Corporate website usability: more vices…and some virtues

As we did last year at our annual conference, we conducted some user testing in partnership with the Bunnyfoot user experience (UX) consultancy at our recent event in Lisbon. Here, Andrew Rigby reports back – once again some familiar themes emerged, along with some new insights into corporate web usability.

We tested 14 different websites over the course of two days, with conference delegates asked to carry out a relevant two-stage task (or tasks) on each site. Jon Dodd, CEO of Bunnyfoot, oversaw the sessions with assistance from me.

Eye-tracking added to the insight that the tests provided. Of course, with such a small test sample, and the familiarity of our users with corporate sites in general – although not the sites they were testing – any conclusions drawn can only be indicative of possible results from more comprehensive user testing.

But we think that, as we explained last year, the tests did show the value that can be gained from real usability testing on corporate sites – something that a couple of presentations at the conference also touched on.

Search to the rescue – or not

Once again we saw users either resorting to internal search to find pages, or simply using it instead of attempting navigation. Yet few internal search engines were truly helpful, and some were very poor.

It was suggested that, in at least one case, this was because the corporate site search engine was being shared with customer-facing sites, and set up to rank results on keyword density rather than relevance. This resulted in older, less useful results being surfaced - such as old quarterly results announcements, rather than the latest ones.

It should be possible to adjust search engine behaviour across corporate and customer-facing sites, to ensure corporate sites return relevant, recent material for their audiences.. If this is not possible, consider circumventing the search engine with promoted results for popular searches, and in any case use keyword/phrase completion tools to help users.

Navigation sometimes needs help

Although our small 2018 sample showed generally improved navigation and orientation from last year, there were still some sites on which users became lost because helpful location cues such as breadcrumb trails, or a menu highlighting indicating the current section (or indeed menus themselves), were missing or obscured.

Another persistent trait we saw was the eagerness of users to identify themselves as a certain audience, and look for a similarly-named section, such as Customers or Patients. If your site does not have sections for each potential audience, pay attention to where they might end up or what they may be looking for – and provide effective cross-linking to their desired destinations.

For example, a pharmaceutical company had some information on a new drug in its Pipeline area, and not under Patients, as it is not yet licenced or in production. All very logical, except a user looking for that drug might not know its status and so simply head to the Patients area. In this case, cross-linking from the Patients section is essential.

Avoid ads, signifiers and page furniture

We also noted that users could easily ignore design features which companies were relying on as links. For example, on several occasions visitors missed hotspots or panels with text over an image. Jon Dodd says is this is common and results from our increasing tendency to ignore anything that looks like an advert.

There were several examples of carousels or images filling an entire browser window, and fooling users into missing the information they wanted further down the page. While some companies tried to avoid this by adding downward arrows or ‘Scroll down’, the need for such signifiers indicates the design is not working well enough. The design itself should communicate that more valuable material is available down below.

Components which looked like parts of the page furniture could equally be overlooked, so be wary of enclosing important links or calls to action in full-width bars or areas that could be mistaken for the top or bottom of the browser.

Lack of information ‘scent’

Users missed some clear onward links because the information ‘scent’ was weak. For example, brand carousels that did not explain why users should be interested in the range of brands, or the information users would receive on brand pages; or adverts for annual reports which did not pull out an interesting key headline or message. 

Surface some of the valuable content from below to inform and entice users to follow – avoid just another bland title with a corporate stock picture.

The state of tabs and filters

Tabs and filter mechanisms need clear labelling and ‘selected state’ indicators. In a few instances users were confused by the presence of just two tabs, where it was not clear which of the tabs had been selected. Another hindrance to usability was hiding information in open and close mechanisms, without an ‘Open all’ feature, which is common on FAQ pages.

Cross-country routes

In keeping with the theme of the conference, communicating effectively across cultures, we tested routes between country and global sites – and they were often found wanting. Country site selectors, like any call to action, need a visual cue, such as an icon or arrow, to attract users’ attention, and they need to be consistent across the estate. Also avoid the common error of using flags to denote language and risk offending for example French speaking Belgians - some of the sites we saw got this right but others did not.

