Tag Archives: user experience

Hick’s Law, making choices and leaner websites

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The other day, I hit the up button for the Culkin Hall elevator and a rare thing happened: Both elevators showed up on my floor and opened at about the same time.

My reaction was confusion. It goes against the natural pattern: Hit button, see door open, get in. Now I had to make an additional choice.

How many times have you encountered this unnecessary layer of decision-making in your daily life … especially when visiting a website?

There’s even a scientific theory related to this: Hick’s Law. Also known in some circles as the Hick-Hyman Law, after psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, it posits that increasing the number of choices will cause the time for humans to make a decision increase logarithmically (or by a lot, if you prefer).

True of the elevator story: Normally, shuffling in would take about a second, instead I was confounded and took a few seconds. No harm no foul, but with websites it has more important connotations. (It’s the titular reason one of the seminal works of web usability is Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think.)

Jason Gross of Smashing Magazine took this theory Hick started developing about 75 years ago and translates it to design, especially for the web:

So, let’s step back and consider the thought process that users go through and how many levels of decision-making a Web design can consist of. For example, instead of just regarding each link in a navigation menu, sign-up form or toolbar as its own option, we should consider the process of interacting with the navigation a decision of its own. For that matter, any given design contains a whole array of top-level “options” that demand decisions of the user.

In choosing whether to read an article, navigate to a new page, fill out a log-in form or perform a search, the user has to mentally process several options before making even a single click. Are they interested in the content on this page? They might decide to skim the headlines to see what stands out to them. Perhaps they are shopping for something. Before even hitting the “Add to cart” button, they have to choose between making the purchase, looking at product details and reviews, and shopping around for something else.

Inciting indecision

More than increased time to decision, the greater danger is that people decide not to choose one of your options because they become frustrated or interrupted. “If you choose not to decide,” the band Rush notes in “Freewill,” “you still have made a choice.” I have opted out of confusing websites, forms that ask for too many fields or transactions that are too complex or take too long. Which is to say, sites not observing Hick’s law can cost themselves transactions, actions and certainly user happiness.

My friend Kyle James (now with NuCloud) gave a conference presentation years ago where he said something to the effect of “if you want your user to take one action, design a landing page with one link.” (Or something, sorry Kyle if I screwed that up.) And it’s true. The opposite is what we find on too many websites — pages overflowing with links, many of them poorly labeled or redundant, which increase user frustration and decrease the chance of completed tasks.

Many in our industry love specialized jargon or vague acronyms or phrases that they understand within their own circles but that are unfamiliar to students, prospective students and parents. Our suggestion is always: Speak like your user. Give them phrases they recognize, especially in your links. When creating web content, there’s no prize for showing off how big your vocabulary is or how many insider buzzwords you know.

Make actions possible

For whatever website you create, three key considerations remain constant:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What do you offer? (Or “what is your value proposition,” if you prefer.)
  • What action(s) do you want them to take?

Other key questions about content strategy exist, of course, but those three should drive your creative. Showing what you have to offer (why a visitor should apply to your college, sign up for your service, buy your product, etc.) and then trying to move your audience toward a related action should take priority.

Long rambling paragraphs about your mission statement, links appearing for vanity sake and a barrage of irrelevant graphics that might bury those calls to action and things your visitors are actively seeking work against the success of your site … and of your business.

With the web, less is more. Especially now that so many people use mobile devices requiring a leaner experience. For last month, more than 40% of our external traffic arrived via mobile device, and 50% of our first-time external users were on mobile. They don’t want to scroll past some irrelevant “happy talk” paragraphs and they sure don’t want to roll through 37 links to find what they want.

Let’s use a different elevator analogy. You get on an elevator and it has a set of numbers (1 to 10) on one panel and a set of letters (A to J) on the other. You’re pretty sure you want a numbered floor, but the added choices leave you unsure. Sounds outlandish, right? Yet this is what a lot of websites do by crowding in extra information and links and shiny objects.

We should all be leaning toward lean websites. Let’s make it easy for visitors to get on our sites and go where they want without unnecessary confusion or work. If they can reach their desired web destination on a smartphone while traveling a few floors on an elevator, you are moving in the right direction.

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Quick take: On incremental web improvements

Depending on your position and past experiences, “redesign” is either one of the most exciting or feared (or both) words used for higher ed webtenders. But it’s also a lot less important than keeping your eyes open for opportunities for incremental web improvements.

A few weeks ago, we finally rolled out an incremental change (I considered an improvement) we’d been simmering behind the scenes — changing our web fonts and especially boosting the visibility of links. For comparison:





Two simple changes: Moving to a more web-friendly font that works better across platforms and bolding inline links to make them more obvious (previously they were just green and the contrast wasn’t what we wanted). As we explained in a message to web editors just before the switch:

You will notice over the coming days that a couple of small changes are taking place with the website. We believe these changes will improve the overall look, feel and usability of oswego.edu. The font is changing from Droid Sans to Whitney, a font specifically optimized for display on the web across many browsers. This also will give the site a more distinctive feel.

We also will make our inline links more recognizable to users by increasing their weight within our page’s main content area. This bolded look will cause links to stand out more from regular paragraph text. This addresses feedback and requests to make links within pages stand out more and is part of our continuous program to make the site more friendly for all of our users.

