As director of information architecture and usability, Mr. Morrow leads Web Associates’ holistic approach to combining user interface design, human factors and usability practices, resulting in positive user experience initiatives for the agency’s family of global brands.

PERFORM: What is the most common mistake you see companies making when it comes to their website design and usability?

MORROW: Common online oversights include using a font size that is too small or using inconsistent page templates or nonspecific page names. However, the biggest mistake that many companies make regarding their online properties is failing to connect with their site visitors. Obviously, there are business goals to consider, but balancing those objectives with user feedback enables a company to create engaging user experiences.

The user experience serves as the primary differentiator among online competitors. A user is more likely to return to a site built with his needs and interests in mind than a site that’s been designed by a business for a business. Ultimately, a site’s success or failure rests upon how well a company knows its online audience and satisfies that audience’s needs.

PERFORM: User experience is a common buzz phrase today. In your opinion, what is the evolution of the user experience?

MORROW: The evolution of the user experience has been the evolution of usability. Today’s Web experience is the basis for your customers’ overall perception of your brand and their relationship with your company. It’s all about people – human beings with human needs. We are continually trying to create new and better ways to connect with online users. Our efforts focus on demonstrating to the user that we know who he is and understand his needs. We want to guide him to success in the most effective and efficient way possible and, if needed, we will help him along the way.

While companies have traditionally focused on their business needs, usability is allowing them to place a much greater emphasis on their users’ experience. Usability testing has now become an integral part of the development cycle to ensure the desired results. And with advanced usability testing methods, we can validate the successful experience in the mind of the user. It’s not a one-transaction deal; it’s about a long-term, win-win relationship.

PERFORM: Why should companies test their websites for usability?

MORROW: In nearly every industry, companies are going to do some sort of R&D and testing during the development of a new product. The online space should not be any different. A global brand should never revise a world-class Web presence without gathering and validating the information it needs for success.

We’ve found that testing is a crucial point for gathering customer data. Without it, you are relying solely on the key stakeholders or the biases of whoever is designing the site. By proactively testing the application or design, you get concrete input from real users. You want to listen to your customers throughout the development cycle, and usability testing is a key part of that. We push the interactive envelope on a daily basis, and the success of these innovations wouldn’t be possible without the diagnostics, benchmarking and validation afforded us through usability testing.

PERFORM: At what point in the development cycle should usability be considered?

MORROW: While companies can certainly test a site or application after its launch, it is far more cost- and time-efficient to do usability testing up front. We recommend integrating usability tests throughout the entire development cycle.

For example, we start by using evaluative techniques like heuristic site evaluations and metrics analysis early in the discovery phase. More user-based tools, such as surveys, focus groups and ethnographic studies, are used during planning. As creative and innovative strategies are employed, multiple levels of prototype testing can be used to give us early insight into process and interface efficacy. Based on the results of these studies, we can make changes and test again as needed. By integrating usability methods, companies can provide the checks and balances necessary to refine their designs, resulting in positive user experiences.

PERFORM: What are some metrics used to measure the user experience?

MORROW: In the past, we considered conversions, click paths, time-on-task and satisfaction ratings. Today we additionally consider life-stage continuums as well as technographic, psychographic and affective profiles. Usability testing also lets us measure psychological and physiological responses, such as facial expression, eye movement and pupil dilation.

Integrating all of these methods allows us to leverage robust data sets to gain multiple perspectives so that we can analyze and tailor the user experience to match the key elements the client wants to provide to its online visitors.

PERFORM: How does one measure eye movement, and what are the associated benefits?

MORROW: We measure eye movement through a methodology called eye-tracking, which has been around for over a century. Eye-tracking patterns have been used over time to assess areas of interest in our visual world. Over the past few years, eye-tracking technology has evolved into a sophisticated, noninvasive research tool.

This usability technique employs special cameras to map the location and duration of a user’s visual fixation points. As test participants sit in front of what appears to be a typical flat-screen computer monitor, reflected infrared light pattern data is digitally recorded and analyzed. From that, we can ascertain visual areas of interest. This lets us refine the website design to maximize user engagement. The eye-tracking data combined with a retrospective “thinking aloud” technique gives us objective and subjective insights into what’s driving the on-page and task-based experience.

PERFORM: What kind of tangible results can you expect to achieve with usability?

MORROW: Usability isn’t just a catchphrase – it’s a way of thinking. Gathering, organizing and using information to optimize a customer’s experience helps to drive innovation. The bottom line is that, because you get a holistic view of a product before it goes into development, usability ensures that a product is easier to use, that it has fewer problems and that it is cheaper to develop. All in all, usability is just one tool to enhance the user experience. By incorporating usability practices, you are able to simplify, streamline and accelerate your development process while simultaneously increasing brand loyalty.