Summary: Extensive usability testing was conducted to guide the 1995 Sun Microsystems' Web site design. This series of articles describes in detail the methods and findings of the design team.
- Nine iterations of the home page design
- Several iterations of some of the icon designs
- Usability engineering methods used in the design process
- Usability issues in the redesign of the same website two years later
- Advanced homepage designs that didn't work in 1997 usability testing
- Paper on how Darrell Sano and I designed the user interface for SunWeb (Sun's internal web)
Fundamental Design Concepts
We don't believe that you can succeed on the WWW just by putting some cool stuff out there. Doing so might have been enough when the Web was young: two years before this project, in 1993, I remember visiting the "What's New with NCSA Mosaic" page daily to see what new sites were available and getting very excited about the Australian bird songs. But by 1995, who needed another Web site? People are suffocating from information overload, so WWW designers have to become much more user-oriented and provide value-added information to attract traffic to their server.
For the May 1995 design, we decided to provide value-added information in the form of a monthly magazine cover and to be highly selective in choosing a small number of cover stories. Some people don't understand the value of less is more, but if everything is highlighted, then nothing has prominence. I estimate that it costs the world economy about half a million dollars in lost user productivity every time we add one more design element to Sun's home page. It is the responsibility of the Web editor to prioritize the information space for the user and to point out a very small number of recommended information objects. The beauty of hypertext is that the user can then browse the information space further and dive deeper into the specific information of interest to that individual user.
Three major findings from our extensive usability studies were:
- People have very little patience for poorly designed WWW sites. As one user put it: "the more well-organized a page is, the more faith I will have in the info." Many other users told us that they would be out of a server, never to return, if they got too many server errors or "under construction" signs (a user: "either the information is there or it is not; don't waste my time with stuff you are not going to give me").
- Users don't want to scroll: information that is not on the top screen when a page comes up is only read by very interested users. In our tests, users stated that a design that made everything fit on a single page was an indication that the designers had taken care to do a good job, whereas other pages that contained several screen's worth of lists or unstructured material were an indication of sloppy work that made them question the quality of the information contained on those sites. (Note added December 1997: this conclusion has changed somewhat due to studies in 1997.)
- Users don't want to read: reading speeds are more than 25% slower from computer screens than from paper, but that does not mean that you should write 25% less than you would in a paper document. You should write 50% less! Users recklessly skip over any text that they deem to be fluff (e.g., welcome messages or introductory paragraphs) and scan for highlighted terms (e.g., hypertext links).
Many people worked on the user interface part of the 1995 redesign of Sun's WWW pages. The members of the UI team were:
- Marsh Chamberlain
- Debra Coelho
- Steve Gibson
- Terre Layton
- Rick Levine
- Maria Marguet
- Jakob Nielsen
- John Tang
The engineering team, the editorial team, several overseas Sun offices, and the many content providers also contributed significantly to the user interface design. And as always we are grateful for the assistance from our highly capable usability lab staff.