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Web Usability: Reflections On Best Of The Web Judging

I was in NYC yesterday for the annual multichannel merchant awards best-of-the-web awards judging. Can't go into specifics, as winners won't be released until the ACCM catalog show in May, and as the judging process is confidential. What I found most striking was how many websites of large well-known catalogers (err, "multi-channel retailers") still make significant usability gaffes. Not a couple of small mistakes, but many major errors. The most common shortfalls? Poor site search. Check out buttons below the fold. Abnormal navigation and layout conventions. Sites which don't ask for the sale. Too many tabs atop page. Lack of evidence. Lack of information scent. Poor site search. Dead end pages. Bad carts. Confusion. (And did I mention poor site search?) We also had the privilege to judge some amazingly well-done sites. None of their names would surprise you, as these sites are regularly cited as best of the web, and for good reason. Shopping these sites, you find everything is where you'd expect it, like when you reach for a tool in well-organized workshop and find it hanging right where your hand lands. Just right. Joel Spolsky summed up usability in one sentence -- something is usable if it behaves exactly as expected -- and he's spot-on. These big best-of-the-web sites didn't happen by accident. Their design, nav, taxonomy, and flow reek of heavy usability testing. They're good, and they're good because these organizations put a great deal of time, money, and management attention into usability. Kudos to them, hard-earned and well-deserved kudos. But then were two or three really small retailers with really well done sites, too. Not big firms -- these folks were reporting just a few million in annual revenues. Given their size, they likely have one marketing person and maybe one web guy (or web gal), tops. If they're doing formal usabilty testing (and one guesses they're probably not), they're doing it on shoestring. Odds are their web analytics tools are really basic, or maybe even nonexistent. How then did these little firms achieve almost world-class usability? Some unscientific observations on these three sites (a tiny sample!):
  1. They are web pure-plays, free from catalog baggage and legacy infrastructure.
  2. They adopt simple design.
  3. They follow web convention.
  4. They run lean (hence fast) web platforms.
  5. They understand their users.
I'd wager these firms are blessed with a
  1. really good web person with an intuitive sense of usability.
The heartening takeaway? Sometimes, you don't have to be big to be great.
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