Register for the ‘Best of WEC 2018’ web meeting on September 26th, 2018

Were you unable to join us at our Web Effectiveness Conference in Lisbon last week? Did you attend and are keen to share the learnings with your team after the event? Join our web meeting and relive the Best of WEC 2018.

To register, visit our events page (and scroll down to September events)

For more commentaries, tips and downloads for online corporate communications professionals, visit our website.

If you have a query or for more information about Bowen Craggs, including the visitor profiles* Bowen Craggs uses when evaluating websites and social channels for our Index of Online Excellence, please contact Dan Drury: ddrury@bowencraggs.com.

*Eligible recipients only – usually senior digital communications professionals working for large corporate or public sector/non-governmental organizations.

The five biggest performance gaps in corporate digital communications

Corporate digital managers at 25 of the world’s largest companies have told us their teams’ top priorities for the next 12 months and where they think they are falling short. Jason Sumner and Lisa Hayward share the five biggest performance gaps across the group.
 

The Bowen Craggs Club, a new networking and research community for corporate digital managers, launched over the summer. As a first step in joining, we asked club members to sit down with us for in-depth conversations about their teams’ priorities, strengths and weaknesses in a number of core performance areas such as content strategy, measurement, relationships with internal stakeholders and managing high-performing digital teams.

We’ve had 25 conversations so far, and it seemed like a good time to share a little of what we have learned (on an anonymous basis of course). We asked members to score their teams on a scale of 1 to 5 across a number of skills and competencies, and then identify which of these skills and competencies they most want to improve on.

As a result, we were able to identify the areas where there were the biggest gaps between desired performance and self-reported outcomes. Here are the top five:

1. Failure to set or consistently use key performance indicators (KPIs)

‘Measurement’ is regularly near the top of digital manager challenges whenever we’ve run short surveys in the past. This time the long-form interviews allowed people to expand on the reasons good intentions so often lead to frustration when it comes to KPIs. Even in otherwise top-performing organizations, we found that the barriers are deep-seated, company-specific, political and even psychological. Three of the most interesting were:

  • In one organization, KPIs are applied in an ad hoc way because, ‘Stakeholders don’t understand how to translate business goals into KPIs and the digital team isn’t pushing them.’

  • Another organization said their ‘standard’ KPIs are not good enough. ‘They need to be more channel specific.’

  • Fear of linking metrics to goals is a factor for one organization, despite the fact that communications leadership is already convinced of the value of measurement. ‘They are scared of setting KPIs and failing. Failure needs to be seen as an opportunity to learn.’

2. Lack of a content strategy for different channels and screen sizes

The proliferation of digital channels and devices over the last few years has also kept ‘content strategy’ (which we define as having a defined process to produce and publish content across differing channels, devices and geographies) at the top of the priority list. Our interviews found digital managers planning to do a lot of work on the device and channel side over the next 12 months – particularly in developing multi-purpose content. Said one, ‘The leading channel is the website. Content published there is repurposed for social media use, and some content is created first for social media. We don’t plan ahead.’ Said another, ‘We have an editorial group managing content across platforms, but can sometimes think offline first. There is room for improvement to help educate employees and agencies to change this mindset.’

Rounding out the top five: Roles and responsibilities, agency relationships and usability testing

There was a three-way tie rounding out the top five performance gaps:

  • Who owns the channel? Given the above work on content strategy, it is not surprising that digital teams are still working out the right relationship with internal stakeholders and local teams over who publishes what, and when. ‘A grey area exists in the mind of the content owner about who owns the page. Internal stakeholders think the digital team. A roadshow is planned to educate and keep reinforcing.’ Another interviewee said, ‘We are trying to create combined and shared content plans rather than work in silos.’

  • Getting the most out of agencies: The difficulties mentioned included a lack of corporate and industry expertise, and an assumption that corporates don’t want to be seen as creative. Another organization does not use agencies currently but wants to bring in fresh thinking from outside.

  • Finally, usability testing was seen as a priority by many of our interviewees, but it is not widely used at the moment. Several companies are taking first steps and sounding out experts. ‘We are testing new designs, a team member is doing a master’s degree in user experience and we plan to focus on it in the next 12 months.’

