Monthly Archives: May 2010

When SEO kills Usability

Using some SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques without proper consideration of a positive user experience is the fast way to kill usability.

When SEO Kills Usability

I’ve noted this as have others, including Google’s Chief of News, Josh Cohen, who was quoted in a Poynter. org article about SEO and user experience as saying:

“Focus on creating a more engaging experience for the users so that they spend a longer period of time per visit. Make sure the user experience comes first, not the search engine visibility.”

Josh Cohen, Senior Business Product Manager, Google News

The issue is one of quality, or lack thereof.  SEO can be used for good purposes, by making it easier for search engines (and thus people) to find the high-quality content they seek.  SEO can unfortunately also be used for bad purposes, to manipulate the search engines to find and artificially rank sites that actually have low-quality, or worse, no content.  When SEO is applied in this dubious manner, to trick search engines, it is often accomplished by using techniques that create bad usability.

Here is the formula I like to use to define the results for usage of SEO and usability:

  • SEO + Bad Usability = short visits = Bad ROI
  • SEO + Good Usability = long visits = Good ROI

Ultimately, if your site is anything other than a massive advertising link farm, the positive SEO and usability your website content provides defines the number and quality of the visits, and thus the amount of revenue gained, not how many visits you can have.

This reminds me of a Tweet Nick Finck posted…

Nick Finck quote about readership

SEO Practices that Kill Usability

There are many ways certain SEO practices can kill usability, but the three most common ways I’ve seen include:

  • Creating pages with minimal amounts of meaningless keyword-stuffed content
  • Creating pages with massive amounts of keyword-stuffed content
  • Creating pages with zero amounts of content

All of these can kill usability, because the techniques used to influence SEO create a quality of the experience that is so lacking.  This causes website visitors to want to run, not walk away, from the site.

Example 1 – Creating pages with minimal amounts of keyword-stuffed content

Let’s say you’re interested in buying a new printer, you’ve not bought one in a while, so you’d like to know the latest information about how to buy a printer.  You’d probably expect to learn about how to find the latest models, how to evaluate features, and how to compare pricing.

Starting on Bing, you might type in the search term:

How to buy a printer

On Bing’s resulting search listings you’ll find many potentially promising sites.  Having high expectations for finding good quality information you might click on some of the links in the search results, including the link for

Bing How to buy a printer
Bing - How to buy a printer results

You are then taken to the page for how to buy a printer which promises to inform you about choosing the machine that’s right for you.

However, what you actually receive in the way of your hoped-for rich high-quality content and good usability on the page may not meet your expectations.  Right in the middle of a massive scrolling page of ads are 6 steps for finding a printer.  There are a total of 231 words of helpful advice about how to buy a printer in the body copy.

If we visually highlight the actual page content to separate it from the ads we are left with a minimal amount of content that provides a poor user experience and from a task standpoint does not achieve good usability.  There is little to no useful content, and thus the user experience and poor usability do not come close to matching expectations.

Included in the advice in the steps are such meaty content as:

“Step 2 – Decide between ink-jet and laser printers. How you’ll use the printer will guide your decision.”

eHow How to buy a printer
eHow How to buy a printer

This example clearly demonstrates that the SEO practice of providing just enough keyword rich content (16 uses of the word ‘printer’ and variations in the body copy alone) with no regard to the quality of the content leads to bad usability, and a page filled with hundreds of ads.

SEO and Usability Rule #1 – Don’t skimp on the content!

Achieve good SEO and usability by providing your users with high-quality, useful and usable content

Example 2 – Creating pages with massive amounts of keyword-stuffed content

The opposite of minimal content is maximum keyword-stuffed content, which is an example of using SEO to stuff so many keywords into the content that the page ranks higher in search results, at the expense of usability.

