– Customer-Centric vs Organisation-Centric

I’ve been asking student volunteers to make an application at the University which means they end up, eventually, at And this, often, confuses them. There’s a number of reasons for this, but there’s a key issue which is a nice illustration of  customer-centricity versus organisation-centricity.

The students believe their application is going to the University. We, on the other hand, know that it is going to the national admissions centre. This is reflected in the way we link to as, in many cases, we simply dump the students into from a link called, for example, ‘apply’ or ‘application’ with little or no warning.

I’ve seen students express surprise when they enter the site. As far as they are concerned, they are making an application to Lund which will be dealt with by Lund. So to suddenly be confronted with a different navigation layout, a whole new search engine and a different brand, not unsurprisingly, confuses the hell of them.

As part of the changes I will make to the website (as a result of the most recent usability tests) I will implement and test some possible solutions to this problem – watch this space.

New Coast Digital Guide – ‘Time for a tune up’

A guide on usability has been produced by Coast Digital. It’s a good compilation of usability best practice and testing methods. The usability essentials section includes the following:

Do’s – Usability Essentials

  • Is your website easy to understand?
  • Is your core process stream lined?
  • Is the language used understood by users, or is there too much jargon?

Don’t’s  – Barriers to Usability

  • Poor navigation
  • Not including an explicit homepage link – many users are unfamiliar with clicking the logo
  • Not writing for the web

Download the entire 24 page guide from Coastal Digital.

There’s loads of good information in a clear no-nonsense presentation. The comment on the lack of an explicit homepage link is timely, as in the usability studies I’ve done over the last few months, I don’t think I’ve seen one student click on our logo (see left – red circle).


Usability Testing – 15 year review

One of the perks of working at a university, particularly if you’re a geek, is free access to journal articles. When I have time, I try to take a look at what been published recently in the field of usability and Human Computer Interaction.

A recent find is Holingsed and Novick (2007) who provide a review of usability testing practices of the last 15 years. They show that heuristic evaluations and cognitive walkthroughs are the most popular, with formal usability studies being reduced in ambition or abandoned.

I can understand the attractiveness of heuristic testing as its ROI is relatively high. But, one of the reasons I value usability testing, with real volunteers, is that you actually get to meet the customer. It’s often way to easy to avoid the people who use our website and, as a result, avoid tackling some of the major usability issues we may have. Obviously, the method you use must suit the questions you are asking but, for me, every opportunity to meet and understand the customer should be taken.

Holingsed, T. Novick, D. (2007) Usability Inspection Methods after 15 Years of Research and Practice. SIGDOC’07:Proceedings of the 25th annual ACM international conference on Design of communication.

The next SIGDOC conference will be Sept 2008.

Being Human – Human Computer Interaction in 2020

If the only brain food you eat this week is the new report from Microsoft research then you won’t be going far wrong.

The report is the results of a 2 day long forum, held in March 2007, which attempted to identify where Human Computer Interaction (HCI) will be in the next decade, and beyond.

The central theme of the report is the need to change HCI research and design to enable human values to be incorporated into technology.  Technology has already transformed people’s lives massively but there is an increasing focus on how technology can support their lives, and help them achieve the things which are important to them.

It’s easy with this kind of report to read it and say ‘so what?’. But a few years ago none of us expected to be adding chat functions, pod or vod-casts or RSS feeds to our websites. We certainly did not anticipate, for example, the growth of social networking sites and the affect this would have on the students we teach or the way they communicate.

One of the areas the report examines is the growth of Hyper Connectivity where more people are connected to each other, over greater distances and at any time. Will, for example, the physical location of a university continue to be as important? When a student can access massive amounts of learning materials on the web will a proffessor continue to occupy such a revered position? As mobile devices become more powerful, what changes will occur to work and home life when physical location ceases to be as important?

This report reminds us that the internet is still young and that we’ve barely started seeing the ways it can change people’s lives. The way universities teach, communicate and market their courses will be affected by the changes likely to happen in the near future. But, as this report emphasises, human values, and knowledge of what people consider important, remain key to the success of using technology, such as the web, for achieving our goals.

International English and the Art of Not Crashing Planes

I was talking to a friend of mine who teaches english to air traffic control tower operators. These are the guys who keep the tons of metal whizzing round the sky from a. hitting each other or b. hitting anything else.

He explained how there is a huge variation in the quality of english which control tower operators use. There have been tragically many, otherwise avoidable accidents, which were caused by misunderstandings between pilots and people on the ground. The most infamous of these is the 1977 accident in Tenerife, where 100s died, as a result of controllers misunderstanding the phrase ‘we’re now at take off’. The controllers gave them clearance to take off, then reversed their decision but – even though it was only seconds later – it was too late to stop the plane colliding with another.

Controllers are now taught, specifically,  international english – a form of english which provides immediate and fast understanding. The key is avoiding the use of localisms, metaphors and other sources of ambiguity. (I’m guilty of this a lot – I use the expression ‘straight off the bat’ far too often in meetings).

This is the same sort of english we should use on a website targetted at the international audience – enabling fast understanding and almost subconscious response from the user. The quality of the prose or the beauty of the language are completely secondary to the primary purpose of perfect understanding.

Obviously there is a difference in the level of seriousness here. If a air traffic controller screws up then bad things start to happen very quickly. If our website is less than perfect then, although it’s still serious, I suspect that lives will probably not be lost. International English is what many of our students speak and understand. We need to write in their language, so that our primary tool for recruitment – content on a website – is the most effective it can be.

IBM has a good overview about International English.

Bounce Rate – Is Our Content Working?

Bounce Rate is one of the metrics which Google Analytics measures – it is a measure of the % of visitors who bounce off your site – they enter, via a particular page, and then leave without going any deeper into the site.

For example, your homepage attracts 50 000 visits a day. Wow, that sounds good! But, if your bounce rate is 75% it means that three quarters of your visitors leave your homepage without clicking on a single link.  For an e-commerce site bounce rate is a vital statistic – if people leave they ain’t buying. For a content driven site – like our University site – if people are bouncing it means they ain’t reading.

Like all statistics interpretation needs to be carefully considered – but it is an extremely valuable tool when used in conjunction with other measures of success such as usability testing and surveys. Pages with high bounce rates could mean that the content, the words that we are using, are not correct. They are not a ‘call to action’ for the user. For example, maybe ‘Study here’ works better than ‘Education’ . Furthermore, we can look at bounce rate over time and use it to measure the effect of changes that we make.

Here’s Avinash Kaushik talking about Bounce Rate, this is a great video, and it’s only a few minutes long.

The English homepage has a bounce rate of around 20% – which is very low, and very good. But the page which lists our faculties, and their master programmes, has a bounce rate of 50%, not completely terrible, but not so good either.

As I begin to implement the changes from the last round of usability testing I’ll use bounce rate as a key metric, to help me see if the changes I make are better for the user.



4Q – Free online survey

Avinash Kaushik blogs about 4Q, a new free online survey tool he has put together with iperceptions. The ‘best survey questions ever’, which 4Q uses, were the inspiration for the static (i.e. non popup) survey we have on the english pages of

The video at his post gives a compelling argument of why the data this kind of survey produces – the voice of the customer- is so valuable for showing what people are actually trying to do on your website.