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The iorg.com Newsletter - September 2003

The Rise of Web Site Principles and Practices

Most web-site owners face increasing pressure to improve the effectiveness of their web sites as a business tool. At the same time, cost constraints limit the feasibility of adding or increasing usability and effectiveness testing to the design process.

While it has not received much publicity, several respected sources of usability and customer experience research are pointing toward an alternative approach, the proactive use of web site principles and practices for web site design and improvement. 

Rolf Molich, who is responsible for the groundbreaking CUE research on usability-testing methodologies for web sites, said the following in reference to usability tests.

"We should use them mainly in an intermediate phase to establish trust with our colleagues, and then use much more cost-efficient preventive methods such as usable interface building blocks, reviews based on standards and proven guidelines, and contextual inquiry." (1)

Alan Cooper, who defined the persona development techniques used in customer experience design, questioned the existence of general, context-specific attributes and features that make a good design, then concluded:

"The authors strongly believe that the answer to these questions lies in the use of interaction design principles - guidelines for design of useful and useable form and behavior, and also in the use of interaction design patterns - exemplary, generalizable solutions to specific classes of design problem." (2)

Finally, Jesse James Garrett, author of The Elements of User Experience talks not only about the importance of design requirements, but the importance of detail in the way they are documented.

"Be specific. Leaving as little as possible open to interpretation is the only way we can determine whether a requirement has been fulfilled.

"Compare these examples:
  1. The site will be accessible to disabled people
  2. The site will comply with Section 508 of the Americans With Disabilities Act (sic)." (3)
(Error Note: Section 508 is from the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, not the ADA.)

We agree with the need for specificity, but believe it must go deeper than a reference to other sources, not just for convenience, but for pragmatic improvement of the site. Web site principles and practices serve a purpose that goes beyond providing best practice guidelines. They afford us the opportunity to describe the critical elements of the web site in a consistent and persistent manner. Having this description of the web site allows us to test our hypotheses about the effectiveness of specific changes and capture our new insights about the effects of changes as they are made.

In other words, documented principles and practices allow us to describe web sites, both as they currently exist and as we think they should be. This description not only saves time and money over other approaches, it provides a missing element from previous methodologies that focus almost entirely on the testers. Without a pragmatic, detailed description of the web site principles and practices, the reasons for test results remain elusive and subject to speculation.

Describing web sites through key design principles and practices is becoming necessary as organizations expect more business value from their web sites. Only with a detailed vocabulary and framework of principles and practices can web site improvement move from the descriptive (natural history) phase that relied on the interpretation of patterns into a true experimental phase of continuous improvement.

What you can do to begin improving the value of your web site as a business tool:
  • Create or obtain a comprehensive list of principles and practices for describing your web sites.
  • Audit your existing sites against the principles and practices, if only to create a baseline description of your starting point.
  • Determine those principles and practices that you consider key to meeting your business objectives for the web site (your hypotheses).
  • Manage the process to bring the site (or new design) into compliance with the documented key principles and practices.
  • Measure the effect of your changes on the business objectives (test your hypotheses).
  • Create a continuous improvement cycle using a rational - hypothesis, change, measure, and analyze - model to improve both the site and the principles and practices that describe it.
(1) Rolf Molich, Interview with Christine Perfetti for User Interface Engineering
(2) Alan Cooper, About Face 2.0, p. 91.
(3) Jesse James Garrett, The Elements of User Experience, p. 73.

Please feel free to forward this newsletter to a friend or colleague who might be interested.

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