Friday, September 25, 2009

The Limit of Web Usability Studies

I came across a great set of research-based website usability guidelines. These are very good guidelines. I will definitely bookmark this.

But this got me thinking. As a designer, I'm always skeptical of adhering to design guidelines as if they were immutable laws. I always look for the exceptions, especially because my linear-thinking developer friends want me to obey them as laws of nature. As I thought about it, you know, there are occasions when these guidelines can be broken.

Granted, guidelines like character lengths of 50-65 being considered premium--even in print--are generally true. This is because fatigue hinders reading in long line lengths, and very short line lengths creates too much of an interruption in reading--creating fatigue in comprehension.

However, this general rule changes when you have multiple columns of text, like in a newspaper, or newspaper-like website. Although there are guidelines in that scenario, they are different than the general guidelines.

What's interesting is that there are a couple of factors involved that most studies tend to overlook. One is expectation, and another is a prejudicial interest.

Audiences tend to expect certain things because they are used to seeing them in particular contexts. People expect to see serif text body copy in a scholarly or literary context, and san-serif text in an informal or contemporary context. In studies, people will prefer one over the other because of what they are used to seeing. That's why age, sex, and other factors influence the study's outcome.

Also, what people are already interested in influences the outcome of studies. When someone who is a car enthusiast comes to a badly designed car website, she may like other car website designs better, but she may prefer the badly designed website simply because the information is more to her liking, or it shares her perspective.

Case in point, there are studies claiming that line-length doesn't appreciatively influence comprehension, preference, and overall satisfaction. (See this for an example.) Even though line-length alone matters more when you test for preferences with random individual's on random websites, the results change depending on all sorts of demographic and psychographic factors that are often overlooked (like coming from a culture that reads from right to left).

I wholeheartedly agree that these guidelines are good for a general understanding of good site design and structure. But, the problem is that we need to understand our audiences better, have content that matters to them, and create an online experience that — by applying these guidelines — will help them.

But I enjoy these research-driven sites. They give great support to the power of good design.

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