Unfortunately, while most sites offer an About Us section, they often do a poor job of communicating the crucial information it should contain.
User Research: Two Rounds
To find out how users find and interpret website profiles of companies and organizations, we conducted user testing of sites run by 63 organizations in five general categories:
Large companies, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, China Mobile, Citigroup, Eli Lilly, Vivendi, and Yamaha.
Medium-sized companies, such as Body Trends, Cintas, Pier 1 Imports, and Titan Corporation.
Smaller companies, such as GiftTree.com, ImmunoGen, Nabi Biopharmaceuticals, OneCall, and Paper Style.
Government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of the Interior, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Small Business Administration.
Non-profits, such as American Refugee Committee, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, and the United Nations Children's Fund.
We tested 15 sites in our first round of research 5 years ago, and 48 sites in our new study.
On each site, we gave users one open-ended task: evaluate the organization. We also gave them several directed tasks, such as to find out who runs the organization, what community or social programs the organization contributes to, and when the organization was founded.
Most test participants were mainstream Web users, investment analysts, or journalists with at least 2 years' Internet experience. In Study 1, we included a few teenagers because the goals of putting corporate information on the Web often include supporting student projects, building long-term loyalty, and attracting interns.
We conducted most sessions in the United States, and a few in Hong Kong to ensure the international applicability of our findings.
Trends in About Us Usability
We conducted the first study 5 years ago. That's not much time in the user experience field; human nature and user behavior tend to be stable and change slowly, if at all. Even so, it's enough time between the two studies to let us assess any big trends.
First, the happy news: About Us usability has increased. The average success rate was 70% in Study 1 and 79% in Study 2. Although the usability increase is not as big as those we saw in our recent second study of store finders and locators, it's certainly respectable to grow success rates by about 2 percentage points per year.
Progress was particularly good for the task of finding contact information, such as the company's main address. Success for this task increased from 62% to 91%. A few companies continue to make contact information virtually impossible to find on the Web, and some sites seem to deliberately hide address listings and phone numbers. Doing so will backfire, though, because users view such sites as having very low credibility.
The less-good news: Task success for finding out what the company or organization does actually dropped, from 90% to 81%. In place of a frank summary of the business, marketese and blah-blah text ruled the day on many sites.
The even-less-good news: Users' subjective satisfaction with About Us sections decreased from 5.2 to 4.6 (on a 1–7 scale). How can satisfaction go down when overall success rates are up? Because user expectations for usable websites have grown even higher in recent years. Sites that make it hard to find the most basic information about an organization get dinged hard these days; an About Us area that users may have accepted in the past will no longer satisfy them.
One definite trend is higher user interest in video, especially when it shows interesting or complex products, reports on corporate events, or showcases the personality of the CEO or other key staff. One thing hasn't changed, though: Web users are still impatient and prefer short videos. One user, for example, had this to say about a long video: "It's a little long-winded for a video. It should have more of the product and stuff showing and less talking. [...] I'm going to stop that one."
Overviews: Providing Key Context
To direct users to your About Us section, I recommend offering a homepage link labeled either About <name-of-company> or About Us. This link need not be the most prominent on the homepage, but it should be present and clearly visible. In our studies, users had trouble locating company information when the link had a nonstandard name, like Info Center, or when it was placed near graphical elements that looked like advertisements and was thus ignored.
We recommend providing About Us information at 4 levels of detail:
Tagline on the homepage: A few words or a brief sentence summarizing what the organization does.
Summary: 1-2 paragraphs at the top of the main About Us page that offer a bit more detail about the organization's goal and main accomplishments.
Fact sheet: A section following the summary that elaborates on its key points and other essential facts about the organization.
Detailed information: Subsidiary pages with more depth for people who want to learn more about the organization.
This layered content presentation forms an inverted pyramid that uses hypertext to shield users from overwhelming details, while making specific information available to those who need it.
For example, average users will rarely click a link for "corporate governance," but that destination page can be important for sophisticated investors or business journalists. This is one of the few cases in which an obscure link label enhances usability: People who don't know the term "corporate governance" won't click it (because people don't click links they don't understand). In this case, that's okay — users who don't know the term probably won't need the associated information.
At the top of your content pyramid, a good tagline helps users understand the rest of the site by providing context for the detailed content. Similarly, reading the organizational summary gives them context for the fact sheet that follows it on the main About Us page.
Although taglines are usually horrible on today's websites, we did see some good ones in our testing, including HSBC's tagline: The world's local bank. One user said, "It says we are the world's local bank — that's a softening concept. I like that, they have global resources, but it's available to you locally. 'The world's local bank' — I really like this."
Summary statements often degenerate into worthless mission statements with feel-good verbiage and no specifics. One site had the following bold-faced summary at the top of its About Us page: "X Corporation provides highly specialized services to businesses of all types throughout North America." Aside from giving the company's geographical focus, this content-free statement was useless and prompted one test user to remark, "I still don't know what they do."