For this example, let’s assume you are interested in buying a used car, and want to research more information on how to do it.  In this case you might type in:

How to buy a used car

In Bing’s listings of results are sites including the top one,

Bing - How to buy a used car
Bing - How to buy a used car

Clicking on takes you to a page filled with huge amounts of content, presented in a massive scrolling page of car buying content, displayed in varying types of visual styles that lack usable organization.  Go ahead and start scrolling down the screenshot, I’ll be down below there waiting for you…

CarBuyingTips - How to buy a car

From an SEO standpoint this is the equivalent of throwing everything in, AND the kitchen sink! The usability of this page suffers from massive amounts of semi-organized content designed perhaps to overwhelm search engines, and any humans that are brave enough to try to read and digest the information.

It’s not a surprise that this page comes up in top position for the results, just based on the sheer weight of the content all by itself.  The problem however is it’s a rather unpleasant task to try to read, assimilate and comprehend all the content, leading to poor usability and a disappointing user experience.

SEO and Usability Rule #2 – Don’t stuff the content!

Create positive SEO and usability by providing your users with visually organized, easy to read, easy to comprehend, and thus easy to use content.

Example 3 – Creating pages with zero amount content

Using the same search results for “how to buy a used car,” another site shows the third bad SEO example of providing zero keywords in the content of the page when the website visitor clicks through to it.

As is demonstrated below, clicking on the “” link takes the visitor to a page that has absolutely no content on that page about the specific searched-for topic.  This leads to bad usability due to the frustration of not finding the content that was promised.

How to buy anything
How to buy anything

From an SEO standpoint this is using a keyword shell-game to achieve results in the rankings, but in the meantime providing the website visitor with absolutely none of the searched-for keywords and content.

Duping unsuspecting website visitors by using SEO to promise a page with content, but then not delivering said content on the page leads to bad usability and a negative user experience.

In the above example the website would have been much better suited to provide content about the used car buying guide.  This would more closely align with the user’s expectations and thus provide better usability, through a more positive user experience.

SEO and Usability Rule #3 – Don’t make false promises!

Achieve good SEO and usability by providing your users with the content you promised them.

Conclusion: When SEO Kills Usability

Unsuspecting website owners may not realize the significance of the way bad SEO practices can kill usability, but kill it, it does.  The reality is the owners of these and other such websites would be much better served by improving their usability and user experience, which would lead to better SEO.

This strategy of providing quality content and good usability will over time provide a greater benefit than resorting to bad SEO tactics to temporarily attract visitors.  That’s because the vast majority of visitors who are duped to come to these bad sites, finding terrible usability and poor content will immediately leave anyway.  So the question is, why would anyone spend money on bad SEO techniques that kill usability, only to receive a 1 or 2 second visit and bad ROI?  Was it really worth the expense?  I doubt it.

Instead of SEO killing usability, work on quality content, a good user experience and helpful SEO tactics.  This will in the long run help your website take care of itself in the search rankings.  That way, your website wins, your visitors win, and you win with increased ROI.

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Usability is in the details

Although usability practitioners love to show examples of big usability issues with websites and applications, the vast majority of usability issues are typically in the details.  By forcing your application users or website visitors to be constantly bothered with more detailed usability issues, you eventually wear down their patience and force them to decide whether to continue being annoyed, or to try a different application or website.

Usability issues are in the details Flickr photo by Emily Barney via Creative Commons license

So, you may be asking, “what’s a big usability issue versus a minor or more detailed usability issue?”

Here’s my definition of a minor usability issue:

Craig says:

“A minor usability issue is an issue that is small enough to not cause task failure by itself, but is significant enough to cause additional cognitive load, errors, or an increase in time-on-task.”

Examples of usability issues in the details

As a demonstration of usability being in the details, I’ve identified a few examples of several minor, yet user-annoying usability issues that can wear down the patience of your users.  Each of these minor issues in and of itself is not a big enough deal to make a person throw up their hands and storm away from your application or site.  But added together, like the straws on a camel’s back, they can and do cause that effect.

