important? Usability is becoming a competitive advantage. Usability provides important benefits in terms of cost, product quality, and user satisfaction. UsabilityFirst defines this as the following.

"From the user's perspective usability is important because it can make the difference between performing a task accurately and completely or not, and enjoying the process or being frustrated. From the developer's perspective usability is important because it can mean the difference between the success or failure of a system. From a management point of view, software with poor usability can reduce the productivity of the workforce to a level of performance worse than without the system. In all cases, lack of usability can cost time and effort, and can greatly determine the success or failure of a system. Given a choice, people will tend to buy systems that are more user-friendly."

Example in spotlight. Take a look at the following screenshot of EarnMyDegree or visit the website.

I don't know where to begin. Literally. There's just too much to take in and this is overwhelming for the user. First, I will highlight some specific points that stand out:

1. There are a lot of text and links that are almost the same size. It could use some hierarchy. Some stronger, more visual segregation of content devices, larger type and titles would help.

2. Duplicate content only creates clutter. Having two or three links to the same page doesn't help. There is no difference between "Online Degrees by Subject" and "Search by Degree Program" on the homepage of the site. Users will go for the place with more information and one that stands out. So, one has to go. I'd drop the whole left column and let the middle column flow into that area. Placing "Online Degrees by Level" in the middle column would be better as well.

3. The internal navigation structure is a nightmare. There is too much going on for a start. The top navigation bar doesn't directly take you to a place of interest so there is really no point in having that. The search bar and "Quick Degree Finder" can guide the user to the relevant information faster and should be more prominent on the homepage.

The next section includes more general usability considerations that can be applied to any website.

How to achieve a high level of usability? Testing. Usability testing generally involves measuring how well test subjects respond in four areas: time, accuracy, recall, and emotional response. The results of the first test can be treated as a baseline or control measurement; all subsequent tests can then be compared to the baseline to indicate improvement.

  • Time on Task: How long does it take people to complete basic tasks? (For example, find something to buy, create a new account, and order the item.)
  • Accuracy: How many mistakes did people make? (And were they fatal or recoverable with the right information?)
  • Recall: How much does the person remember afterwards or after periods of non-use?
  • Emotional Response: How does the person feel about the tasks completed? (Confident? Stressed? Would the user recommend this system to a friend?)

In the early 1990s Jakob Nielsen, also known as "the king of usability", popularized the concept of using numerous small usability tests - typically with only five test subjects each - at various stages of the development process. His argument is that, once it is found that two or three people are totally confused by the home page, little is gained by watching more people suffer through the same flawed design. "Elaborate usability tests are a waste of resources. The best results come from testing no more than 5 users and running as many small tests as you can afford."

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored review.

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