Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Finding Information: thoughts on an IDEA study

Michael Douma of IDEA, which stands for the Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement, contacted me a couple of days ago. IDEA is "a nonprofit organization working to improve the ways people interact with technology, conducted a study using three complementary surveys to determine how people find information online and how the experience of web site visitors can be improved."
He sent me an email with a pointer to his/their new study. It’s titled, "Finding Information. Factors that improve online experiences".

This sounded interesting, so I went on to read the whole study (17 pages) and think about it.
The study is based on an extensive survey, which was held under different users (web designers, nonprofit organizations and general public). The introduction says:

"The survey questions were designed to answer the following questions:
- What makes a web site effective?
- What factors contribute to visitors’ enjoyment of a web site? Does this vary by segments within each population?
- From a visitor's perspective, what factors determine a quality web site?
- Are there differences between visitors' needs as perceived by organizations and designers, and those reported by visitors themselves?"

The results and their implications are given in a well-written paper. I'll pass you some highlights with some comments below to hopefully trigger you to read it all. These were mostly taken from the 'summary', the rest of the paper details and grounds the results and implications.

After reading this study it struck me that the results of this study should also be applied to internet, company website. Such as the corporate Intranet! Many companies can simply use these results to improve their Intraweb. And/or use the survey questions, which are given in the Appendix, to analyze it and define how good/bad it is.

And here are the highlights with some comments:

- "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.
(…) Designers should give greater consideration to overall effectiveness, thereby reducing the chance of failure for a user to find the information they seek."
I've heard of companies that do this very regularly with their Intranet. Every now and then they'll ask a small group of users to answer a couple of short questions. The answers are used to continuously tweak and improve the intranet.

- "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."

- "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." This point and the previous are obvious, but definitely not common practice. We often run into external and internal sites that are just crammed with information and applications…

- "Even in a broadband age, visitors value fast sites, both those that are fast loading and those that quickly deliver sought-after information." And why is it so hard to make the internal websites go at the speed of external ones…?

- Visitors like site with a broad range of topics. "Designers and content developers can provide ample sidebars that link to other recommended pages, and extensively crosslink to other pages based on keywords." This has everything to do with context. Do I know where I'm at when I'm browsing and am I sure that I’m looking at the right and most 'fresh' information? Apply this point should also help solve the next issue.

- "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." (…)
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. (…) Designers tend to overestimate the clarity of their designs." A surprisingly large group of respondents said it would be nice, if possible, to have a person that knows the site help them navigate through it!

- "Visitors point to the lack of breadth and depth of site content as causing an "Information Gap." (…)
Visitors often request broader and deeper information, when in fact they need to find existing information more easily." Very interesting point. This relates to what I said before: it is important to support users to judge the information before them by giving the context.

This is the first time IDEA conducted this survey. I hope they will do this yearly to find out if we're improving online experience. It would also be nice to know if there are differences between online experiences inside and outside organization. Maybe the survey can be extended in this direction?

By the way, go and take a look at the IDEA website. They truly practice what they preach: Beautiful, clear website!

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