The key to fast growth online is rapid customer responsiveness (Weill and Ross 2004). How a company executes its own web site is one indicator of how a company executes IT projects and values customer responsiveness. In order to determine the usability and credibility of top websites, researches from Minnesota State University compared the home pages of the fastest growing companies against the Fortune 30 (Brown, Rahman, & Hacker 2006). The researchers found that the largest companies in the US used designs that were more consistent than the fastest growing companies, as defined by Nielsen and Tahir’s best practices (2001). The fastest growing company home pages fared significantly worse in performance metrics.
Home Page Usability Guidelines
Usability guidelines are generally derived from empirical studies, HCI research, and long years of experience. Schneiderman’s “golden rules” of consistency are access to shortcuts and easy navigation, informative feedback, closure seeking dialog, error prevention and handling, easy reversal of actions, internal locus of control, and reduction of short-term memory load (Scheiderman 2004). Scheiderman and Nielsen (2001) promote measurable goals, adding ease of learning, retention of learning, speed of task completion, minimal error rates, and user satisfaction. Unfortunately surveys of usability guidelines have found little consistency among these rules.
Credibility meets Usability Guidelines
However, Brown and company found that the guidelines proposed by B. J. Fogg’s credibility lab (2002) were mainly consistent with the home page guidelines of Niesen and Tahir (2001). The Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab issued the following ten web site design guidelines:
- Make it easy to verify the accuracy of the information on your site
- Show that there’s a real organization behind your site
- Highlight the expertise in your organization and in the content and services you
- Show that honest and trustworthy people stand behind your site
- Make it easy to contact you
- Design your site so it looks professional
- Make your site easy to use and useful
- Update the site’s content often
- Use restraint with ads and offers
- Avoid errors of all types
The researchers adopted the guidelines of Nielsen and Tahir (2001) to test the Fortune 30 against the fastest growing company home pages for design consistency and usability. A total of 60 home pages were tested using quantifiable metrics. The Fortune 30 home pages tested were as follows:
The top 30 fastest growing companies were from Inc. Magazine’s 2004 edition, listed as follows:
High Visibility means High Maintenance?
Since the home page of a top website is the most visible aspect of a company, you would assume that management would periodically review the design and usability of their home page and it would represent a consensus view among said management. The researchers assumed that observations about home page design would provide some insights into IT governance. Fortune 30 companies undoubtedly have more resources to devote to usability testing and improvements than smaller fast growing companies. About 40 guidelines from Nielsen and Tahir (2001) were used to assess the usability of these top company home pages. Nielsen and Tahir found that only 28% of the top 50 home pages tested complied with the download time criteria (see Table 1).
Table 1: Usability Trends in 50 High Profile Sites
|Guidelines||Recommended Design||Weight*||Trends in 50 High Profile Sites|
|Download Time||At most 10 seconds at the prevalent connection speed||3||28 percent|
|Liquid Layout||Liquid = the page will expand to conform to any monitor size. Not fixed width||2||18 percent|
|Page Length||One or two full screens is best. No more than three full screens||3||Median = 2 screens|
|No routing page||No||2||100%|
|No splash page||No||3||94 percent|
|No auto playing music||No||3||96 percent|
|*Notes: 3 is the most important, 1 is the least important
Source: Nielsen and Tahir (2001)
Fortune 30 versus Inc’s Fastest Growing Company Home Pages
Table 2 shows the usability ratings with significant differences between the Fortune 30 and Inc’s fastest growting companies for Nielsen and Tahir’s usability guidelines. Scores for “logo size” and “liquid layout” were significantly higher for the top 30 of Inc’s list of high growth companies compared to the Fortune 30.
Table 2: Summary of usability guidelines for 60 High Profile Home Pages
|Categories||Fortune 30||Top 30 Inc. Sites|
|Search box color||2.70||0.92||0.50||1.14|
|Width of search box||0.40||0.81||0.00||0.00|
|Type of search||1.67||0.76||0.33||0.76|
|Footer navigation links||0.73||0.45||0.33||0.48|
|About the company||2.70||0.92||2.30||1.29|
|Name of privacy link||0.60||0.93||0.67||0.96|
|This table shows summary of mean and standard deviations for usability guidelines with significant differences|
Overall, the Fortune 30 fared better than the fastest growing companies, with usability scores significantly higher for the following measures:
- Download time
- Search placement
- Search box color
- Search button
- Width of search box
- Type of search
- Footer navigation links
- Sitemap link
- Job openings
- Background color
- Link underlining
In fact, five of the 40 categories account for almost all the differences:
- Liquid layout
- Download time
- Search features
- Common features
Inc’s top 30 did not use the search function as frequently as the Fortune 30 and required users to use other navigation. Common navigational elements like “Sitemap” and “About the Company” were significantly lower for the high growth list. Download time scores for the Fortune 30 were significantly higher than the Inc 30 (2.8 versus 2.0 out of 3). Among the top five usability categories only liquid layout was higher in the fastest growing companies, with a score of 1.47 versus 0.73 for the Fortune 30.
This usability survey shows that high growth companies are not evaluating and improving their home page designs in a systematic way. The Fortune 30 companies overall usability score of 63.17 was over 36% higher than the 46.37 total score for the fastest growing companies. The download time scores were significantly lower for the fastest growing companies versus the Fortune 30. Perhaps fast growth redirects resources towards maintaining high growth rates and sales, with less focus on maintaining high website usability. Web-based companies would do well to follow the Fortune 30 example of devoting resources towards measuring and improving the usability of their home pages, and thus their entire websites.
- Brown, W., Rahman, M. & T. Hacker (2006), “Home page usability and
credibility: A comparison of the fastest growing companies to the Fortune 30 and the implications to IT governance,” Compared web site designs used by the fastest growing companies in the USA to the largest companies in the USA and benchmarked those designs against best practices as defined by Nielsen and Tahir.
- Fogg, B.J. (2002), “Stanford guidelines for web credibility,” A summary of credibility guidelines from the
Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.
- Fogg, B.J. (2003), Persuasive Technology, Using Computers to Change What we Think and Do,
Morgan Kaufmann, San Francisco, CA.
- Nielsen, J. and Tahir (2001), Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed, New Riders Press,
- Shneiderman, B. (2004), Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer
Interaction, 4th ed., Addison-Wesley Longman, Reading, MA.
- Weill, P. and Ross, J. (2004), IT Governance: How Top Performers Manage IT Decision Rights for
Superior Results, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.