- Jason Sumner and Lisa Hayward

The Bowen Craggs Club is an exclusive network for the most engaged online corporate communications professionals, aimed at individuals and companies who believe in the need for world-leading corporate web estates. Although most group members work in Fortune 500 corporations, we welcome senior managers from public sector and non-governmental organizations with responsibility for large web presences.

For more information, visit our website or contact Lisa Hayward, lhayward@bowencraggs.com

BC tip: Washington Post – Memorable design features

Design elements from an online special feature could be adapted for corporate stories.

BC tip - WaPo.png

The Feature

‘Tampa Bay’s coming storm’ is a special feature on the Washington Post’s website, published in July, about the disaster that could unfold if a strong hurricane hit the Florida city.

It is full of creative animations, illustrations, embedded videos and professional photography; with interesting arrangements of the elements to increase impact – for example, as readers scroll down the page, a pull quote from a government official appears alone against the backdrop of an animation of a hurricane.

The Takeaway

The Washington Post feature represents the best of online journalism at the moment – great writing combined with unique and eye-catching visuals, all of which make the most of the web as a medium. You continue to scroll because the writing is compelling and the design elements keep surprising.

Companies with the appropriate budgets should consider adapting the ideas in the ‘coming storm’ feature to engage with readers and make their own online stories more memorable.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/health/environment/tampa-bay-climate-change/

Seven deadly sins of corporate website usability

At our recent annual conference, in partnership with the Bunnyfoot user experience (UX) agency, we conducted some user testing on some of our delegates’ websites. Although the sessions were designed just to give an indication of how this type of testing can help web managers, they provided some real food for thought, says Andrew Rigby.


This is the latest in our series of posts about the conference, following on from our summary of six key takeaways. A guest blog from one of our speakers will follow in the coming weeks.

The sessions we ran with Bunnyfoot involved giving users exercises to complete on a corporate website that they did not know. We asked each tester to put themselves in the shoes of a corporate website user wanting to complete a relevant, two-stage task. For example, a jobseeker looking for information on a particular company’s sustainability policies before searching for a specific job.

With the help of some clever eye-tracking technology, we – and the web managers of the sites being tested – could see how the users went about trying to find the right information.

We should point out that the sessions were only indicative: we used delegates as our guinea pigs and gave each one just ten minutes to complete the tasks. Real user experience design (UX) testing would involve asking a number of users, who are actually investors or jobseekers or the like, to complete a series of tasks over a longer a period. 

In other words, our tests were not truly scientific. We just wanted to show that UX testing is relatively easy to conduct with the right equipment and the help of experts like Bunnyfoot; and to give an idea of the type insights it can reveal. 

But even allowing for the lack of rigour, seven deadly sins of corporate website UX emerged:

1. Unhelpful search

Users frequently started their tasks on external search engines, or often used the sites’ internal search mechanisms. So not only do corporate sites need to perform well on the likes of Google, but their own searches need to help users find what they want. All too often, internal searches failed to deal with misspellings or synonyms by suggesting alternatives, to search PDFs, or to present results in well-ordered lists.

2. Neglected navigation

Poor navigation meant that many users resorted to the internal search or simply failed to complete their tasks. Sometimes this was due to difficulties in using dropdown menus – some were simply too big to be used on a laptop screen. In other cases, users could not see the sub-sections or sub-pages at lower levels, and so were forced to take leaps of faith by clicking on section headings they hoped would reveal what they wanted. It was noticeable that left-hand menus – something we have championed for a while – were generally more successful and users were quick to use them; but there were poorly implemented examples of these too. 

Aside from the main menu styles, it was rare to find effective cross-linking to relevant content. It meant that if users found a page which was not quite what they were looking for, but perhaps was on the same topic, they were seldom offered on-page links to their destination. This was also true for predictable journeys which took in pages in different sections.

It left an impression that user needs should dictate information architecture and cross-linking more than they sometimes do.

3. ‘Look at me’, not ‘use me’, labelling

There were many examples of users finding what they wanted thanks to clear labelling in menus, or on-page links. Yet there were also instances of users being confused by vague section or page titles, either because several pages or themes were nested under them, or because ‘neat’ company-specific jargon or terms were being used. The absence of format icons or indicators for downloads also created uncertainty. 