The increased clarity of links is, imho, the bigger item because it incorporated user feedback and contributed to the navigability — in addition to readability — of our site. But taken together, any and all seemingly small steps put websites on the road to big improvements.

No, we didn’t form a committee. We didn’t call in a long list of consultants. We didn’t hold a launch party, didn’t send a press release, didn’t spend a lot of time patting ourselves on the back. We just tried some things, did some quick testing and made the improvement.

And if you’re into incremental web improvement, it’s just something you do and keep moving forward. Because there are always improvements to make. I only blog about it to encourage others to realize that there’s more to improving your sites than the enormous redesign project … every day brings an opportunity to have ideas, outline plans and make your site better.


Filed under Web

Is a web service (G+, Facebook, etc.) ‘dead’ or ‘alive’? A quick users’ guide.

Image courtesy of fanpop.com. Points if you get the reference.

Image courtesy of fanpop.com. Points if you get the reference.

Much typing and responding and counter-responding of late has gone into whether Google+ is dead or alive, as is also happening with Facebook and myriad other past, present and future web services and communities.

What’s the answer? It’s simple.

Merely ask: Is this useful to me?

If you answered YES, then congratulations, it’s alive! Don’t sweat over what the pundits — most of whom make contrary claims mainly to get recognized and boost traffic to their own sites — say. When it’s no longer of use to you and what goals you want to attain, then it’s dead.

If you answered NO, then it’s dead to you. Not dead to the world, but to you. No pundit is in a position to tell others that a web service that they find useful is “dead,” no matter how many blogs they write or followers they have. It’s like telling your neighbor “using the hammer is dead” when you need a screwdriver for a project. If your neighbor needs a hammer, then it’s useful to him or her, no matter what anybody else says.

Glad we were able to clear that up. Keep using what you’re using, as long as it’s useful to you.


Filed under Uncategorized

why does the web get no respect?

Would a professor just pick any student to come up and teach an important class? Would administrators send in students with no particular training to run a vital student-affairs program? Of course not. So why, in higher education, do so many think bringing in students with no real knowledge of Web standards to do a Web page is an acceptable solution? As if the Web were a hobby, not a profession?

With today being Blue Beanie Day in support of Web standards, it’s as good a day as any to argue that working with the Web is, indeed, a profession. It’s becoming the most important avenue of communication in higher education. Many of us seek out top conferences and training on usability, techniques and practices. We scour the Web for great sites and blogs telling us the latest developments. We amass networks of fellow Web professionals to broaden our knowledge base. So when we hear from time to time that someone in an office has just hired a student who wants to design a Flash-based splash page with animated clip art graphics, I think it’s fair to be concerned.

Let’s not let Web quality continue to live the life of Rodney Dangerfield. The Internet is no longer in its infancy where chaos ruled. We’ve come to learn some techniques and tactics work best, even as we leave plenty of room for creativity. Those using the Web as a profession should take up the cause of standards. If not us, then whom? When we create Web sites that our users can easily access and navigate, and when we provide positive user experiences, everyone benefits.


Filed under Web

jetting into the blue.

I enjoy stumbling upon great brands, so I quite pleased to almost literally fall into the seat of JetBlue when flying to and from Seattle on vacation. I’d known it for its good prices, but never flown it … and I was particularly impressed with the brand’s emphasis on user experience.

The brand’s tagline of Happy Jetting! won’t win any awards for cleverness, and their advertising makes the point that you aren’t flying with them, you’re Jetting. Beyond playing on their name, the point of their branding is differentiating from the average flying experience. And in that they do succeed.

Like with 36 DirectTV channels, which allowed me to watch U.S. Open golf and the U.S. soccer team’s tough 3-2 loss to Brazil in the ConFed cup (the number of whoops and fists in the air when the U.S. scored its second goal showed how many on the flight were watching). Or 100 Sirius XM stations — the grunge-era rock of Lithium when I wanted to stay awake, and the mellow electronica of Chill when I wanted to relax. The headphone jack works with any iPod or similar earbuds, though if you don’t have headphones, they’ll sell you one for the high price of … $1. An airline not taking advantage of a captive audience! Inconceivable!

JetBlue doesn’t serve major meals, just snacks such as chips and cookies. Though not only are they good chips and cookies, but after meal service you can just walk back to the flight attendant ask for more. As many times as you like. Again, differentiation from the normal experience of getting a small meal and that’s it for the flight. Generous legroom and plush seats plus ample restrooms (three) also help with the comfort factor.

The attendants handled issues pretty well. One row had TV screens that didn’t work, just flickered annoyingly, but those passengers were given the opportunity to move (on a nearly full flight) if they wanted. Overall, there seemed to be a why not? attitude instead of the usual why? when they received a request. That’s a great customer-service ethos. And a day after the trip out to Seattle, an email asking for my feedback and opinions on the flight appeared in my inbox.

I’m not exactly sure how JetBlue, like fellow price-hawks Southwest, manages to deliver both low fares and a great user experience. But needless to say I’d happily fly with them again. Er, correction, I’d happily Jet with them again.


Filed under writing