In the Web Lab

FRAMINGHAM (03/09/2000) - It was painful, a little like watching your child perform at her first piano recital. "The first one was difficult," says Meredith King, the marketing director at Request4Bid.com. "I was so scared."

It wasn't her child at the piano that had made King anxious; it was an external user having a go at her company's new Web service about four weeks prior to its official public launch. He was the first of nine people who would visit the usability laboratory to put the Web site through its paces as King and a half-dozen other observers watched from behind a one-way mirror.

The objective: to ferret out every bug, bottleneck, wart, garble and glitch before exposing the service - a site for corporate buyers of computer hardware - to the onslaught of demanding, impatient and sometimes clueless users. King has insisted that the site be so intuitive to first-time users that any click on the Help button or any glance at the list of frequently asked questions is seen as a sign of failure.

Bellevue, Wash.-based Request4Bid.com makes its public debut Monday at www.request4bid.com. It's an online "reverse auction," which means it's the sellers who bid, not the buyers. Information technology buyers post their hardware requirements, and suppliers submit bids to meet the requirements. The company aims to create an efficient marketplace by reducing the time buyers and suppliers spend finding one another, determining prices, settling on terms and executing their transactions.

Development Services

Request4Bid.com turned to Xcelerate Corp. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for help in developing the Web-based auction service. Xcelerate provides soup-to-nuts e-commerce development services, including market research, strategy formulation, software development and integration and usability testing. The Web service was built by Xcelerate from an online auction application framework from Moai Technologies Inc. in San Francisco.

At Xcelerate's e-Business Supercenter in Atlanta, King is joined on the dark side of the one-way mirror by the Xcelerate project manager, a data logger who records how long it takes to perform various functions and a computer/human interaction expert who watches everything from the tester's facial expressions to how he moves the mouse.

"As the usability experts, we'll focus on the negative reactions, because we are looking to improve the software," says Daryl Ohrt, Xcelerate's human factors expert. "But the developers and the clients will focus more on the positive responses because they have a lot invested in it."

Request4Bid.com and Xcelerate scoped out the characteristics of the two types of users - IT managers and purchasing agents - who are most likely to use the Web site. Xcelerate then found people on the outside who fit those demographic profiles and brought them in for paid testing sessions lasting two to four hours.

Testing the Site

On the day of the tests, a man with a soft British accent spends two hours walking through six Request4Bid.com functions, such as registering as a buyer, creating a quote and updating the vendor profile. He's instructed to verbalize his thought processes and actions as he goes along, and he writes down his own comments after each task. He's watched intently through the one-way mirror, and his keystrokes and mouse clicks show up on three computer screens in the observation room. If he asks the application expert seated next to him for help, those "assists" are logged and tracked.

The tester is also videotaped, and his voice and keystrokes are recorded. The recordings and timing data will be dissected in detail here, and King will take them back to her office for further study. When the tester wonders out loud how he can update a file before he has created it, Web developers realize the button that's giving him a problem should be labeled "Create/Update" instead of just "Update."

The tester is building a request for bids for Hewlett-Packard Co. disk arrays, and he says he's very concerned that vendors get his configuration specifications exactly right. He says he'd feel more comfortable if each specification had its own data field on the Web page, rather than one free-format area called Configuration Notes. Request4Bid.com developers decide to add two fields just for data about the operating system and firmware.

Ohrt says the original version of the Request4Bid.com service used three Web pages to build a vendor list - something that could have been done on just one page, saving the time required to load two additional pages and half the user's mouse clicks. He says it was probably done first with three pages simply because that's the way engineers thought of the process.

Ohrt says Web designers should - but often don't - ask and answer three questions: Who are the users? How do they work? What are their goals? For example, if users are likely to be older people, use larger fonts and greater color contrast for weaker eyes, he says. If the site is likely to be used by people on the road, keep bandwidth requirements to a minimum, he advises.

As for goals, Ohrt says Request4Bid.com may be used to procure an HP server, but there are important secondary objectives as well. "Your goal may also be to impress your boss with how much money you saved," he says. For that reason, at the end of the buying transaction, Request4Bid.com reports the list price of the HP server, its generic discount price, its average auction price and the price the user paid.

Ohrt says the error he sees most often is designers putting so much graphical content on pages that performance suffers. Sometimes, he says, Web developers are just in too much of a hurry. "No one would ever build a washing machine without going out to see what consumers want in a washing machine," he says.

"But developers do that kind of thing with their Web sites."

Computer usability expert Jakob Nielsen, author of the just-published book Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity, says companies putting up Web sites fall into three categories. Most do no usability testing at all. A few do "voodoo" testing, which involves the use of automated tools that give misleading results. And a "vanishingly small minority" of companies do usability testing in a way that really works. Request4Bid is in the last group, says Nielsen. Too often, he adds, Web sites are designed to please their developers or their developers' bosses, not customers.

King, who is a former computer buyer, not a technical person, says the Web site was carefully constructed to be understandable by both types of users. "People in the IT department and purchasing department have very different perceptions and mind-sets, but the feedback from both types of testers has been consistent," she says.

For example, King says, the testers consistently found fault with the placement of buttons near the bottom of the Web site's search page, which forced users to scroll down from search results at the top, where their eyes were. They said, "Don't make me look down at the corner," she recalls.

Doing It Right the First Time

Request4Bid's concern over usability minutiae runs counter to one school of thought that says it's better to just get an e-commerce site up quickly and worry about the details later. "On balance, I believe getting big fast is more important than getting it perfect," says Thomas R. Eisenmann, who teaches a course on e-commerce management at Harvard Business School in Boston.

But business-to-business e-commerce must set higher standards than business-to-consumer e-commerce. "Our customers won't tolerate a sloppy process, and we can't have site crashes," says Request4Bid President Doug Beighle. "B-to-B is less tolerant than B-to-C, and we'll be in one of the least tolerant of all industries."

He says users who are buying for their companies are more risk-averse than those buying for themselves, so a business-to-business Web site has to be seen as reliable, secure and user-friendly, or it won't be used.

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