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Creatures of Habit

Users are lazy. There, I’ve said it.  And if I’m honest I have to include myself in that category whenever I am going online to pay a bill,  find a recipe, or make a purchase.  This is especially true with sites that we regularly visit.  We are comfortable with the site so we go right to the area we want (or at least where we expect it to be) without even thinking or processing the logic or navigation of the site.  If what we expect to find suddenly isn’t there we go into a tizzy.

On one hand it’s a good thing that people get used to your site – it shows a steady user base of repeat customers.  If you have implemented a “Don’t make me think” concept of site design your users should quickly become comfortable with finding what they’re looking for.  But what happens when you make periodic changes to your site?   It conflicts with our expectations, and many users simply don’t know how to cope.

For example, this morning we updated the university home page.  We removed the link to the directory search, but integrated the directory search directly into the main search box.  Change the value of the pull-down and you get results from the directory rather than the search appliance.  What we thought would actually make the process easier — no more having to click to a separate page to make your search, and the search box is right under where the directory link was so it shouldn’t be hard to see — actually elicited a stream of emails asking where the directory search had gone and asking us to put it back.  (In hindsight perhaps radio buttons would have been better than a pulldown so that the option would be more clearly visible.)

This is a rather dramatic example, but we get similar reactions whenever we rotate the quicklinks at the bottom of the page.  We try to keep the links seasonal and relevant to what’s going on at the time, but users accustomed to finding the link “right there” don’t necessarily appreciate that perhaps a link to Graduation doesn’t belong on the home page in January.

All of this means that we need to be very careful in making incremental changes.  People are creatures of habit and will expect your content to never change.  At least not until there is a major rewrite and a completely different page look.  This also bodes ill for the reshaping of the web site to a more external audience as it shows how much it is being used right now as an internal intranet.    We had intended to start a maintenance release for www.tamu.edu this semester, making a series of minor updates.  This gives me pause, though, and makes me wonder if we’re going to have to make a more dramatic redesign in order to create the mind shift that we’re looking for.

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Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 www.tamu.edu 2 Comments

More tough decisions

In light of my last post about the purpose of a university website, is the most-used link on your home page important just because it is popular, or should it be removed if it really doesn’t (under our new model of the site’s purpose) belong there?

On the Texas A&M home page, the most popular link, by far, is  the link to student email.  Thousands of people per day type “www.tamu.edu” and then click the link rather than simply typing “email.tamu.edu” and going there directly.  If the university web site is truly to be centered on an external audience, though, this link really should be removed.  It belongs on a campus intranet, or the Howdy! portal, or perhaps in a list of student services – but it does not need to be a prominent feature on the home page.  So if we are serious about reshaping the purpose of the university website we need to remove it in our next maintenance release, knowing and accepting that there will be a huge backlash and cry to add it back on.

The key, then, is how to handle that backlash.  The problem is that the pressure to put it back won’t come just from students, but also from administrators who honestly think they are acting in the student’s interests, but who do not understand the reasoning for why we made the change.  Paradigm shifts are hard to explain, and harder to understand.  Our best chance is to start releasing bits and pieces of or plans well ahead of time, giving everyone time to digest it so that when the change comes it won’t be such a surprise.

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Friday, December 18th, 2009 www.tamu.edu 3 Comments

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