The good news: detailed usability issues are typically easier to fix

The good news is; for the vast majority of detailed usability issues, a simple fix is usually all it takes to remove the problem and improve the usability for your users.

Tip: Find your minor usability issues, they’re easier to fix and can reward you with increased performance

After reading this article, have a look at your own applications or websites and identify where there are minor usability issues.  Or better yet, observe someone who has little to no experience with your site or application use it.  My bet is you’ll probably uncover several minor, yet annoying usability issues just by watching them go through the process.   I think you’ll find finding and fixing minor usability issues is the easiest way to improve the usability of your site or application, without resorting to major re-designs.

The details: Several common usability issues

Usability issue #1 – Horizontal and vertical scrolling of important content

Forcing people to scroll both vertically and horizontally in your website or application is a usability issue because it requires more cognitive load (remembering what was read) and motor effort (moving scrollbars) than by simple presenting data with no scroll, or a vertical scroll only.

Trend micro antivirus is in the business of analyzing and recommending actions based on potential computer security risks for their customers.  I’m assuming that typically their customers have little to no security knowledge, so the advice (content) Trend micro antivirus provides is very critical for user success.

It’s therefore a minor yet annoying usability detail that Trend micro antivirus displays a pop-up window whenever it detects the need to provide guidance, using horizontal and vertical scroll bars to display this all-important guidance within the pop-up.

In addition, another minor usability detail is the pop-up is not resizable, thus the customer is unable to modify the size of the display to better read the guidance.

Horizontal and vertical scrolling is a usability issue

Trend micro antivirus displays important security guidance in a horizontally and vertically scrolling pop-up window that is non-resizable.

Usability issue #2 – Non-alphabetical drop down menus

For most drop-down menus, a common best-practice is to use alphabetically ordered listings of links.  This is especially true for websites or applications in which users either lack expertise with the subject matter or are infrequent users.  The alphabetical ordering of choices helps users scan and find the link they seek. is a domain and hosting company that provides a fairly large assortment of tools for their customers, most of which are accessible via drop-down menus.  For their hosting tools, GoDaddy uses a drop-down menu that is not alphabetically ordered.  Because users must read the entire list of links prior to determining which to select, this forces additional cognitive load, in essence slowing users down.

Although this may seem minor, if a customer is only infrequently using these tools, they must “re-learn” the list with each visit to the drop-down, causing additional friction and slow-downs.  Coupled with many other small yet annoying usability issues, they could be enough to tip the scales and influence the customer to seek another hosting company.

Considering the low price-point for hosting, ANY customer friction is a potential customer-loser for these companies.

Non alphabetical drop down menus can be a usability issue

GoDaddy’s hosting control center drop-down menus are not alphabetically ordered.

Usability issue #3 – Poor form instructions and label alignment

Forms are the ONLY online tool your potential customers can use to purchase or request your products or services, so poor alignment of form instructions, labels and entry fields are minor yet annoying usability details that should be corrected promptly.

Taleo has a widely-used online application form candidates use to apply for jobs with a company.  The Taleo form is quite long, and is often customized based on a company’s needs.  However, attention to usability details in form design can slip, meaning the form causes increased cognitive load and decreased performance.

In this example, alignment issues with the email form instructions and label are causing additional cognitive load.  The “Please create your password” instruction is right-aligned and thus displayed to the left above the password field.  However, the “Re-type new password” instruction is left-aligned and thus is over the field, and not aligned with the rest of the labels.  In addition, it is missing the red “required” asterisk, which will result in an error if the user submits the form without the re-typed password.  Finally, note that there are no instructions for password length (which in this case is 6 characters minimum) nor for valid versus non-valid characters.

Many form developers today use a separate page for registration information, so that errors with the registration do not cause the rest of the form entry process to fail.

