We recently completed a new round of testing, observing journalists as they used corporate websites' PR areas. I am happy to report reasonable progress on the sites' usability relative to the findings from a similar study we conducted in 2001.
Now, the journalists' average success rate was 73%. This is five percentage points better than in 2001, when the success rate was 68%. (The success rate indicates users' ability to complete tasks; in this case, the journalists' ability to find various pieces of PR information.)
It is particularly gratifying that most websites now follow the guideline to make it easy for users to locate the contact information for a PR representative. This is one of the most important tasks for journalists, and the success rate is now a respectable 82% -- a huge improvement over the miserable 55% score in 2001.
Guidelines compliance in general has improved since we published our report with design guidelines for better usability in PR areas. In 2001, for example, websites followed 63% of the guidelines for online press releases, and for the second study, compliance with these guidelines had increased to 78% -- an increase of fifteen percentage points.
Why has guidelines compliance improved so much more than the success rate for actual task completion? Obviously there is more to usability than simply following the letter of a guideline. It's also necessary to follow its spirit, and company websites are still not sufficiently forthcoming: they often fail to use plain language that simply says what they're doing and gets to the point quickly.
Assessing Usability Uptake
Average success rates increased by 5% and guidelines compliance increased by 15%. I believe that improving usability across the Web is a linear process rather than an exponential one, because we have to fix the same usability problems over and over again on every website.
That said, I don't yet have sufficient evidence to know for sure whether the Web-wide growth of usability is in fact linear or exponential, but if we assume linear growth, then the annual improvement rates would be 2.5% for success rates and 7.5% for guidelines compliance.
Earlier, I estimated that guidelines compliance for e-commerce sites increased by 2.7% per year. This is a much slower rate than we have now recorded for the guidelines regarding online press releases.
One plausible explanation for the difference is that it's much more difficult to redesign e-commerce sites to implement all 207 e-commerce usability guidelines than it is to reformat press releases so that they're suitable for the online medium. In the past, many corporate PR departments were completely clueless and repurposed press releases without the slightest attention to Web usability; now many PR departments take the small amount of time needed to adjust press releases to the usability guidelines.
Across all the various estimates, the one big conclusion is that Web usability is increasing every year. Whenever we revisit an issue, we find that matters have improved.
A second conclusion is that improvements happen at a fairly slow rate -- probably somewhere between 2% and 8% per year.
How can improvements be so slow when our analysis of numerous redesign projects found that, following the adoption of a modest usability process, their measured usability increased by an average of 135%? Several reasons:
Most websites no longer redesign every year.
When they do redesign, few websites use anything resembling a respectable usability methodology.
And, most importantly, there is a huge difference between assessing the overall state of the Internet and the usability of an individual website. A specific site can achieve dramatic improvements when it bothers to emphasize usability, but the totality of the Web changes very slowly.
Given these factors, it is impressive and joyful to conclude that the overall Web user experience is improving by several percent per year.
Guidelines Remain Stable
Our new study confirmed all the original guidelines for PR usability that we documented in our report on the 2001 study.
Human factors changes very slowly because it relates to human behavior and not to the specific technology used to implement user interfaces. As long as journalists do about the same job and need about the same information to write their stories, the design guidelines for online PR will also remain about the same.
Still, we discovered several new usability guidelines in the new study. Even though the old guidelines are still important, they are now being followed more widely than they were in the past. This means that journalists can often proceed past some of the usability problems that would have stumped them in earlier studies. This again means that we get to observe new issues and generate new guidelines to overcome the next level of design deficiencies.
The work of usability will never be complete, because there is no such thing as a perfect user interface. Any design can be improved, and thus we can keep adding guidelines to improve the user experience.
At the current rate of improvement, success rates might approximate 100% in ten years. Even when this happens, however, we'll need still more usability guidelines to make designs even better. It's not enough that users are capable of performing website tasks, though this is surely a necessary requirement. Usage must also be pleasant, productive, and rewarding, and must truly satisfy users' needs. These are much harder goals.
One source of new guidelines in the new study came from testing how websites handle scandals and other company-related crises. There have recently been many corporate scandals -- most famously Enron -- as well as bankruptcies and other unfortunate situations. Two of the companies we tested had been hit by crises before the test: Tyco (former CEO charged with looting hundreds of millions of dollars) and Vivendi (serious debt and a loss of $26 billion).
Crisis management is one of the key responsibilities of public relations. In our study of investor relations on corporate websites, one of the key findings was that investors want the website to present the company's spin on events. Unfortunately, websites failed to do their job and present the company's perspective on the situation. Instead, the websites pretended that there was no trouble at all.
Of course, journalists know when there are highly visible problems in a company, and they must refer to such issues in their stories. They will, however, include the company's reaction and explanation -- if one is available.
For example, one journalist working with the Tyco site first read a BBC article about the company's crisis, but then could not find any comments about it on the company's own site.
"Delightfully, according to the Tyco website, the BBC and everybody is wrong because this stuff didn't happen. At this stage I would be falling off my chair... There may be a mention of corporate amnesia in my article."
Much better to face facts and use the opportunity to add a favorable quote to the article. As one journalist said,
"So if there were something on the website that said
in a statement, Tyco said 'we apologize to our investors and we are cooperating fully with the District Attorney
' that would be in my story. But I so far haven't found it
Because I would definitely mention it in the story, the more prominent it is, and the more genuine the apology, and the more specific the steps that this apology would have in terms or rectifying that, the more useful to me, because I would include all that in my story."
Sometimes websites can address a problem through an explicit comment, and other times a more indirect approach to the issue will work. For example, Microsoft has gotten much bad press for losing many key executives recently, but their PR area is quite effective at counteracting this problem through an uncommonly extensive set of executive biographies that demonstrates the depth of the remaining bench.
A company's website must clearly be a key component in any modern PR strategy. Luckily, many companies seem to be recognizing this, and corporate PR areas have improved significantly during the two years since our previous study. And, while some companies also use their website for crisis management, many others are still lacking in this respect.