Of course, the need for scannability, conciseness, and plainspoken exposition extends from the overview page to About Us section's mass of interior pages as well. Compare, for example, these user comments about two different company history pages:
[Not liking Bayer, which used a complex Flash-based presentation]: "They have clunky paragraphs. Key points work better to convey these things. They have years highlighted, but it's easier to digest if it's in a true timeline fashion."
[Liking Pier 1 Imports, which had a scannable history page]: "I like the page on the history. It gives the years and what they've done since they started the business. You can learn a lot by just reading this little page here — milestones that they've accomplished since they've been in existence. It's bulleted here and you can find it."
Alcoa provided a good example of the 4-stage model.
Tagline: "Global excellence in aluminum."
Summary: "Alcoa is the world leader in the production and management of primary aluminum, fabricated aluminum and alumina combined, through its active and growing participation in all major aspects of the industry." (Followed by a second paragraph summarizing the company's main target markets.)
Fact sheet: Nice use of bulleted lists (following guidelines for writing for the Web), supplemented by clean and useful business graphics.
Detailed information: 14 additional pages listed in a drop-down menu with good information scent (except for a link named "it all starts with dirt," which should have been called "history").
The main About Us pages for Alcoa (good) and the U.S. General Services Administration (bad).
In contrast, the U.S. General Services Administration skipped the information model's first 3 levels entirely and went straight to a menu of 49 detailed links. No tagline (not even on the homepage), no summary, no fact sheet. Without these higher overview levels, it was very hard for users to make sense of the crushing details in the About GSA section. No context, no understanding.
Why Explain Yourself?
Fortune-500 companies and major federal government agencies might well ask why they should bother providing About Us information. After all, they're big, important, and presumably famous. They really shouldn't have to bother with peons who are too stupid to know all about them.
However common in major corporations and government agencies, arrogance is an unproductive attitude no matter how big you are. People with little to no knowledge about your organization might have several legitimate reasons for wanting to learn about it. For example, they might be:
Professionals who are new to your industry and want to interact with business partners and investigate potential vendors. If you're a B2B site, you need to cater to these new users.
People who take up new sports or hobbies, discover a new genre of literature, are diagnosed with a new disease, start eating a new type of food, or otherwise become interested in companies and organizations that they've never dealt with before. If you're a B2C site, you need to cater to these new users.
Journalists who are writing their first story on a new beat or first story including your company. If you want PR, you need to cater to these new users.
Individual investors who read something positive about your company or saw it pop out of a statistical screen of stock metrics. If you're a publicly traded company and want new investors, you need to cater to these new users.
Job seekers who were attracted by one of your ads, but want to learn more about the organization before applying. If you're expanding your staff, you need to cater to these new users.
Children or students who are investigating new areas of knowledge. You might need to cater to these new users.
E-commerce sites, transactional sites, and online services sites need a strong About Us section because users often wonder who's behind a Web-based service, how it's funded, and whether it's credible. If you order from an e-commerce site, can you trust the company to ship the package? Will it accept a return if the product arrives in poor condition? If you register on a site, will it sell your personal information to anyone who can pay, and thus expose you to endless spam about everything from transaction-related products to offensive porn?
For government sites, it's a basic point of democracy that all taxpayers have access to clear information about various departments and how those departments are using tax dollars — whether or not they're experts in an agency's topic area.
Finally, for non-profits, a good About Us section is a must for attracting donations from a broader donor base. (See also: Government agencies' and non-profits' ROI from usability.)
Trust and credibility are major issues on the Web, where even the biggest company exists as only a few words and pictures in a browser window. The most deceitful and unethical company can look as good as a company with a long history of community involvement and honest customer relationships. Explaining who you are and where you come from does matter, as do simple things like providing management biographies and photos.
When it comes to design, it's easy to balance the needs of transactions and corporate information. By all means, dedicate most of your homepage to sales, current offers, and navigation to products or services. Just remember to include a simple link to the About Us section. The link doesn't have to be the first or most prominent. Indeed, if you're using a standard left-hand navigation column, you can place the About Us link at the very bottom of the list. Just don't hide it.
Connecting to Users
In any conversation, saying who you are and what you do is basic to good manners. In business, it's also good to establish credibility and respect by explaining your company's origins, how you view your business, and how you relate to the community.
The Web is very depersonalized, but from our earliest usability studies, we've seen that users like getting a sense of the company behind the website.
Having a good About Us section facilitates this understanding. Clearly stating what you do helps customers understand your site as a whole. Of course, your overall site is what ultimately represents your organization to users. People look at product pages and read the site's content when they're evaluating an organization as a possible vendor, business partner, employer, investment, or (in the case of charities) donation recipient. Communication isn't restricted to About Us. But dedicating an area to providing users with facts about your organization and its history and values helps pull all of the site's content together.
Full Research Report
The full 253-page report with 70 design guidelines is available for download.