Poor alignment and missing instructions of form labels are a usability issue

Taleo’s candidate application form demonstrates label alignment issues

Usability issue #4 – Poor alignment of or missing Action buttons

Another usability detail is proper alignment and use of primary (“Submit” or “Go” etc.) and secondary action buttons (“Save & Exit” or “Cancel” etc.).  The point to having people use forms is to actually have them complete and send them, and so details with action buttons are important.

Using Taleo’s application form again as an example, the form is quite long, asking for full candidate information including address, prior jobs, demographic information and more.  Because of the amount of time it may take to complete such a long form, providing the ability for people to save their partially completed form, and return later to finish it could be very important.  However no “Save and exit” or related secondary action form is included (potentially because sign-up has not yet occurred).

In addition, clearly separating action buttons from other entry fields is also important, to reduce confusion as to their purpose.  As demonstrated below the Taleo form has the “Submit” button placed apparently inside the visual space created by the horizontal lines above and below “Certificates/Licenses.”

Poor or missing action buttons are a usability issue

Some people may be confused, wondering if the “Submit” button submits the entire form, or the “Certificates/Licenses” information only.

Conclusion: Usability is in the details

The four examples demonstrate typical minor yet annoying usability issues, highlighting the importance of paying attention to detail when creating a user experience.  Although these common minor usability issues won’t cause task-failure by themselves, added together the annoyance factor becomes great enough that many users may decide to either not purchase or order the product or service, or to discontinue use of the application or website altogether, meaning lost customers, revenue and a poor Brand reputation.

It’s in each designer’s and developer’s best interest to pay attention to the little details.  That’s because usability is in the details, which helps define the success or failure of the website or application.

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Five Radical Ideas from Usability Presentations

Everyone needs a good shake-up now and then, and that’s why these 5 radical ideas from 5 rad usability presentations are well worth your time. Being influenced by radical ideas can lead to big changes in how you do things, and thus bring big positive results. To improve, it’s sometimes necessary to throw-out old conventions, including some old conventions of usability and user centered design!

The reality is your usability and user-centered design could probably use a boost, to among other things:

  • Help you do a better job of adding usability to design
  • Change the way you think about interaction
  • Present new ideas and new concepts to your processes
  • Help you sell your new radical ideas to the masses

So, here then are the 5 radical ideas as presented from these 5 rad usability presentations. Enjoy!

1. Usability 2.0 – Greg Bell

This is an excellent presentation that provides great ideas to help you improve; planning, recruiting, conducting analysis and presentation of findings for usability research. I like the implication that they analyzed the problem (boring usability results presentations nobody reads, no follow-up changes based on reports) and created new solutions – by usability testing their own usability research process! Now there’s a radical idea!

  • Radical idea #1 – Conduct usability testing (and subsequent improvements) on your own usability research methods!

This presentation demonstrates how to tackle the problem of delivering usability testing results in a way that doesn’t bore the clients, and more importantly gets acted upon. This presentation includes very helpful screen-grabs of new approaches you can use to plan, recruit, conduct data analysis and present findings. Way worth your time to watch and learn from, in my humble opinion.

2. How *Not* To Get Noticed – Liz Danzico

A brilliant little presentation that in 54 easy-to-read slides demonstrates the core concept of a good user experience – the user should not even be aware they are using the application, website, beard trimmer, etc.

Anybody who’s been using WordPress for a few years remembers the major improvements made to the administrative interface not too long ago. That was a pretty radical change! This presentation provides an overview of how the research that influenced that radical change was done, and much more importantly, the mantra that went into the process of improvement. As the quote states:

“That’s when I know WordPress is doing its job: when people aren’t even aware they’re using it because they’re so busy using it!”

– Mark Jaquith, 21 February 2007

  • Radical idea #2 – Focus your design / development team on the mantra: “We reach application usability success when our users are not even aware they’re using our application!”

This presentation can help you have that all-important conversation with your design and development team, and anyone on your team who’s been using WordPress for several years will know the truth that is provided in this presentation.

