UX, Design and Research are critical core functions for fintech

Fintech is buzzing

Financial services in general have been undergoing significant change for some time driven by digital technologies. The ongoing closure of high street bank branches has been a matter of much public comment. The application of new technologies to financial services has generated the term ‘fintech’, and there’s a lot going on. It’s fascinating There are some companies offering the same services as have existed for a long time – such as insurance or lending – and using tech to drive down the costs for the end customer. There are others using tech to offer something a bit different.

Whatever the business though, it’s not enough to have a good idea or even a good execution Whereas in previous times transactions were always mediated by people – over the counter or the phone – who could provide a buffer to clunky systems and terminology, with digital the user interface has to be good enough, and can be a competitive advantage in its own right. If customers can’t navigate your system, you’re out of business.

Digital coin exchanges

Here’s an example from digital coin exchanges.

This is an extract of Bitrex homepage. Erm…. maybe they are just targeting expert traders who know them and know what they do. They aren’t going to suck in many mainstream investors. ‘Explore markets’??? What markets? Sign up for what?

Bittrex section of homepage

Their homepage blurb is this.

Lloyds mortgage page

There’s an obvious difference in apparent complexity between these designs. The aim should be to make it easy for any individual to find their path. The first two designs would seem to achieve that aim. With Lloyds, should I go to ‘Find out more’ or one of the other choices? Is this the right place to tell prospective customers that their homes may be repossessed?What’s all that legal-looking text at the top about? And what’s a ‘Club Lloyds current account customer’ that gets a discount? How can I be one? There’s no information here.

Lloyds are talking to Club Lloyds customers at this point, but what about everyone else? At British Airways there are benefits for members of The Executive Club – the airline’s frequent flyer scheme (despite its name anyone can join for free and earn miles). Around the site there would be, for example, a description of how to choose a seat, with a rider of ‘and Executive Club members can do x’. It was aimed at Executive Club members who (mostly) knew that they were a member. However, many non-members didn’t know if they were members or not – or how to become one. It’s important when presenting messages to think not only of the people who it’s for, but also the people who it’s not for, and to provide supporting information where needed. In Lloyds case it would help if there was some in-context information available (such as a mouseover) that could inform the curious customer as to what a ‘Club Lloyds current account customer’ is.

Borderless banking

There are a growing number of digital nomads working remotely and moving around the globe, and so more borderless bank accounts are appearing, along with other methods of cheaply moving money across borders.

ipagoo have a multi country account, and TransferWise has recently added a ‘borderless account’ to their list of services.

The ipagoo website needs work. The contrast of the text to background is poor making it hard to read and key information doesn’t stand out. Also, one of the obvious questions that digital nomads will ask is ‘what countries does this account work in?’. Where can I get paid? It’s not obvious how to get that information on the ipagoo site. Here’s part of their homepage.

ipagoo home

There are no obvious navigation options to tell me which countries I can get paid in. I spent some time looking around but ultimately I had to contact the company to find out. You have to ‘apply now’, which is counter-intuitive. I don’t want to apply yet, I want more information.

Here’s what you get on the apply now page.

ipagoo apply now

Even more oddly, you now have to click the link to find out if you are eligible for an account. This is structured the way the company thinks about it – not the way that customers think. From ipagoo’s point of view, if you aren’t in one of the listed countries, you’re not eligible. But it doesn’t help customers to structure the information that way.

Here’s what you get if you click the link.

ipgoo eligibility page

At last, here’s the list, but I would never have found it and I would never have opened an account.

By contrast TransferWise present the information in a more customer-friendly way.

TransferWise information

There’s a summary right there as to which countries are covered.

HSBC do offer an account that does something similar, but there is a list of eligibility criteria that will exclude many of the new generation of international workers, some of whom will end up rich but sticking with the new players. Maybe HSBC have their eye on this but history is littered with the remains of businesses that didn’t move early enough to deal with challengers.

UX, Design, and Research are critical functions for fintech

Fintech startups and established businesses, like all digital businesses, need to treat the customer experience as a core business competency. That means doing the research to understand the customer perspective – what information does the customer need along the way? Can they find it easily? Can the customer transact easily? Does the design reflect brand values and support the usability?

That means recruiting and keeping specialists who know how to do this stuff. Good UX/UI and research people will be able to apply their skills across business domains.

A founder or CEO who thinks they know what a user interface should look like, or how it should work, and thinks they don’t need design expertise is unlikely to be the success they think they should be.

