John S. Rhodes

PW: As a Human Factors Engineer and Usability Professional, what exactly do you do?

JR: First, if have never heard of human factors before, you should read my primer.

Using the principles of human factors, I evaluate, design, and improve interfaces. My main research and my main focus is on Web interfaces. There are several key principles that I employ in my work, for example:


  • Focus on users, always
  • Continuous improvement (based on user feedback)
  • Testing of users and gathering system data
  • Develop content, develop the site's architecture, and then design (in that order)
  • Maintain consistency throughout the site

PW: When you do a review of a Web site, what are you looking for?

JR: This is a great question. The first thing that must be done before the evaluation has begun and before the tools are chosen, is to make certain that the goals of the Web site are understood. If the goals are not in place--if there is no mission for the site--it cannot be effectively evaluated. Coming up with a laundry list of problems is actually _easy_. Indeed, average users will go into great detail about the things that are wrong with a site!

Once I understand the site's purpose, I then make sure that I have a thorough understanding of the site's users. You must understand the site's audience; you must think like they think. I have an interesting article on one-to-one marketing, which is highly related to this topic.

Now, with that background, let's look at four main usability factors:

  • First, I look to see if this site is pleasing as a whole. Am I immediately turned off by the colors or graphics? How do I Gestalt this site, what does the whole of it tell me? What is the site's look and feel?
  • Second, I look to see if the site loads fast. If I have to wait, it is a major negative and I severely penalize the site. The empirical evidence is straightforward: People will leave a site if it loads slowly.
  • Third, I look at the navigation. It better be simple and it better be consistent. You must have consistency or people will get lost and frustrated. If a search engine throws a user into the middle of a site, there damn well better be markers and links to the home page (or major sub sites).
  • Finally, I look at the content. If a site has poor content it is dead, dead, dead. There are millions of Web pages and users don't have the time to look at garbage. (With great heaps of rage, I slam sites that have crap for content!)

In a nutshell, a site better be good in these areas or I won't even start my _real_ analysis and testing. If a site doesn't get past these simple hurdles, I won't test the site with users and I won't talk about design. Users are gold and I won't waste their time.

PW: What are the main things that everyday people look for when they visit a Web site?

JR: If I am doing my walk-in-their-shoes routine correctly, the 'everyday person' will ask the questions that I am asking. That is, they care about things that make a site easy to use and easy to learn. Before I go on, here is a list of typical user reactions to poor Web sites (no candy coating):


  • What gives? Where am I? What Web site is this?
  • Why did another stupid window open up? Man, not again!
  • Why did this site use Java? I hate Java.
  • Why is this taking so long to download?
  • Who made these awful graphics, yak!
  • What does this "About" label mean? About what?
  • Error 404? Huh?

The questions users ask depend on who they are, what their motivations are, whether they are tired, and if the moon is in proper alignment. They ask questions you would never think of, but they are questions you need to try to ask. And to be frank, no one knows what 'everyday people' want. Nevertheless, that is the way you must aim to think. You must know your users.

The solution? The only way to know--to really know what your users want--is to test them. You need a good sample of your user population, you need good tests (e.g., surveys), you need good analyses, and you must continuously dig for details. Test, test, test.

PW: Do you have any basic web design tips for our readers to make their sites more user friendly?

JR: I'll keep this one short and sweet. Know your users, be consistent, develop great content, plan ahead, test, promote, and maintain. Ask for feedback, test again, design based on feedback, and ask for more feedback.

This is brutal, but _always_ keep it in mind: Your site sucks!! You must think this way or you will stagnate and become entrenched in what is working now. The environment will change and you'll be left with a steaming pile of dung. Pay attention this: Listening to your users will always prevent the steaming dung scenario. Here it is again, listen to your users.

PW: Do you have any closing comments you would like to share?

JR: In my opinion, you cannot promote a Web site that has poor usability. Here's a simple rule: Usability before promotion. Make sure that a representative sample of your user population finds your site easy to use and understand. Test them. Now, go ahead and promote like a bleeding maniac!

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