When your Web site unravels

You’ve got an online form. You’ve got a credit card. But as you type in the necessary information to make a purchase, the form won’t work.

It took one of Tara O’Doherty’s test subjects more than 20 minutes to figure out the problem: though there were spaces between the numbers on the credit

card, there were no spaces or separate fields on the form. Experienced Web users, like IT managers and CIOs, are savvy enough to be aware of these flaws, but many people in the general public aren’t. This is the reason online forms have only an 11 per cent success rate — and the reason companies like Bell Canada and General Motors call in O’Doherty, national director of usability for Cossette Interactive, for help.

“”A lot of Web sites in the United States have fixed those kinds of mistakes, but we’re still making them in Canada,”” she told an audience Wednesday at the Toronto chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, which hosted a panel on Web usability. “”This is a science. There are reasons why blue on red doesn’t work on a Web page. We have to get thinking about it.””

Those in the audience, which filled one of the conference rooms at the Ontario Club to capacity, said they already are thinking about it. The problem is that they’re not IT people. They are vice-presidents of marketing, heads of public relations or other forms of corporate communications. Having come up through the ranks by developing brochures and print campaigns, they’re now being put in charge of both customer facing Web sites and employee intranets.

“”You’re preaching to the converted,”” one audience member interrupted long before the audience question-and-answer session was supposed to begin. “”I think we all get that usability is important, but I think we need to know what we can tell our management in order to get the funding for usability.””

The panel, which included an executive from one of Canada’s largest banks and a number of Internet consultants, said proving return on investment for a Web usability study may be more difficult than any other IT project. Peter Mosley, who created one of the first advertising Web pages with Magic Media’s Adrap, said we may have to wait out a generation gap before real progress gets made.

“”Until this group of management dies or retires, it won’t change,”” he said. “”Unless you’re talking about golf or horses or one of the other things they’re interested in, you’re not going to get any ear time.””

David Rodech, senior manager of Internet Strategy and Governance with the Bank of Montreal, argued that it’s possible to show that lack of attention to usability will hamper the business’s goals. In one case, he told his management that 30 per cent of an internal Web site’s potent

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