Predictive text or dropdown. Which is better?

Which is best, predictive text (aka type-ahead), or a pre-populated dropdown? As ever the answer is ‘it depends’. However, I do sense that predictive text has become the default, even when it might not be the right thing to do. Which approach to take on the British Airways booking panel was the single longest running argument I had with colleagues at BA.

British Airways old booking panel

To choose where you wanted to fly from there was one dropdown for country and one for city which was populated according to the selected country. However, to choose where you wanted to fly to, it was predictive text. When the user started typing matches would show up for city, airport, or country names.

The funny thing was that time after time colleagues at BA asked why we didn’t change the dropdowns to predictive text. My boss, my team, colleagues in the business would all argue passionately for predictive text in the ‘From’ field. The reason that was odd was that on a number of occasions in usability labs customers would ask why we didn’t change the predictive text to dropdowns in the ‘To’ field. Not one customer ever asked for what my colleagues wanted. Yet when I explained this internally people found it very difficult to accept as it was so counter-intuitive to them.

So why was the panel designed that way? Good question. I’m not sure I can clearly articulate the original thinking, but here’s the post-rationalisation. If you are flying from somewhere the likelihood is that you know where you want to go from – or at least which country. It’s also likely that many customer don’t know which airports BA flies from, but by selecting the country they get a definitive list. It also means that you don’t have to be able to spell the name of an airport or city to get a hit, and if your favoured city isn’t in the list then you know for sure BA don’t go there. Those factors aren’t catered for in predictive text.

If you are flying to somewhere there’s more of chance that you’re not so familiar with the destination. If you know you want to go to Sofia you may not know which country it’s in. You might not even know what continent it’s on. So the predictive text is less constraining where a search might be more diverse.

In the usability labs customers liked the fact that didn’t have to think – so long as they knew their departure country.

By contrast, let’s take a look at what Ryanair do.

Ryanair booking panel

Both the ‘from’ and ‘to’ fields have a consistent design which in principle is good. You can pick the country, and then you pick the airport. But you can also just type something in. If you didn’t know which country Dusseldorf was in, and typed ‘Dus’, then Dusseldorf would show up. The customer gets the choice of which method to use.

I do recall a time when Ryanair had all destinations in a single dropdown which covered the entire page of a desktop screen. It was a bit much.

There is a sense in which pre-population merges into a hierarchical navigation. Amazon couldn’t have a single dropdown with all their products in it, but you can drill down through the product listings to get a relevant (more or less) set of results. It’s the same principle as the BA and Ryanair menus, just presented in a different context.

A simple rule of thumb is that if there is a ‘small’ set of possible choices, then use a pre-populated dropdown. If you use predictive text then a key issue is how you handle errors. You could disable progress unless a valid choice is made from the options displayed. This eliminates the possibility of the user getting an error from the search, but doesn’t help if they don’t know what the choices are or what the spelling is.

If you don’t force a valid choice then if the user enters an invalid search term it’s typical to see ‘did you mean’, as exemplified here by Amazon. I searched for ‘beetles red album’, and the system guessed that I wanted the ‘Beatles’ red album, but still allowed me to insist on ‘beetles’ if I really wanted to. This is useful.

Amazon response to search for ‘beetles red album’

It can also be useful, even if the user enters a valid search term, to show alternatives.

There is a Sydney in Australia and also one in Canada. There have been occasional stories in the press of travellers flying to the wrong one. Perhaps if their search engines had been clearer that there were other ‘Sydney’s the error might have been avoided.

There is a Grenada in the Caribbean and a Granada in Spain. Just because someone types in, or selects, a valid search term doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the one they want.

The booking panel on ba.com now has predictive text

BA predictive text

This approach doesn’t wait until the user has hit the ‘enter’ button to let them know their search term isn’t recognised, and it makes helpful suggestions.

Summary

As is often the case with design there are some useful patterns out there, but which one you choose will depend on context.

If you have a limited number of defined choices use a dropdown. There’s no hard rule on how many is too many. That again can depend on context and how users react. Once you get to too many then you need to start categorising into a menu structure.

If you use predictive text consider whether you want to force a valid choice. Let the user know that their text is not recognised (where appropriate), and offer alternatives. You still often see a simple ‘no results’ as a consequence of a simple spelling error. Consider whether it’s better to alert the user to the issue before or after the search button is pressed.

The two approaches aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, as the Ryanair example shows.

