“web usability focus group” (this is sorta work-related)

and I didn’t get home until pretty late last night, which is why I’m writing now.

last week we got a call from someone connected with our credit union, asking whether C wanted to participate in a focus group related to their website. strangely, they kept missing him when they called, so it wasn’t until they’d called a couple of times leaving no message that I finally asked what was up. when I heard, I knew intuitively that he wouldn’t be terribly interested. he doesn’t do surveys – for several months we were on the Dept of Commerce’s list to call for stats, and he was rather consistently rude to them. I, on the other hand, love doing surveys – if they’re at all interesting. I had a great conversation with the DoC guy once about our computer use habits. (advising him, back in ’98(?), to get off of AOL, among other things.)

and of course in this case I had a professional interest. plus, their current site sucks.

so C drove me way the hell out to this place by the Oly airport, where I waited in the lobby with about a dozen other people. I kinda wish I had the notes I was scrawling to myself to keep from smothering in boredom, because it was a classically awkward scene. then we were herded into a room with long tables in the middle and a dozen computers.

it was very much like the procedures in the Krug book that I have (which my boss borrowed a while back, and judging from my work bookshelf, still has) – a couple of video cameras, with leads into an adjacent room. the guy leading the group talked us through what was going to happen, said it wasn’t our fault if we found something confusing, be honest, etc., etc. we all had stapled-together sets of feedback forms, which we filled out one page at a time, starting with some basic information (how long we’d been members of the credit union, how much we used the site, how long we’d been using the ‘net (I always wonder if they mean just web pages, or email too), age, name).

we did three tasks on the current site, talking through it the whole way. two were agonizing, the third (find the branch closest to your house) was dead easy, if only because that’s the only part of the site aside from the online banking that I use with any sort of regularity – I can never remember bank hours. I so loathe the navigation scheme of their site. then filling out a feedback form.

then we went to the draft of the new site. first off, it was a vast improvement over the current, design-wise. very pretty, clear, pictures of people, a large logo in the upper left. great colors – blue, green, accented with a reddish-orange.

then we went through some tasks, which pulled out the weaknesses of the new site. the tiniest font, everywhere; I thought I was gonna go blind. and of course it was css pixel-sized font, so I couldn’t resize it on the test computer (IE: the Netscape 4 of the 21st century!); I did complain vociferously, and I wasn’t the only one. (they actually had to adjust the resolution for one person, who said that she has poor eyesight.) and lots of places where the important information was buried in “fluff” – not even my word, but from the guy sitting next to me.

I was intrigued at the number of people who said they wanted to see things in bullet points. something to remember.

also something to remember: most people liked the concept of drop-down menus. who knew? this came up when we looked at a fake account in the online banking section – which was also vastly improved, but didn’t clearly delineate the program-like functions of the online banking system from the marketing-like navigation elements to the rest of the site. several people said that a drop-down would’ve been good there. I wonder if that’s because it’s a program-like space, and drop-downs (javascript-style, not form-element style) are more native to that conceptual space? the only people who expressed a strong opinion against dropdowns were me and one other guy (more about that later).

also, on very long pages, there was a strong preference for a bullet-point list at the top with in-page links to stuff further down, with a “return to top” link under each item. still a fairly strong prejudice against scrolling, which as a heavy blog-reader I don’t really have anymore – but a couple of people noted that the scrolling in combo with the tiny text was problematic.

on the new site, we filled out a feedback form for each page. one thing that bugged me – the middle position (3) on the rating items was listed as “no opinion” – I’d’ve preferred “neutral,” because it’s not that I don’t have an opinion, it’s that I don’t feel very strongly either way. neutrality is still an opinion: in my case, it was mostly that a given item was a mixed bag, some good points and some bad points, and so they cancelled each other out.

I did notice a few other accessibility issues, which I didn’t bring up in conversation because I knew they were a little too wonky, not really related to my actual experience. although I was quick to point out what the problem was when someone noticed “a lot of white space on the right hand side” – fixed-width layout! (the gal with the low resolution had a horizontal scroll, too.) yes, it was table-based as well, but I didn’t get a good enough look at the source to know if it was a crazy table layout or a sensible one. (did have a doctype, though, which is a good start. Dreamweaver MX?) and I’m not sure if everything had correct alt text – I saw a lot of alt=”” but couldn’t tell if those were just for the spacers, or for the text-as-pictures as well (lots of that in tabs and headers).

extra wonkiness: on the feedback form for the “find your branch on the new site” task, when I saw a table that I knew would linearize badly, I recommended that they get a copy of Joe Clark’s book – which doesn’t seem to be in my office either. did I take it home on my last telework day?

one interesting thing towards the end: the moderator asked what was our favorite and least favorite things about the credit union in general, and several people said that the website was their least favorite thing.

afterwards, I talked to the moderator for a minute or two – turns out that, yes, Krug’s methods were very influencial in their process. and while I was talking to him, one of the other participants came up and asked if I was a developer as well. turns out he’s a web guy for the Department of Revenue…he was the other person who was strongly against javascript drop-downs. 🙂 we who have tried them know what a royal pain in the @ss they are.

so all in all, I’m happy I got to participate – both because I hope it’ll improve a website I use on a regular basis, and because I think I learned a few things for my own work. (that, and I had a brilliant idea for a redesign for this site that won’t be quite so crazy-making.)