Tasks were more likely to be completed on sites where web managers had anticipated the words or phrases which users would be looking for and had labelled pages and sections accordingly, or surfaced important pages higher in the website structure, rather than hiding them under catch-all section titles which did not resonate with users. Users responded well to headings labelled with their audience type, such as Investors or Media.

4. Imperfect page layouts

How a page is presented matters: there were various instances of users finding the correct page, but still missing the right information on it. Big blocks of text - especially ones in capital letters – or crucial information contained a long way down a page or only in a PDF, especially hampered usability. 

Pages with short paragraphs – getting shorter as the page continues – and with signposts to key information on them, such as anchor links or headings, performed well. Users tend to scan long pages rather than read them in detail.

5. Inconsistent images

Given that users often scan pages rather than read every word, images can provide a quick visual cue as to whether users are on the right page. A poorly chosen image occasionally undermined user confidence, to the extent that some left the page that best served their needs. Images which supported page content by reflecting the idea or region being talked about were more helpful. 

6. Painful processes

Whether it was a badly designed search mechanism, or a job application system which required login details too be entered twice, users were quick to abandon journeys – or at least voice their displeasure – if barriers were put in their way. Getting users to the right place is not enough, as they expect a painless process once there.

7. Cookie monsters

Quite a few sites were dominated by very large cookie consent mechanisms when users hit the first page. Many users either failed to dismiss these until several pages into their journey, or became confused by their presence. Of course, these notices need to be presented, but doing so in an appropriate way is important, as they can form an initial impression of a site from the very outset. Another example of something which can easily be overlooked, but can actually be a big factor in a good user experience. 

User testing can be seen as a luxury by corporate web managers, and one which is often omitted from projects in the face of small teams, tight budgets and pressing deadlines. But if time and money can be found, seeing how real users interact with a website can be very helpful – so that the UX can be tailored to their needs.

- Andrew Rigby

Guide to online corporate audiences: Contact Dan Drury (ddrury@bowencraggs.com) for a copy of the visitor profiles Bowen Craggs uses when evaluating websites and social channels for our Index of Online Excellence. Eligible recipients only – usually senior digital communications professionals working for large corporate or public sector/non-governmental organizations.

What to do with the poor old media section

The exploding complexity of the media world has left the Cinderella of website sections behind, says David Bowen.

Who do corporate websites serve the best? One way to tell is to look at the Bowen Craggs Index, which is based on a ‘user-centred’ approach. Our reviewers put themselves into the heads of different groups, and see how well they are served: the scores come out of that process.

I’ve extracted averages for each of ‘serving’ metrics in the Database from our top 30 list – that is, the best online communicators among large companies - and have found intriguing differences. The best served group belongs to what we call ‘society’ – a combination of CSR professionals and broader groups interested in the company's behaviour (reputation management would be another way of putting it). They score 24.4 out of 32 on average. Then come investors and jobseekers on 23.1 each, and customers on 22.4.

Bringing up the rear is ‘serving the media’, on a distinctly unimpressive 20.6. If this were a school exam, the media section gets 64 per cent while 'society' gets 76. I’ve done similar sums over the years, and the results are always similar. The media section is too often the Cinderella, and it shows: press releases poorly organized, background information thin, image libraries weak. But journalists are a key to that other thing companies are so good at, reputation management. What’s going on?

It’s surely because the nature of news has been transformed by the internet, but few companies have got their heads round what this really means for them. That, as with so many things, is reflected in their websites: press offices don’t really know what they should be doing, so their web outlets suffer from a lack of clear purpose. 

Traditionally, press officers have concentrated on cultivating a small number of influential journalists with well tried techniques (such as lunch). Many still prefer to do this and it probably still returns maximum results for a set amount of effort. They may have expanded their group of influencers to bloggers or tweeters, but either way the website is not terribly relevant. They do not spend much time helping to get the basics of the media section working smoothly, and it shows.