A little thought and consideration of the issues could make a significant difference to experience on many sites.

Here’s a comment from an ex-colleague, Allan Dade.

Predictive text can pip drop downs to the post if they are built correctly for screen readers. Drop-downs are a tad easier to build to standards as long as the number of ‘results’ are announced so that the visually impaired customer doesn’t have to. Longer dropdowns can cause display issues on mobile, while assistive choice can be disrupted by the way a user uses their device.

Internal and recruitment applications need as much UX as ecommerce

Companies need to give as much attention to their internal digital applications as they do to ecommerce

Most companies these days have realised that they need to ensure at least an adequate user experience on their customer-facing digital touchpoints. Many though haven’t realised that they need to put the same effort into internal applications.

Whilst those responsible for external facing applications can often justify the necessary expense with an ROI based on revenue, it’s more likely that internal developments would be justified in cost savings or productivity which can be hard to calculate. That’s not to say that revenue is easy to judge either. It’s also typically the case that the people in charge of internal applications have (even) less experience of UX and usability than their external facing colleagues.

I have been subjected to many awful internal interfaces for the likes of raising purchase orders, staff expenses, workflow management, time management etc. I once set up a meeting with the owner of a purchase order system which had to be used by staff who wanted to make a company purchase. The system was notorious amongst users, most of whom only had need for occasional use. Many hours were wasted with people spending too much time helping colleagues navigate the arcane structure. In our meeting I suggested to the owner that there was a problem with usability, and that internal productivity would be improved with adaptations to the system. The owner disagreed. They received few complaints, there was a help system, and anyone who needed more help could just ask. I enquired whether any users had been involved in the implementation of the system. Oh yes, said the owner, we had an expert panel. The problem was, as I’ve said, most users weren’t experts. I didn’t have the time to chase the argument.

The consequences of poor internal usability can be severe. A PO could be raised for the wrong amount, or the wrong currency, or in a way that made it hard to receipt. In another system I had to declare a gift from a supplier. I used a drop-down to declare the type of gift, filled in the rest of the form, and pressed the button. Some time later an irate compliance officer contacted me to say that I’d broken the rules by accepting the gift. I pointed out that I had no intent to do so as evidenced by the fact that I’d declared it, and that the form had not given me the relevant information. Yes it had, the officer said, it was in words at the end of the form. It was true, the words were there but I’d missed them. The appropriate place for them was when I’d selected the type of gift – I should have been presented with an unavoidable and relevant message at that point.

There are other examples, but hopefully you get the point.

An oft-quoted excuse is that the system in question has been bought-in, that there are limited customisation options and that they cost money. It’s a fair point, but needs to be weighed up against how fit for purpose the system is. That calculation is often not made. Some vendors are better than others at ensuring the usability of the systems they sell, but if their customers aren’t asking for usability then the vendors aren’t going to put a lot of effort into it.

All of this was highlighted when I recently applied for a job using a system that isn’t fit for purpose by most standards. I just happen to have picked this as an example. There have been others.

Applying for a job

Start on Linkedin…

I saw a job on Linkedin that I wanted to apply for. Head of Online Search at LexisNexis.

Job ad

To Neuvoo

When I clicked the ‘apply’ button I went to the page below on Neuvoo.co.uk, which is a job site. I had hoped to be able to immediately fill in a form but had more realistic expectation of going to another job listing, which it was. I wasn’t immediately sure if I was in the right place due to the ads at the top – but I was.

Job list

Since I was here to apply, not read the same description, I looked for another ‘apply’ button. I had to scroll down to the bottom of the job ad to find it. It would make sense to have an ‘apply’ button at the top as well as at the bottom. The idea is to make it easy.

Apply button

When I clicked to apply I did at this point expect to go to a form to fill in. Instead, I’m asked to sign up for email alerts.

Sign up form

Selectminds.com

I chose ‘no thank you’ which took me to the following page on selectminds.com, which is a ‘talent search and acquisition platform’ that’s been bought by Oracle. It seems that it’s a white-label platform used by many companies.

For the third time now I’m on a page with the job listing and an ‘apply’ button. Who is thinking about the user journey?

Another job listing

Once again, I clicked on ‘apply for job’ and got the popup below.

