How are your users surfing?

It is no secret that I believe that a company’s web presence is a direct reflection on the quality of their brand and by extension their products or service offerings.  Is it fair that consumers judge a company by the quality of their web interaction?  Probably not, but it happens millions of times a day all over the world. 

The difficulty in producing a good user experience on the web lies in the fact that there are so many components that go into making a “good” web site or web application.  There are the content providers, the information architects, the graphic designers, the web developers and potentially many others.  Sometimes, in small organizations, these roles are each fulfilled by the same person.  Sometimes, in larger organizations, the people that fulfill these roles might never meet. Regardless of the development dynamic, a lot of effort is expended on many different levels in order to produce a web site or web app. 

With all that goes into producing our web presence it is easy to loose sight of the users and their needs.  We sometimes fail to ask ourselves “How are users going to be accessing and consuming my web content?” In the user experience world, we call this context of use and in my experience this is a question that often gets overlooked.  

Let’s take an issue like browser compatibility as an example.  It is hard enough and very time consuming to ensure that your web site or web app works on all major browsers, and versions.  There’s IE 6,7 & 8, Firefox, Opera, Safari and Chrome the list does go on.  

When you factor in the browsers that are being used on handheld devices, netbooks, game consoles and phones the number of browsers and versions have now increased by a growing order of magnitude.

 The question is whether it matters.  The answer is that it matters to you if it matters to your users.  Bottom line.  Know your users.  If your users access your site using a blackberry or an iPhone then you should be ensuring that your site works well with those browsers.  For an iPhone user that means no Flash, for blackberry users it means a judicious use of graphics and alt tags.  

Before you go through the trouble of creating separate mobile sites to accommodate potential users, you should make sure that those users actually exist.  A little bit of user research goes a long way.  It is important to understand the context in which users access your site or web app and what they are trying to accomplish. 

User surveys, web analytics and interviews are all reliable and cost-effective ways to understand what your users are doing and what they need.  Gaining a deeper understanding of user needs and context of use will allow you to respond to your users’ needs in an efficient and effective manner saving you time, effort and money on the development end and allowing you to focus on the browsers and user experience that is actually pertinent to your users. 

The browser example is just one illustration of how user research can help you focus your development effort.  Whether the question is what browser should you support or what are the most important tasks that users need to accomplish.  Taking those questions back to the users can greatly de-risk your decision making process.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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