But I would be libelling them terribly if I claimed they were not very aware of the changes the internet has wrought on their profession. Two changes in particular: the blurring of what a ‘journalist’ is, and the multiple earthquakes caused by social media.

What is a journalist? Is it still a person paid by a publisher to produce words? Does it now include influential bloggers and tweeters? Is it anyone who blogs and tweets? Is it anyone who reads blogs and tweets, and passes them on? Is it everyone (‘there are seven billion journalists’ was once a fashionable line)?  Bringing this back to the press officers - who is it their job to influence?

Every organization has tried to understand social media, and there are signs that some corporations are cracking it: grasping that it is not one thing but many is a key to this, as is getting its huge role of reputation management. But who is in charge of it? Marketing and customer service people jumped on it first; press people leapt at it too, but too often grabbed what they could without asking the simple journalistic questions: why and how? 'Social media dashboards’ appeared, embedded Twitter feeds are still appearing; but I wonder who is using these, and how. Were I still a journalist I would have my own dashboard like Hootsuite, and I’d set it up to follow the people and subjects I needed. I don't think I'd spend too much time looking at social media on corporate sites.

So maybe the targets are broader groups: if not the seven billion, then a congregation of journalists, bloggers, tweeters, ‘concerned consumers’, jobseekers, NGO people, politicians, regulators and so on. This would explain two linked trends. First there is a fashion for giving the old press section a name that is more inclusive: ‘News and features’, News and Insights’ for example. Second, some sites do not provide just the raw material from a which a journalist can start crafting a piece (which is what a press release is), but provide full-formed pieces. ‘The press release is dead’, the head of Coca-Cola’s site declared a few years ago – what he meant was, you don’t need to read a story repackaged by journalists when you can get it beautifully written straight from us. A useful way of thinking of this is wholesale versus retail: with wholesale you give journalists the basic product and let them do it up and sell it in their own shop; with retail you provide perfectly packaged products direct to the consumer. 

Given all these different things, it is hardly surprising that so many media sections are a bit of muddle. The answer, I think, is to untangle them: to straighten out the intertwined strands of spaghetti and lay them neatly next to each other. This can be done, but it requires a change of thinking within the company – as ever it’s about management, not technology.

Here are my suggestions:

  • Acknowledge that ‘traditional’ journalists (perhaps boosted by a few influential bloggers) are not only the most important single group to target, but that they need to be served in a specific way. Keep a traditional press section but make it really useful for these people. Let them check names and dates easily in fully-searchable archive of press releases; give them background material or link to useful pages around your web estate. Maybe management speeches should be here. Include a decent image library. Most important, give them good contacts so that can get in touch at any time of day or night.
  • Acknowledge too that a much broader audience wants to know about your company – our online surveys show surprising numbers of non-journalists saying they are looking for ‘news’. Give it to them in the form of features, soft news articles, interviews – in text, video, audio, graphics, whatever. This is of course what many companies are already doing with online magazines, and they’re doing it well (some, like Coca Cola Journey and the late-departed SAB Miller site, pretty much are magazines with a few bits added).
  • But - and this is the key - separate the two clearly. Getting labels right is crucial. Use a word that says ‘this is for professional journalists’ on the press section – call it press or media. Be even more explicit by calling it ‘For journalists’ (I like this). Don’t include the word ‘news’. The more general material will need a home, and that can be tailored according to need. GSK’s Behind the science is what it says it is; so is Goldman Sachs Our thinking. If it’s a magazine, call it that, as Bayer does.
  • Corporate social media needs to be treated carefully – divided into its different channels, and managed primarily by the same people who run the corporate website. Press officers may be involved, of course, and may even run channels – but only if they understand exactly why they are doing it, and who their audiences are.

What management changes will this need? Well, the press office will run the ‘professional’ bit (along with the digital team of course). Should it also run the softer channels? If not, who will? Who will manage social media? Are press offices as they exist now 'fit for purpose'? Should they be rebranded as reputation management departments?  Do you need a press office at all … the questions have a habit of snowballing. But they need to be answered, or the none of the audiences will be as well served as they should be and corporate websites will continue to underperform badly in our ‘serving the media’ metric.

David Bowen