Cool Look, The Right Price

There it was. At the home improvement store. On sale! The coolest little brushed nickel light fixture. It was hip and stylish with it's modern square glass design and only $18, half off of clearance price! (Now ladies, you know that is too good of a deal to pass up.)

My hallway was in desperate need of new lighting. The dorky jelly jar ceiling fixture that the builder put in years ago did nothing to highlight my gallery of black and white family photos. Without hesitating, it went into my cart and was soon on it's way home with us.

I put it up right away. It was easy to install and it looked great! Not only that, it cast a half-circle halo of light on the pictures on the opposite wall. The bright glow of the halogen bulb illuminated the pictures with dramatic shadows. Perfect! It seemed like the ideal solution.

Functionality Issues Emerge

I headed back to my desk to work. It wasn't long before I heard a loud "clunk".

"What was that?" I yelled. "Um.. sorry..." came the small reply.

I hopped up and went to look. Aha... the shoe/coat closet door was smacking into my new light fixture when fully opened. Easy enough to fix! User error; training should do the trick. "Don't do that anymore!" I instructed the kids.

Every time I heard a "clunk" I'd yell, "STOP OPENING THAT DOOR SO WIDE!" Actually, this worked for a while. I trained my users not to slam the door open and everything got along nicely. I had the look and the coolness I wanted and I'd trained my users to live with a slight functionality problem.

The Universal User Issue

What I didn't bargain on was the users that I couldn't control. A stream of neighborhood kids, nephews, nieces, and friends traverses through my house on a fairly regular basis. And they all need to put their shoes in the shoe closet.

My user training ("STOP SLAMMING THAT DOOR!") was ineffective against such an onslaught. These users didn't visit often enough to learn the functionality of my unique situation and had to be taught every time they came over. I found myself lecturing each one as they came in on how to "work the closet door". Not only was it ineffective, it was a huge waste of my time!

My first instinct was to blame the users. How hard can it be? No one needs to open the closet door all the way to the wall in order to access the closet. Why couldn't they follow instructions? Not only that, I reminded them ALL the time so they were getting negative reinforcement when they forgot.

Target Audience Defines What You Can Effectively Do With Your Site

I had failed to take my target audience into account. If my target audience were:

  • Only Adults and
  • Only People Who Lived in My House

I could have made the limited functionality work so that I could have the look I wanted.

Since I could not control my target audience, I needed to make this work for anyone who was in my house, and without additional training.

Site Issues

The same thing often happens with websites. Someone knows someone who can do some great flash graphics, or one of the programmers comes up with a cool javascript or the designer builds a knockout design with non-standard navigation. You think it's cool and it brands your company as cutting edge. Your office users can use it fine (with a little coaching at first.) And yet, your web results are lousy.

Low sales, low newsletter subscriptions, few leads, very little interaction. It's almost as if your site doesn't exist. However looking at the webstats, you see that users are finding your site and even hanging around a little while, but they don't engage or interact. Most likely, you have a usability issue.

Usability issues are easy to overlook because you and your staff already know how to navigate and use the site. You guys aren't the ones slamming the light fixture into the wall... it's all the people who have to learn the rules.

Often people will say, "But the instructions on how to use it are written right there," or "All they have to do is try it to see how it works," but the reality is that if your site is not intuitive to use for your target audience, they aren't likely to invest the time to learn how it's supposed to work... even if it means reading a single sentence.

Fixing the Usability Issue

The obvious solution for me would have been to remove the light fixture and put up a shorter one. That would solve the problem, but lose the look. This is the option most usability analysts will give you... functionality without form. It overlooks the reason you have the issue in the first place... because you want that element!

The option I chose was what we might call a workaround. Instead of replacing the offending element (the light), I made the other elements work with IT. I installed a pneumatic door closer on the closet door, like the ones you see on storm doors. Not only did this limit how far the door could open, it automatically closed the door, keeping me from having to close the door 12 times a day when the kids left it open. A creative solution can often solve several problems!

How do you get creative with your isssues? First, identify them. Have 5-7 people who have never used your site before attempt to do common tasks on your site. Watch to see where they stumble. Common themes are usually spotted in several users.

Then, determine what is causing the issue. The most common issues are:

  • Something that can't be found
  • Something that doesn't work as expected
  • Something that drives users nuts, like animation, sounds, or delays

Once you've determined what the problem is, think it through. Do you need to get remove it, reorganize it, reduce it, or modify how it or other elements work?

Identifying user issues such as flash or javascript or dropdown navigation, applications that don't work in all browsers, annoying pop-ups, low contrast color schemes and more doesn't always mean you have to abandon the look or the function of that element. If you apply some creativity to solution, you can often keep your light fixture and your kids, I mean your cool site function and your usability.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
September 23, 2005

Scottie Claiborne is the facilitator of the Successful Sites Newsletter. She is a speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences and the High Rankings Seminars as well as the administrator of the High Rankings Forum.

Search Engine Guide > Scottie Claiborne > Tale of the Broken Light Fixture: A Target Audience Analogy