Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Article on USabillity and online marketing communications

It looks like its the month for magazine articles. I've also been asked to contribute on an article relating to usabillity in online marketing communications.

It's a subject I feel pretty strongly about and so my piece below could well put the cat amongst the pidgeons if it is printed.

The issue of usability has been ignored in online marketing communications for far too long. It is largely an ignorance issue with far too many people involved in the production of online materials either not understanding or ignoring the finer points of cross browser, cross platform, multi-resolution display and best practice HTML. Whilst they speed production up, visual design HTML tools can lead to bad habits forming and Microsoft’s Frontpage tool is probably the worst offender of all. People who code in HTML should be able to do so using nothing more than a text editor, and I definitely wouldn’t employ someone who could not.

Good standards of HTML are essential for producing web pages and HTML emails but on their own, they are not enough, it is also understanding the media from a design point of view. Far too many times, emails are designed in the same way as print ads, and then perform badly both for open and click through rates. It’s about thinking and understanding that your piece will be seen in a variety of ways, even without graphics loaded. At WDMP we don’t just look at how our emails look as text only and with graphics loaded but also with graphics not loaded and in all of the major email and webmail clients. We have achieved double the industry averages for our clients which proves that this approach works.

The next design issue concerns how much of the email you can see at any given time. Email clients such as Outlook and Thunderbird, have a summary display mode which shows a little of your email to the user and lets them decide whether they want to open it or not. It does depend on the resolution of the screen that you are working on but we can get a good idea of how much you can afford to tease the client with in that small space. Basically you want to get them to open it up, and that’s your sole goal at that point.

Once it is opened more content is available and here the primary focus is to make the user want to read all of it, whether it is displayed full screen or with a scroll bar. Its about teasing the user with your copy and graphics and bringing them in to your email to the point where your call to action is an obvious extension of the user’s activity.

It sounds simple but getting the finer points of this concept across to offline creatives who are used to permanent sizes and folds can be difficult and clients are not prepared to be used as guinea pigs.

All too often I receive emails that look great when I open them up at full resolution, but lose their impact in my summary window without graphics. The result is that I don’t open them, and this is true of a lot of users.

Of course this is a lot to do and a lot of clients also need educating that there is more going on, than creating ‘just a simple email’. Putting the extra work in to attain higher open and click through rates can increase the price of the work and so trust is a big factor. We have clients we’ve been working with for a while and they are very happy that we use this approach, but it can be a difficult concept for clients who don’t know you to grasp, particularly if you are up against a competitor who says these things can be knocked out in five minutes and cost a hundred quid. Our response is to look at what the client wants to achieve and demonstrate the ROI to them.

For Websites the issues are even bigger, because of laws concerning accessibility. There has been no test case yet and so the law hasn’t been tested, but there are still so called Internet design professionals out there who have no idea how to design usable and accessible sites. They are still stuck in the late 90s mindset of creating all Flash sites. What is hysterical is that some of them even think they are being innovative and clever. Personally I don’t think it’s very clever to commit your client to an expensive pay per click bill each month in order for search engines to pick up the site. I know a lot of people in the industry switch off when accessibility is mentioned or consider it a technical issue that they don’t understand but usable sites are accessible and everyone in the industry should be supporting these standards.

Flash can be an extremely powerful tool to use but for every flash element that is created there should be a non flash alternative. Hybrids of this nature are really the utopian dream and we worked hard to get this effect on our own site when we redesigned wdmp.co.uk recently. When you can demonstrate it to a client and show the benefits then it’s much easier to explain the ROI.

Planning your site correctly solves a lot of the problems and site maps and wireframes are key tools in making sure that you plan the navigation and don’t leave key areas hidden from users. They also ensure that you split up the screen and give weight where its needed. Placing a key piece of information below the scroll line in order to accommodate atmospheric graphics is just dumb.

Screen resolutions have always been the big issue with web design. A designer wants to use as much screen real estate as possible and at their best they do stand as pieces of art. If the user is baffled though or doesn’t understand quickly enough what they are supposed to do, then all that art is pointless. Clear instructions and intuitive ever present navigation are essential to any website. I still see sites around where the look and feel suddenly changes for a new section or the navigation changes its style, and sometimes disappears altogether. There’s no other way to say it, this is just bad design, and I’ll bet that the usage stats prove it.

All too often business to consumer sites sacrifice usability for design and its so unnecessary. The odd thing is that Business to Business sites tend not to make the same mistakes and my observation is that the best web designers have a mix of B2C and B2B experience or even purely B2B.

What it all comes down to is knowing the industry standards and how best to implement them. The pay off is that clients get sites which have high and regular usage which facilitates relationships. I’m talking as though this is a hard thing to do but it really isn’t rocket science. One of the best things about the web is that anyone can design a webpage and the single worst thing about it is that anyone can design a webpage, just because something can be done it really doesn’t mean it should be, and web professionals have a duty to understand the standards associated with their profession.

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