Start of application

In this popup, the name fields are greyed out and can not be edited. It’s impossible to enter your first and last names. I had encountered this before and it had nearly stopped me from applying for a job. I eventually figured out that you have to be logged in. Because I’d used selectminds before (but not for LexiNexis) the site ‘knew’ that I had a login and that I wasn’t logged in, but there is no indication that this is why I could not proceed.

When I did log in, I saw the following.

Start of application again

Although the design takes the eye down to check the name fields you have to go back up to the ‘Go’ button to continue. It’s a basic usability issue that shouldn’t happen.

When you click the ‘Go’ button, all that happens is that a ‘Start your application’ button appears at the bottom of the popup. The ‘Go’ button is seemingly redundant.

The same form

Much of the text here isn’t needed. It says that you need Flash but I don’t have Flash installed and I didn’t encounter a need for it. It also warns that popup blockers should be disabled – they should not be essential in an age when increasing numbers of people are installing them.

There’s also an instruction ‘if you’ve previously registered, please login and search for the job you are applying for’. If this instruction is important it should be more obvious – in a bullet point – but I’m not at all clear why I should need to search at all. I’ve clicked a link to apply for a specific job and the page should know that I’m logged in. Flash is mentioned again.

Clicking on the red button, takes you to the next page.

Taleo.net

Another registration screen

I’m now on taleo.net, another white label recruitment platform. Small text beneath the image says that I’m logged in but the prominent content is a new user registration form. I was utterly confused – again.

As the previous instruction had been to log in and search for the job you wanted, I went to the ‘job search’ form. I tried two searches, firstly using ‘search’ as a keyword (because the job I’m applying for has ‘search’ in the job title), and secondly using the job reference.

Job search 1
Search again

Both searches resulted in no jobs found.

‘No results’ message

In fact, the form appears not to be working at all. I searched on the defaults for ‘all’ jobs in ‘all’ regions and still received no results.

I went to advanced search.

Advanced search

Here I saw the link to all jobs at Relx. It took some experimentation to find that only the ‘R’ is a link. One day I want to build a spoof website incorporating all the worst design elements that I’ve seen. I wonder if someone beat me to it.

The ‘R’ took me to yet another search form.

Another landing page and search form

Using ‘search’ as a keyword again yielded no results.

Searching for ‘search’

I listed all jobs.

Search results header

This time jobs are listed, but Head of Search is not one of them. Ironic really.

I went back to this screen.

Another registration screen, again

Although I’m logged in, I hit the G+ new user registration button, and got the screen below.

Application process

For reasons I cannot imagine this was the route I needed to follow. I didn’t need to search for the job, I needed to hit the Google Plus button. Go figure. I uploaded my cv. The guidance said that education and work experience will be replaced in my profile. I’m not sure what that means.

Resume upload

Next up was the form below. The system isn’t intelligent enough to read my cv and extract and pre-fill my name, address etc, and the contents of drop-downs are not displayed properly.

Personal information entry

There are two definitions of what’s meant by ‘State/Province’

2 State/province entries

The ‘region’ selection is an odd mixture of towns, cities, areas and counties. It’s one I’ve seen on other US sites. It’s like some intern was given the job of populating the drop-down from an old school atlas (remember those?).

Region selector

Thankfully, there were only a few more simple fields to fill in after this, and my application was done. I’m still waiting to hear.

Wrap up

There’s a business reason for this process – companies want to employ the best people. But the difficulty of making an application means that an individual’s persistence becomes the first filter, regardless of their fitness for the role. I don’t think that’s intended. With my application I included a message that the process had been difficult and that I could provide feedback if it would be helpful. I didn’t expect it to affect my application either way. No one took me up on the offer.

When applying for other roles through Taleo.net I’ve had other issues. Although (obviously) my job history is in my cv which is attached to each new application, there are still forms to fill in asking for job history. What’s the point? What am I supposed to do? I cut and paste. Likewise for educational achievements. It’s a waste of time.

Another time I had to give references. That just seems unnecessary at this point. When doing so I could not tell whether the ‘title’ field referred to Mr, Miss, Ms etc, or whether I was supposed to fill in a job title. Maybe getting it wrong accounts for another lack of response to my application.

It seems a little ironic to me that I’m applying for roles that relate to usability through systems with poor usability. There could be reasons why it’s not easy for companies to make changes, but those responsible should at least be aware. And care. I told one job owner that a job advertised on Linkedin linked to the wrong application form. It hadn’t been updated two weeks later.

For the likes of Selectminds and Taleo – there’s work to do.

