Web site usability lags but improving

Australian Web site usability lags two to three years behind that of similar US-built sites, according to Dr Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group (NNg).

Web sites are rated on their compliance with design principles set out in E-Commerce User Experience - 207 Guidelines (2001, first edition). US sites scored about 49 per cent, whereas Australian sites scored about 44 per cent, which is about where the US sites were in late 1999 to 2000, Nielsen said. NNg is a US-based consultancy which scores Web sites according to usability compliance principles, and scores them on how well they meet the criteria. The group claims to be a 'guru' in this space, and is publisher of the book, Homepage Usability: 50 Web sites Deconstructed, 2001, which tackled the usability of prominent sites including www.coles.-com.au.

Neilsen said Web site design is in a transition phase from the current "chaotic design" to five years hence when site design will be "very task-focused [for users]. Now, sites are clearly just cobbled together from random designs."

In a follow-up to an earlier critique of the Coles site, a NNg report notes that "Coles only fixed 38 per cent of the usability problems pointed out in the book....the site still needs a lot of work". Listed among these ongoing problems were visual and audible clutter (some from adverts), search limitations, supplier information "buried", and small things like an "unintuitive" traffic light (with the usual red/amber/green order reversed) and canned music that refuses to turn off. Noted improvements were a reduction in wasted space and removal of a "non-useful" welcome message.

In an e-mailed statement, Coles Myer said: "We welcome constructive feedback from customers and industry professionals. Coles will continue to improve our Web site to provide customers with the information they need."

NNg also provided critiques of www.ninemsn.com.au (favourable), www.nrma.com.au (generally favourable with some negative points such as it being hard to find one of NRMA's major offerings - roadside assistance), the Sydney Opera House, www.soh.nsw.-gov.au (innovative but a bit too arty with excessive use of Flash animation and illegible links).

Nielsen said an outsider's perspective is needed when testing a site's effectiveness.

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