What makes a commercial website successful? In the late 90’s the economy saw the upstart-and downfall of many consumer product websites. While economic analysts cite numerous reasons for failure, few have honed in on the important aspect of ergonomics. Ergonomics is matching the capabilities and limitations of users to their environment. In the example of a consumer website, ergonomic considerations would focus on the user population and known capabilities and limitations of that population such as a minimal font size, accustomed reading style (e.g. do users read left to right), amount of information able to be processed, and responses to color.
Without spending years researching this type of data, consumer websites, and all products should be put through rigorous usability testing. Usability testing, this is the key component that was missing from many of the dot coms that so quickly failed. A study published in the January 2002 edition of Usability News tested three popular travel websites for usability.
The study evaluated participants’ user satisfaction, navigational efficiency, and general preference for three travel sites – orbitz.com, expedia.com, and travelocity.com. Efficiency was measured by the degree of ‘lostness’ or the ratio of optimum number of pages to complete a task to the actual number of pages clicked through by the participants. A lostness ratio of a 1.0 indicated participants found the optimal path. A lostness ratio closer to 0 indicated that users clicked through many more pages than the optimal path. All users in this study used a Pentium II based PC computer, with a 60 Hz, 96dpi 17″ monitor with a resolution setting of 1024 x 768 pixels. All users were familiar with the web, but were not frequent users of online travel sites.
Participants were asked to complete the following three tasks with each site:
- You and your friend are going from Wichita, KS, to Freeport, Bahamas, over winter break. First, find out how much a flight and hotel will be for December 26th to January 2nd. Second, you want to know if there is a package deal to help save money. Is there a package deal that may be cheaper than the flight and hotel individually?
- You are unable to remember your password for an account you set up a few months ago. Find information on the site that tells you how you can find out your password.
- How much will it cost a day to rent a convertible car while you are in LA.? Your plane flies in on November 9th at 10:00 and you depart on November 12th at 2:00.
Data showed that Expedia.com was superior to Orbitz.com and Travelocity.com for the tasks of booking a flight, comparing flight and hotel prices to package deal prices, finding a hotel, and renting a car. Ease of use, clarity of information, and easy access to package deals and prices were all reasons cited for the users’ preference. Poorly labeled package deals, extra steps to rent a particular type of car, cluttered pages, and small fonts were some of the criticisms of the least preferred Travelocity.com. Orbitz.com was touted for being easy to use for flight information, but cumbersome when comparing hotel rates, sometimes difficult to read (because of small fonts), and unforgiving when recovering from user input error (i.e., misspelling city names).
Usability News is a free web newsletter that is produced by the Software Usability Research Laboratory (SURL), Department of Psychology, Wichita State University. http://www.usabilitynews.org