3. – Secrets of Simplicity – Giles Colborne

Guess what, did you know that simplicity does NOT equal usability? Neither did I! But this amazing presentation walks you step by step through the process of understanding simplicity; why it’s good, why it’s not always possible (or desirable) to achieve, and the 4 ways to affect simplicity. Here’s the core concept; in general, you can try to remove, hide, group or displace complexity. But as this presentation so beautifully describes, each has positive and negatives on design and function that must be understood.

  • Radical idea #3 – Simplicity does not equal usability, it equals making the experience compact and aligning your design to what’s core in the user’s experience – and recognizing the trade-offs involved in trying to reduce complexity.

Don’t let the 128 pages of this presentation scare you, this is a VERY simple experience that communicates VERY well and will leave you ANXIOUS to try these concepts out yourself. And it’s chock-full of really helpful examples of complex situations with simplified end-result experiences.

4. – How People Really Use the iPhone – Bill Westerman

This presentation should be considered sacred to all iPhone or multi-touch app designers and developers. This is a very useful and usable presentation that defines the 8 rules of thumb for iPhone and multi-touch app development. Because it includes visuals of the multi-touch UI do’s and don’ts for design of apps, it’s really easy to quickly understand and conceptualize the core 8 rules of thumb.

You should also pay VERY close attention the Application pricing slides, which have an amazing finding – pricing an app higher actually generates MORE trust in the app (does that trust convert into sales?). Technically there are two really radical ideas – but I’m going to group them into one, because, well, it’s more usable that way:

  • Radical ideas #4 and 4a – Users felt there was LITTLE TO NO DIFFERENCE in pricing between a $4.99 app and a $0.99 app (then why not charge $4.99?), and users are most successful when they can transfer a specific behavior from one app to the next – so copying conventions is key.

Considering the more than 90,000 views of this presentation, probably all the designers and developers that develop “an app for that” are already aware of the 8 rules of thumb. But if not, this one won’t be a waste of your time. And a refresher for those that have seen this already wouldn’t hurt!

5. – Designing for Social Traction – Joshua Porter

Another brilliant presentation, this one clearly and concisely defines how to solve the three big problems of; signing up, first use and ongoing engagement of social software. The reality is however this is the perfect Primer for any application in which you want (need) to drive adoption, social or otherwise. The amazing thing is putting the context of signing up into the correct format, which is to say you can’t wonder how easy or difficult it is to sign up (usability), instead, you should wonder if people are motivated enough to care (persuasion).

  • Radical idea #5 – Gain sign-ups, first time use and ongoing engagement not by pushing features, but by motivating, not by selling, but by teaching, not by reminding, but by engaging.

Bonus Presentation:

Usability: An Overview – Craig Tomlin

OK, this is my presentation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good! Anyway, I’m not including it in the list of 5 radical usability presentations because, well, I created it and you probably don’t want me tooting my own horn too much, right? And also, the concepts in it are not radical (useful yes, but not radical). But it’s short, sweet and to the point and so it’s worth a bonus mention.

Conclusion: 5 radical ideas from rad usability presentations

So there you have the 5 radical ideas from 5 rad usability presentations. I believe there’s plenty more radical ideas in these presentations and hope you find and try them! I suspect you’ll find the presentations helpful and useful. I would add that watching each of these should help you motivate yourself and your team into new ways to create more user-friendly designs, but I think you’ll come to that conclusion by yourself, and create some new ways to become radical.

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Free usability advice? Just say No!

I would say on average I receive about 3 or 4 requests per week for free usability advice of one form or another, to which I always respond with Nancy Reagan’s sage advice –

Just say “No.”

Just say no to free usability advice photo by Lara604 via Flickr Creative Commons License

Of course, the requests don’t come to me asking specifically for “free usability advice” like some cold-calling salesperson harassing me with a phone call just as I sit down to dinner.

No, these requests are all over the place; everything from an email from a company that has the latest wiz-bang online usability testing application to end all online usability testing applications, to people asking me what the correct way to set up an online bill-pay form is, to the several twitter DMs a week asking me if I can “have a quick look at our website and just let us know what you think of our usability.”

