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Study: Factors that improve online experiences

In 2008, IDEA conducted a study about online experiences. The report (download PDF here) outlines key findings from surveys that explored factors that drive online experience as expressed by the three different subject groups – nonprofit organizations and cities, web designers and firms, and the general public. The survey’s major findings are:

  • Designers underestimate the thresholds for an effective site. Respondents consider a site “effective” when visitors are satisfied with respect to enjoyment, can find information somewhat easily, and never get lost in the site. By at least one point on a five-point scale, visitors have higher expectations for effectiveness than do designers. Nonprofit organizations believe that effective sites do not have “information gaps between what visitors want and what the site provides” and that visitors are at least “somewhat satisfied” with their sites. Designers should give greater consideration to overall effectiveness, thereby reducing the chance of failure for a user to find the information they seek.
  • Easy access to complete information is key to visitor enjoyment. All three survey groups believe that the ease with which visitors can find information and the ability to maintain orientation is critical to enjoyment. Both organizations and visitors believe that reducing the gap between what web sites provide and what visitors seek is critical to enjoyment. These variables explain 25% to 30% of the variance in visitor enjoyment; hence, ease of finding information is an important foundation for most sites.
  • Good visual design and up-to-date information are critical. Over 80% of designers and organizations believe that good visual design is important. A healthy 50% of the visitors agree. Fully 80% of visitors and organizations believe that up-to-date information is very important. Only 60% of designers believe that to be the case. When budgeting for your project, don’t be overly seduced by fancy graphics and multimedia. Invest in strong, clear design and simple methods to quickly deliver current information to your visitors.
  • Visitors want information fast. Web site visitors are looking for simple, accurate, fast, and easy to navigate web sites – preferably with links to information they seek. A significant number of comments revolved around the need for speedy access, including but not limited to download speed, in order to find the information visitors are looking for. Even in a broadband age, visitors value fast sites, both those that are fast loading and those that quickly deliver sought-after information.
  • Visitors want a broad range of topics. Relative to designers and organizations, visitors more strongly believe that a broad range of topics is important. Visitors believe sites can be more effective by helping visitors find interesting information – even if they are not looking for it. Designers and content developers can provide ample sidebars that link to other recommended pages, and extensively cross-link to other pages based on keywords.
  • Designers are overly optimistic about visitors’ ability to maintain orientation. In the survey, the ability to maintain orientation was defined as visitors’ ability to know “where they are, where they can go next, and which pages are related.” About 70% of designers believe that visitors are almost always able to maintain orientation. That drops to about 30% when non-profit organizations express their view. In contrast, only about 10% of visitors report being able to almost always maintain their orientation. Fewer than 5% report that they tend to get lost frequently. Said another way, your visitors don’t know your site as well as you do, so make sure it is obvious how to find information through meaningful menus, prompts, and not too much clutter.
  • Visitors still need handholding. The study asked about hypothetically providing visitors with personal assistance using a site. About 70% of organizations and visitors believe that a personal guide would increase the effectiveness of a web site. Only about 50% of designers believe the same. Designers tend to overestimate the clarity of their designs.
  • Visitors point to the lack of breadth and depth of site content as causing an “Information Gap.” Although over 90% of visitors say that they are able to find the information they are looking for, over 50% report that there is a gap between what they are looking for and what typical web sites provide, and 60% think that a personal guide would help them navigate web sites. The reported gap is negatively correlated to visitors’ ability to find information, and positively correlated to the need for a local search engine. This indicates that most web sites are unable to provide the breadth of information that visitors seek. Visitors often request broader and deeper information, when in fact they need to find existing information more easily.

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