Booking cottages – lessons for ecommerce

Help your customer

Small things can make a difference as to whether a customer ends up spending money with you. Sometimes a small missing item of information that the site owner doesn’t think is important would have made the difference. Sometimes it’s just making the search function a bit more easy to use.

I have a dog. Sometimes, we go to pubs. Some pubs don’t allow dogs at all, some allow them outside, some inside. Some pub web sites state whether dogs are allowed or not, but many don’t. Whether they are or aren’t I’m not the only one who will have that question. Help your customer.

Searching for cottages

I want to book at cottage for about a week in the UK. I have the following requirements.

  • 4 adults
  • 1 dog
  • 2 bathrooms
  • near a pub
  • start on Sunday, return on Saturday

I went to Best of Suffolk.

Best of Suffolk search bar

The initial search on Best of Suffolk has limited parameters, which is ok if there is some good post-search filtering. There’s always a tension between making a search form really easy to start with but you then have to filter, versus more questions but more relevant results. One simple thing that the site doesn’t do is cookie the search parameters. This means that if you come back to the home page to start a new search you have to enter everything again from scratch. Best practice with just about any search is to pre-populate the last search so that people can just adjust what they need, and to use a persistent cookie so you can come back another time and pick up from where you left off.

Sykes Cottages has a few more parameters, which I find useful, and it’s not so many that it’s off-putting.  Being able to state the flexibility of your search date is especially useful. However, they don’t cookie the parameters either.

Sykes Cottages booking panel

Filtering results

Back at Best of Suffolk the initial display of search results is quite good. There are large pictures of each property, and some of the key features are displayed as icons and text allowing you to quickly identify those you might be interested in.

Best of Suffolk search result detail

However, there’s no mention of proximity to pubs, and I want a tailored list. There’s a slide-open filter section at the top of the results. They are nice big icons, again with text. Pubs and pets are included, and one of the options is a swimming pool. It’s not a requirement, but why not have a look? So I include that too.

Best of Suffolk filters

However, when I set these filters there are no results (although it doesn’t actually say that). The obvious thing to do is to de-select the swimming pool filter. Yet when I go to the filter panel, all of the filters have apparently already been de-selected. Users will often try different combinations of filters and sometimes won’t recall what the last combination was that they tried, so this just makes it a lot more work. This is basic stuff. I also can’t filter on the number of bathrooms, which most other cottage sites do allow.

It gets worse. Here is what the filters look like after an unsuccessful search. The original search parameters are there, and no filters are selected. I want to get the original set of results back so just click ‘search’. No results. What I suspect is happening is that the filters actually are selected, but not shown as selected. It’s desperately poor work. Doesn’t anyone check this stuff?

Best of Suffolk filters

Sykes have a more traditional filter panel to the left of the cottage listings. You can always see what options are selected. Each time you add a filter the page refreshes. Many sites do this, but there are two factors that make it awkward here. Firstly it’s slow, and secondly the page reloads to the top each time, forcing you to scroll down and re-locate the filters again.  It’s quite laborious to set a number of filters. Functionally at least it works but the experience could be better.

Sykes filter panel

Dates and pricing

I start again from the home page on Best of Suffolk and persist enough to find a property that I’m interested in, but there’s further frustration ahead. Although I’ve searched on specific dates for 4 people I have to enter the information again on the property page. The calendar defaults to the current month even though I entered dates in May. I don’t really see why anyone should have to persevere with this.

Best of Suffolk date picker

When I move the calendar to May I find that there are changeover days, and you can only stay for seven days. I don’t understand the business well enough to know why this is necessary – I get that it’s more efficient if you sell out, but it could unnecessarily constrain sales. What would make sense here would be a message that you could pick other dates, and they’d get back to you if the owner accepted (especially sensible if it’s close to the date and the property might remain empty). They could at least suggest that you phone if you want other dates. But they don’t.

Best of Suffolk date picker

Despite the good visual design, layout, and well-written content, the functional experience is enough to put customers off. I did try to reach out to someone who I think is a founder of Best of Suffolk on Twitter, to give feedback, but didn’t get a response.

By contrast, Sykes lets you specify your own dates. On the date picker, an ‘arrival date’ is still marked, and it’s not immediately clear what the meaning of this is. As shown in the image below I’m planning to arrive on the 3rd and leave on the 9th, and the 4th is a changeover day. After some playing around, I think if your stay spans two weeks with an ‘arrival date’ sometime during your stay then you pay for two weeks. The cottages are priced by the week, rather than by the day as hotels are. Given that that’s how the system operates at least Sykes lets me do what I want if I’m prepared to pay for it. An additional customer-friendly enhancement here would be a message saying ‘if you arrive one day later, you will save £x’.

