Computerworld

Web Site Design is Both Science and Art

SAN MATEO (01/31/2000) - Designing the best user interface for a Web site is not an easy recipe, and you're bound never to leave the kitchen. It requires serving up big portions of both science and art. If you're doing your job well, you're always assessing the current design of the site and preparing for changes to come. If your site is not working for any part of your intended audience or it's not doing enough for the business, you've got to keep on designing.

Since InfoWorld.com's launch in early December, we've implemented hundreds of adjustments to our site's design. These adjustments come from many directions, including visitors' feedback via e-mail, online surveys, and forums. We're also conducting an ongoing analysis using our own wits and resources, such as our Web server logs, and we're enlisting the advice of design experts, including IBM Corp.'s E-Services group.

One of the more popular inquiries I've received to date asks how we came up with our different design. Well over a year ago, we started our hunt for the best information architect. We were looking for an experienced architect with a strong focus on our business and a user-centric design processes. We required not only a creative designer, but also an individual capable of conducting research and usability tests, as well as delivering documents to serve as a functional specification for our new site. Our search led us to an independent information design architect with impressive credentials -- Kim Ladin. Kim has worked on projects for companies including Charles Schwab and British Telecom, and with several design firms including iXL, MetaDesign, and HOT Studio.

Our architect spent over a month gathering information in order to best understand you, our audience. Kim reviewed various forms of market research. We also conducted phone surveys, online surveys, forums, and individual interviews with site visitors, including members of our Corporate Advisory Board. It did not take long to discover our biggest asset, you, but also our biggest challenge -- serving the needs of a very diverse audience.

Online, we found two valuable extremes with many in the middle. On one end we serve the very hard-core and hands-on day-to-day technology guru. On the other end, we serve the very senior high-level strategic hands-off IT executive. With our former site, InfoWorld Electric, we were better at serving the needs of our hands-on community but were falling short of meeting the needs of our strategic and solution-focused audience.

As part of the interface design process, and in order to meet the needs of our entire audience, we created many user scenarios or personas. If you're designing a site, be sure to create and test several user scenarios. I'd like to introduce you to a few of those personas we created.

First, meet "Mike the Mad Manager." He is an IT manager working at a fast-paced, large, for-profit organization. Mike is stressed out and running out of time and resources. He spends far too much time in meetings, and doesn't spend a lot of time perusing the Web. He's in desperate need of some site analysis tools for his organization's Web site, and he needs to find information fast.

Second, meet "Pete the Powerful Programmer." Pete hates his cubicle but works incredibly long hours. He enjoys his work and takes it home every night. Pete is an extremely talented programmer and is always looking for little nuggets of information. Pete spends quite a bit of time online, and he finds it very worthwhile. He enjoys communicating with others online.

Third, meet "Ned the Newshound." Ned thrives on online late breaking IT news.

His biorhythms follow the industry, so he looks online to see how he's feeling.

We created several more personas, such as "Sidney the Swell CTO." For each person, we created a task inventory and we replicated his or her working environment, such as that person's desktop and network, including OS, browser, and connection speed.

We put these personas to the test and created a design to serve all our personas. We also verified that our business model could support this new design. Within in a few months, and a lot of going back and forth between our designer and InfoWorld staff, we had a working design. We turned that design into functional Web pages and then moved on to our next test -- real user usability testing. Never forgo usability testing; the information we gathered during this process was priceless. We brought in InfoWorld readers and watched them as they navigated through our new pages. We gathered tons of feedback along the way and adjusted accordingly. We included both readers who relied heavily on our old site for information and readers who were fairly new to InfoWorld online.

What you see today is the result of a year-long design process. Now that the site is in production, it's not time to stop designing. It's time to refine and improve the design.

Laura Wonnacott is vice president of InfoWorld.com. Write to her at laura_wonnacott@infoworld.com.