Customer Interface: Losers Weepers

If your visitors can’t find it, they may decide they don’t really want it.

Coming up out of a subway station is horribly disorienting. You can spot the street signs, so you know what corner you’re on, but what direction are you facing? Which way is your destination? Why aren’t there arrows pointing north at subway station exits all over the world? And while we’re at it, why isn’t there a standard approach to Web site navigation?

When I arrive on your electronic doorstep, I have a fairly good idea of where I am. Your corporate logo is prominent, and there’s a short description of what your company does for a living. But as soon as I step off the home page and into the traffic of your pages, it’s easy to get lost. The challenge for Web site designers, therefore, is to make navigation information as comprehensible as possible.

One guideline is to remember that your visitors aren’t you, so don’t organize information from the corporate perspective. AT&T Corp.’s home page offers me a choice of services: “Discover better ways to communicate at work, at home and on the Net.” “Work,” “home” and “on the Net” are links. Maybe that makes infinite sense to AT&T, but I run my Internet business out of my home.

For a real dose of disorientation, try finding a gas analyzer at www.siemens.com. The home page says nothing about products, so click on “Information.” Skip over “Business Segments” and go right to the Product Directory,” where you are told, “To browse alphabetically, just click on the first letter of the product’s name.” Assuming Siemens Corp. doesn’t name its products XLZ-17 or MoonUnit, try “G.” And there, fifth from the top, is “Gas Analyzers”!

Oh, you thought you were done? No, no, no. Across from “Gas Analyzers” is a hyperlink to Siemens Energy & Automation Inc.–actually to a page full of division names and addresses. Fortunately, the entry for Siemens Energy & Automation is a live link to www.industry.net/siemens, where you can click on “The Latest New Products & Developments.” There you will find a list of press releases, some of which have to do with…what was it again?

But it’s more instructive to look at a company that’s doing it right, such as Hewlett-Packard Co. Time was, if you went looking for a printer on the HP site, you would begin by scanning the home page for the “Products” button. Then, if you were at least a semi-nerd, you knew enough to click on “Peripherals,” which would lead to the “Printers” button, in all its glory. Not exactly the shortest distance between two points.

HP took a look at its logs and discovered that quite a few people were interested in printers. In fact, enough people were interested that the company took a bold step: It changed its home page. Now the very first button is “Printing & Imaging.” Nice work, HP.

For locating more-complex information, more-sophisticated tools are required. The Web builders at Sears, Roebuck and Co. knew they faced an uphill battle trying to point the way to more than 2,000 products in Sears’ Craftsman line. Their solution, called The Craftsman Tool Search, puts technology to good use. A Java applet offers five different tool categories. Click on a category, and its contents appear in an indented list. Another click, another indented list. That arrangement allows you to move quickly through “Bench/Stationary Tools” to “Compressors” to “Nailers, Staplers & Accessories” before the browser returns to the server for a list of the 18 available products. One more click takes you to the 3 1/2-inch Angle Framing Nailer of your dreams.

Search engines, as we’ve all come to know, are as handy for finding stuff on a single site as on the Web as a whole. Excite Inc. still offers its excellent search-by-example tool, which lists results for the next round of inquiry free, and Digital Equipment Corp. has AltaVista, one of the more powerful search engines you can buy. But if you are offering complex products that require elaborate configuring, Step Search may be your man. I tripped over this product years ago when its parent company, Saqqara Systems Inc., was just a handful of people, some thoughtful technology and a wonderful interface.

The IBM Corp. ThinkPad selector is one of several demos on the Saqqara site’s Step Search Gallery page. The screen fills with a lengthy list of features in the left-hand column and myriad options for each feature on the right. Any sane person confronted with such an enormous number of choices would turn tail and flee. That’s where the wonderful interface comes in.

Step Search relies on a sorting tool that responds to user input. The tool asks you to select options one at a time based on level of importance. Is processor speed your top priority? Then choose your speed. If you picked the high end, Step Search tells you, among other things, that there are four ThinkPads in the database. It shows you that none is pen-based, that all use Intel Corp. processors and that the resolution on each is 800 by 600 pixels. Then it lets you choose again. Would you rather decide between a 1.08GB drive and a 1.2GB drive or between an active-matrix display and a passive-matrix display? Pick the larger hard drive, and a ThinkPad model number is displayed. Select the active-matrix display, and three models from which to choose appear.

OK, so you don’t have a team of people who can study HTTP logs all day long, nor do you need to manage complex data with a nifty tool. But you still need to let your site visitors know where they are and where they can go in an easy manner. Consider the lessons learned by Novell Inc.

In its first iteration, Novell’s home page menu looked like a set of the company’s familiar red manuals. Then the company adopted its pingpong-balls-in-space logo and changed its site navigation strategy. The site designers added an icon bar that included a bolt of lightning, a compass and a triangle with a circle in the middle and an arch over the top.

Astute surfers noticed that the right-hand scroll-bar was gray and thus indicated there was more in the offing than met the eye. Scrolling down revealed the labels below the icons. The bolt of lightning was called “New,” the compass was tagged “Tour” and the triangle was labeled “Sales.” Semicomprehensible. But the company must have taken some grief over those icons because now the Novell home page buttons contain…text! That’s right: plain old, easy-to-comprehend text. Brilliant.

But navigational clarity must extend beyond the home page. Venture past the entrance to Seiko Epson Corp.’s site, and you will find menus and submenus at the top of every screen. With its emphasis on ease and utility, Epson clearly understands that it is building a software application, not an electronic magazine.

So how do you figure out what’s easy and useful? Talk to your company’s human factors engineers, the experts in ergonomics. Think about software interface design. Investigate the services of companies such as the Reuters Usability Group, which tests software in a glass room with video cameras running and engineers tracking how hard it is to use your latest release. Perform testing like that of National Semiconductor Corp., which regularly asks groups of 50 electronics engineers to compare its Web site with those of its competitors. These are blind tests; the engineers don’t know who is doing the research, so they comment freely.

Make the computer help people, not confuse them. That way, when users hit your site looking for information, they won’t feel like jumping back on the subway to another destination.