Sykes date picker

Other issues

There are a number of sites selling cottage rentals, as you might expect. The likes of booking.com, Expedia, and Air BnB get in on the act, and they appear to have some of the same technical constraints imposed by the way the business works. Whether these are technical constraints or commercial process I don’t know.

There are pluses and minuses across sites.

A common frustration is being forced to choose one specific geographical area. This example is from cottages.com. If I want to choose Cornwall and Devon, I can’t. I have to do a search on each on individually. This can be solved by using tick boxes which would allow for multiple selections. Often when I’m using filters and there’s a long list I would rather be able to exclude one or two, rather than include lots, but I rarely find this function offered.

A nice touch on the Original Cottages site is the ability to filter by drive time from home to the cottage. However, it doesn’t work. When I first tried it I got a swirly thing indicating something was happening, and it didn’t go away. I had to refresh the page to make it stop. More recently it just results in no search results, whatever length of drive I enter.

Original Cottages distance filter

The wrap up

So there you have it. As with many usability issues the good and the bad aren’t specific to cottages. If you’re in the business think about how you can strike the right balance between initial search parameters and filters. Do you cookie the search parameters, and are you thinking about the dimensions most meaningful and relevant to your customers? Also, it’s not just about making sure that a customer can add something to a basket and press ‘buy now’ – you have to look at what happens if they want to change their mind in the process. And, quite simply, just make sure it works. How could anyone not do that?

Tips for effective informational content

What’s the issue?

There are books you can read and sites to explore about good writing for the web. Yet I still see so many of the basic guidelines being broken.

It’s important to note that what counts as good writing will vary according to context. A good marketing blurb that gets you excited about a product or travel destination will usually differ in style from straight factual information, which may again vary from the way that functional error messages are written. On top that those contexts, writers often have to factor in a Brand tone of voice. Is it formal, or playful, or quirky? As you move along the scale from inspirational to factual there is generally less opportunity to bring in a tone of voice – but some brands do. Bringing in tone of voice often means that you need more words and a turn of phrase that can get in the way of clarity, which needs to take precedence.

There are exceptions, but generally when you get to facts, people just want the punchy facts, and then they want to leave. You might get an amusing error message, and it can work. It can also become annoying.

In this post I’m looking at the middle ground where you want to present factual information. You want to make it easy for people to find the information that’s relevant to them, and present it in a way that is unambiguous as far as possible. It’s not a completely comprehensive list of dos and don’ts (that would be a  book).

Use bullets

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that people don’t read websites or apps like they read novels. Users have a goal – they’re not there for the pleasure of your prose. They scan, looking for the cues and keywords that relate to their goal. If the information that you want to impart is a series of individual facts, then structure it as bullets, don’t write it into a sentence.

Here’s a small example from the Theatre Royal Windsor.

Paragraph from Theatre Royal

This would be better structured as three bullet points – and it doesn’t then need the ‘please note’. ‘Drink’ doesn’t need to be capitalised, and it can be more friendly. For example –

  • You are welcome to bring in water with you, but otherwise food and other drinks may not be brought in.
  • Safety is a priority, so we reserve the right to search bags and packages.
  • Rucksacks, suitcases and large holdalls are not allowed in the auditorium (it would be useful to add if there is a holding area for bags)

British Airways had a promotion. Here were the rules.

BA promotion terms

It’s quite hard to scan that paragraph, and pick out the rules in a way that you can get your head round. It would be better as follows:-

Improved BA layout

Some of the unnecessary verbosity is tidied up. Now it’s ‘We have great fares in all our cabins’ rather than ‘There’s great fares in both premium and non-premium cabins’. The original makes you stop and think. The new version also makes it a lot easier to pick out the relevant dates.

Reading Arts has a page on venue hire. Here’s a grab of some of it:-

Reading Arts venue hire

It would help the reader if some of that first paragraph was broken into bullet points, and then you could see at a glance that there are three venues available for hire. Other aspects of this page are also worthy of comment.

Why on earth is there a link to download venue logos? I don’t know their business, but as a prospective hirer, it doesn’t seem relevant. And the link just seems to be plonked on the page at random. It doesn’t relate to any of the other content, and immediately follows some text telling me to follow the links to find out more. It takes the user to a page full of logos.