Do you really want to know what I think of your usability?

Great! I’ll tell you exactly what I think of your usability! Just pay me for the several hours of reviewing and testing tasks I do on your website, followed up by the several hours of saving screenshots and documenting findings and creating a PowerPoint that I work on, followed up by the hour or two of analysis of what’s wrong that I ponder, followed-up by the hour or two of research I do for optimizations that could be used to improve your situation including mocking-up examples of what a few good options for improving it look like, followed up by the hour or two I spend with you on a call or online meeting providing you with all my free usability advice.

Get a clue, usability is work, and most people (including you!) get paid for work

So, if you’re one of those silly dopey dumb misguided individuals who’s asking for “free usability advice” because “it’ll only take a minute and gosh, won’t you feel good about helping me out?” get a clue. It’s lots of work to conduct a proper usability review, and last time I checked you (and I) expect to be paid for work.

Those pesky mortgage and utility companies keep insisting on it.

Three ways to get free usability advice

So here are few tips if you are seeking free usability advice. By the way, this advice is totally free so you can thank me later for all the free advice I’m providing you as a service, you’ll return the favor, right?

  1. Pay me for your free usability advice – Okay, technically it’s not free, but this one’s really easy; just go ahead and pay me for the time I spend in providing you with your free usability advice. What? You don’t have any money to give me? Hmmm, just how important did you say usability and user-centric design was to your website again?
  2. Trade something equally valuable – This one is also easy, as I’m going to be spending quite a few hours giving you free usability advice, so why don’t you give me quite a few hours of free business/CPA/Lawyer advice in exchange? I could use quite a few hours of your or your lawyer’s or CPA’s time, it would help me out with my business. That’s a fair trade, right? And by the way, wouldn’t that make you feel good to know you were helping me out?
  3. Pay me with something other than money – Gosh, you have a shoe web site, that’s great! I (well, my wife actually) could use a couple hundred of your free products, or perhaps you could just provide me with a thousand dollar Starbucks gift card (what? – I like coffee!) for all my free usability advice.

Why free usability advice is not a good idea

Let’s get serious for a minute, free usability advice is actually not a good idea. Here’s why:

  1. You get what you pay for – You ever heard that old saying “there’s no such thing as a free lunch?” Well, the same is true for usability. The reality is; it takes effort, time and expertise to provide usability advice. Just having a quick glance, or seeing what usability standards you’re breaking (guess what, there’s no such thing as a complete set of standard global website usability rules that can be applied to all websites because no two websites, or groups of Personas, are exactly the same) takes time and a fair amount of work. Anybody who’s willing to give you advice without understanding the basics of; who’s your Personas, what critical tasks are they trying to accomplish, where in the task flow are potential errors or speed bumps, what can you do about them to optimize them, what accessibility or other issues might you face? Well, you get the idea. Free advice is worth what you paid for it.
  2. It takes time to analyze usability – It actually takes many hours to do a full and complete review of usability on a web site. Just having a quick glance is doing you, your website visitors, and the investors who’ve paid hard-earned money for your business and site, a disservice. You wouldn’t want your tax guy to just have a “quick glance” at your taxes, would you?
  3. Not all usability experts are experts – Here’s a no-brainer, asking any Tom, Dick or Harry for usability advice is not a good idea. Education, training and experience will be required to properly diagnose your website usability issues. The odds are, real usability experts are very busy conducting usability testing and providing advice to their clients, and getting well-paid for their efforts. Be prepared to pay for experience and expertise, if someone’s willing to give it to you for free, are they really experts, and should you really trust them?

What to do if you are asked for free usability advice

So, let’s say you are a usability professional and you’ve just been asked to provide free usability advice. What should you do? Here’s a hint…

Just say NO! (Nancy Reagan would be so proud!)

‘Nuff said