With so many technology gizmos, mashups and widgets at a broker’s fingertips, it can be especially tempting to add more bells and whistles to the company’s website and toolkit.

However, eliminating clutter and tweaking, testing and refining a website or tech tool to boost its ease of use — or usability — can lead to dramatic improvements.

In Steve Krug’s "Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems," he notes a common mistake: "One of the things people are often tempted to do when there’s a usability problem is to add something."

With so many technology gizmos, mashups and widgets at a broker’s fingertips, it can be especially tempting to add more bells and whistles to the company’s website and toolkit.

However, eliminating clutter and tweaking, testing and refining a website or tech tool to boost its ease of use — or usability — can lead to dramatic improvements.

In Steve Krug’s "Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems," he notes a common mistake: "One of the things people are often tempted to do when there’s a usability problem is to add something."

Jonathan Ive, the globally recognized award-winning designer and senior vice president of industrial design at Apple, incorporates a minimalist design philosophy in striving to eliminate complexity. If an element is not essential to the design or functionality, it is not integrated.

Today, websites can contain a wealth of content and information. Organizing this information is imperative in order to create an experience that is both intuitive and organic. Creating an enjoyable user experience is what differentiates successful sites from the competition — especially on a real estate site, where conversion is so vital.

There are many different types of usability testing, but they all share one element: monitoring people utilizing the product.

Qualitative vs. quantitative

In a qualitative test, data can be observed but not measured. Elements such as appearance, colors and emotion are recorded. The purpose is not to ascertain something, but to experience and refine your product. This is the type of testing that Steve Krug recommends in "Rocket Surgery Made Easy."

In a quantitative test, data can be measured. For example, you can measure site speed, success rate on call-to-action forms, and how long it takes a user to filter property-search results.

I recently had an opportunity to demo Tobii technology and I have to say, it was very cool! Tobii is eye-tracking software that uses a built-in camera to record precisely what users are looking at and how they interact with a product.

It features a robust reporting module that includes heat maps and "gaze opacity" views — both of these serve to identify which areas of a website the testers are looking at, and for how long.

Website navigation

Website navigation is a crucial element in site design, and its effectiveness should be tested. The majority of sites that I browse incorporate a horizontal navigation design at the top of the page. Adding drop-down menus to this type of navigation with programming languages such as CSS and JavaScript allow for content to be sorted and organized with a sophisticated look and feel.

Ido Zucker, partner at Active Website, utilizes the Tobii machine to conduct quantitative testing. In a usability study conducted this year, Ido put real estate sitemaps (which serve as a directory to all of the site’s content) and navigation to the test. Conducting "eye gaze research," the study had 60 participants, both male and female, in different age groups, with varying degrees of skill level. Each subject sat down with the Tobii eye gear and completed Web-based tasks such as requesting information or locating a mortgage calculator. It was an extensive study that revealed some interesting data.

The following is a quick recap:

  • Structure your sitemap by creating "routes," or paths for users to take based on their interest areas.
  • Name your categories and pages using short, descriptive titles.
  • Users can find subcategories easier within drop-down menus.
  • Users naturally gravitate toward left-aligned vertical-side navigation.
  • Links within content provide the most fluid and logical form of navigation.

An "Ideal Sitemap Template" was configured utilizing the quantitative data collected in the Tobii study. The sitemap represents a generic template, and the titles listed within are 70 of the most common page types. This sitemap would obviously need to be tweaked based on the user types and specialized market services and content of the site owner.

 

View larger image.

Source: Ido Zucker’s Usability Report: Sitemap and Navigation, Q2 2010.

As you can see, the naming convention is short and descriptive, the navigation is organized and intuitive, and most importantly, the template is user-friendly.

The real estate market is so competitive, especially, when smaller broker sites are competing against the likes of Zillow and Trulia. Creating an experience for your audience is essential and good usability is the key component. Not everyone has a Tobii machine in his or her budget, but there are free and low-cost testing alternatives available. Here are some resources:

  • Steve Krug books are a fantastic start. "Don’t Make Me Think!" has sold over 250,000 copies and is extremely insightful. "Rocket Surgery Made Easy" is a how-to guide for conducting your own usability testing.
  • Google Website Optimizer is a free tool that allows you to test and optimize your websites content and design. It features intuitive graphical reporting similar to other Google products.
  • UserTesting.com offers a fast and inexpensive usability testing. For $39 you get a video of a visitor discussing their experience as they navigate your site and a written summary describing the issues that they experienced.
  • ClickTale is a subscription-based service that records how users interact with your website by recording keystrokes, mouse moves and clicks. Their pricing does include a free plan.

Remember the advice of Sari Kalin: a "bad design can cost a website 40 percent of repeat traffic. A good design can keep them coming back. A few tests can make the difference."

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