Also, there is no explanation of what the four pictures are of – even if you click on them. And although there are three venues (apparently), there are only links to two of them, under an odd heading of ‘related content’. I don’t think it’s ‘related’ content. It IS the content. This page needs some work.

Make sure it’s understandable English (or whatever the language is)

Maersk, the shipping company, have some ‘important information’ for customers. Here’s an example:-

Maersk important information

This has clearly been written by someone who does not have English as their first language, and it hasn’t been checked. This can matter. Even if someone can get the gist of it, it’s hard work. Many times I’ve agonised over nuances of wording, and sometimes people challenge me as to why I’m worrying so much over some minor point of detail. The reason is that to the customer this might be the most important thing they read, and those nuances can really matter. It’s easy to be lazy and write copy that has unintentional ambiguity, and you might never know it. If I say ‘loyalty scheme members must go to gate A’, does that mean only loyalty scheme members can go to gate A ? It doesn’t say, so it’s ambiguous.

Limit line length

If the user is reading your content on a mobile device, this isn’t an issue. If someone has designed for mobile first, and not thought too much about the presentation on desktop, then it’s easy to let line length run amok, although it also happens on non-responsive sites. This is an example from Manchester Airport.

Manchester airport information

It doesn’t matter particularly if you can’t read the text here. The visual impact is of small text size and long lines, which is immediately daunting. Any research that I’ve found suggests that users read faster with long line lengths, but prefer shorter lengths. That reflects my personal preference. 80 characters is a good rule of thumb for line length.

On a positive note, the main questions are in bold. That’s good. It helps the user to scan and pick out the relevant items, and it shows the structure of the page. The sub-headings though are in italic, and it would be better to have a design style that’s between the main heading and body copy that is clearer and easier to read.

Putting the whole thing on a background image of clouds is just annoying, and makes the text harder to read. It doesn’t add information or usability. This isn’t the place for clouds.

Categorise and structure

The Manchester Airport example above does attempt to give structure to the content. Many sites have a really long list of FAQs. This example is from Camp America.

Camp America FAQs

There are 70 FAQs. Other sites have more. In this case, there is a drop-down at the top where you can filter by category. That’s good, but I predict that most people will miss it, as they will look immediately at the FAQs for the information they want, rather than start by looking around the page just to see what other navigation or content there is. Since the categorisation is there, why not turn it on by default, rather than off? It would help.

Put active information at the start of the line

Some time ago I was working on some copy to help customers who were due to fly, and were in wheelchairs, and wanted some help at the airport.

We had some words along the lines of ‘If you call our contact centre, then when you travel we can arrange for help with your wheelchair’. We changed this to ‘If you are in a wheelchair, and need help when travelling…’ Again, people scan content. With bullets and short sentences, they scan the first words of each item looking for relevance. The change that we made meant that people in wheelchairs didn’t have to read the whole thing to know they had found relevant content, and others could stop reading as it didn’t apply to them.

This example is from Standard Chartered Bank:-

Standard Chartered T&Cs

Most of the links start with ‘Terms & Conditions’ and I have to read further to find the relevant ones. I’m on a T&Cs page, so I know it’s all about terms and conditions. Switch the content to ‘English credit card Terms and Conditions’.

Don’t blather

I often see words on sites that don’t add information, and shouldn’t be there. Sometimes, it seems, site owners feel they need some introductory text. This is from Hitched, a UK site about weddings.

Hitched – bridalwear introductory text

Someone has come to the site, usually excited, looking for advice and information. That introductory paragraph adds nothing (IMHO). It’s just there for the sake of it. I predict that most people won’t read it, and those who do get no value from it, which means it’s clutter.

Also, the text is centred, as other text is on the site. This makes it harder to read. We get used to starting at the same left-hand (in English) position for each line. Centred text forces us to take time and effort – even if it’s not conscious – locating the start of the line. It becomes fatiguing if there’s too much.

Takeout

Users have goals. When it comes to facts, there are some simple guidelines that in most cases will help people to get what they want quickly.

  • Use bullets
  • Write good English (or whatever the language is), and make it unambiguous
  • Limit line length
  • Categorise and structure the content
  • Put active information at the start of the line
  • Don’t blather – make every word justify its existence
  • Don’t centre text
  • Make it physically easy to read – large enough text size, no patterned backgrounds, good contrast