User expectations online
Understanding what users expect when they view your website is the key to meeting their expectations. Meeting their expectations should be a high priority .
Read Steven Smith's paper delivered at Museums and the Web conference 2008, Montreal, Canada.
The importance of meeting users’ expectations
By Steven Smith, founder and Director, Website Criteria
This paper is adapted from the paper Steven Smith delivered at the international conference, Museums and the Web, 2008, Montreal, Canada.
Over the next few years we will see user expectations and behaviour change in the following key ways.
- Users will increasingly use search engines for finding information on the Internet which will increasingly force website owners to present content in a manner friendly to search engines.
- Experienced Web users are less tolerant of poor design, content and navigation than novice users. The percentage of experienced Web users is growing, so organisations that have poor websites risk frustrating the ever-expanding number of savvy and experienced users. Poor websites will be increasingly penalised by users who know what they want and know better than to endure bad content and bad design.
- For certain websites, audiences will expect and want to interact more and more with the content.
- Many users will expect a certain range of websites to know/remember who they are and to be able to personalise their online experience – eg their favourite online radio station or stationery supplier.
- Improvements in access speed to the Internet and means of access (eg mobile phones) and the rapidly increasing number of web pages available through search engines, give the user two incredibly powerful weapons: information and choice.
- The increasing number of users with broadband connection makes the provision of interactive features and content in video and audio formats increasingly relevant and in demand – eg high-definition, interactive, live presentations featuring engineers, designers, museum curators, teachers, health workers explaining processes, objects and issues.
You can’t hope to meet the expectations of your audiences if you don’t know who they are.
Don’t forget that your competitors are also an audience whether you like it or not. They will be looking at your website to see where your weaknesses are.
Categories of Web audiences include groups such as existing clients/customers, potential clients/customers, the public, students, researchers, tourists.
For each audience category you need to identify the characteristics that might influence that category’s expectations of your website – and their ability to understand and use it. The characteristics that require:
- age range
- culture and language
- education level
- internet experience
- connection speed
- connection device.
There are three tiers of expectation that together have a strong impact on a user’s perception of a website, their frustration level when using it and their willingness to return to the site.
Entrenched: The first tier of expectations is formed over time after visiting many websites. They are well entrenched in the user's mind and they are often subconscious and heart-felt – eg expecting the company’s phone number to be found in a link called ‘contact us’.
Formative: The second tier of expectations are those that are in the state of being formed in the users’ mind as a result of an increasing number of experiences of a particular aspect – eg a user notices that some sites offer a blog for feedback. They don’t expect to see a blog on every site, but it has entered their consciousness so when they see a blog they know what to do with it. Eventually, the presence of a blog may enter the first tier of their expectations – not necessarily for all sites – and the user will then expect to see a blog and be annoyed or disappointed if one is not available.
One-off: The third tier of expectations is formed the instant the user sees a web page and is unique to that web page – and it dissipates as soon as the user leaves that web page. The design, layout, words, images and navigation elements on the page all establish in an instant myriad of instant expectations – from the scope, breadth and depth of information being offered to what type of company owns the website. The third tier is also formed by the time and place in which the site is being viewed, the users’ reasons for visiting it and their existing level of understanding of the material being presented.
The aim of every web page is to meet as many expectations in each tier as possible.
The expectation that users have of an organisation’s website will be influenced by a number of factors. The degree of influence of each factor will differ from user to user and from website to website:
- previous experience visiting the website
- age, cultural, educational and religious background
- comfort-level using the Web
- loves and hates about websites developed over time
- experience with the features, content and design of all other websites
- experience visiting other websites in the same industry – competitor websites
- speed and quality of access to the Internet
- degree of appreciation of the culture and purpose of the organisation
- understanding of the material presented in the web site – the jargon used in that industry
- reason for visiting the website – eg for research, interest, apply or to purchase
- degree of intention to visit the website – eg the visit may be totally accidental via Google
- integrity and influence of the referring party – a friend, a trusted website or source
- conditions under which the site is being viewed – space, place, time, technology.
Usability and design
- Abide by conventions unless there is a good reason to ignore them.
- Don’t make users have to think about anything but your content.
- Get to know the conventions and monitor trends.
- You only get one shot at positively influencing a user’s first impression, so make it good – on every page.
- Constantly test it with users.
- The more you exceed expectations, the more you will reap the benefits of an online presence.
Content and interactivity
- Provide the scope, depth, accuracy and quality of content they expect and you can deliver.
- Write for the Web, your audiences and for Google.
- Let users contribute, debate and commune with you online.
- Expect to increase the multimedia content and interactive features in your website.
- Develop an in-house understanding that you have an online presence and that it is always a work in progress.
- Understand your own aims, expectations and challenges.
- Resource it appropriately – money and time.
- Provide training for staff in creating and maintaining content, and understanding and monitoring users’ expectations.