San Francisco--Chances are two in three that you'll be happy with the outcome of your next Web site visit, according to a recent survey. That's not bad, considering that only seven years ago your odds of a successful visit were only two in five. The news isn't all positive, however: Newbies still suffer from information overload, and site-specific searches need a lot of help.
These and other survey results were presented at this week's UsabilityWeek 2004 conference. The survey was conducted in late 2003 by the Nielsen Norman Group.
The survey entailed visits to 25 different Web sites by 69 people--57 located in the United States and 12 in the United Kingdom. The group was about evenly split between men and women, and ages ranged from the twenties to the sixties. They were given tasks to perform on the Web, such as searching for specific information, as well as tasks on individual sites, such as ordering a product or catalog.
Survey participants with less than one year of Web-browsing experience were less likely to succeed at their given task than more experienced users. For site-specific tasks, the success rates of the less- and more-experienced groups were 59 percent and 72 percent, respectively, while Web-wide tasks were completed at a rate of 52 percent and 67 percent, respectively. (Participants were sometimes given partial credit for incomplete tasks.)
The overall success rate was 66 percent for site-specific tasks and 60 percent for Web-wide tasks. This compares to an overall success rate of 40 percent in a similar survey conducted in 1997.
Search Is King
One of the biggest differences between today's Web and that of 1997 is the increased importance of search, according to the report. "Search engines are the user interface of the Internet these days," says Dr. Jakob Nielsen, principal of Nielsen Norman Group, who co-presented (along with Hoa Loranger, a user experience specialist at the same company) the results at the conference's Web Usability 2004 session.
As people gain Web experience, they're less likely to rely on a site's navigation options and more likely to use the site's search tool to find what they're looking for. Site visitors are also more likely to arrive on the site from a search engine, according to the survey.
Simultaneously, people are spending less time on each page they open, so designers have less time to snag them. When they landed on a site from a search engine, the less experienced group spent an average of 35 seconds on the home page, and 1 minute on an interior page, while the more experienced visitors were on the pages for only 25 and 45 seconds, respectively.
"They're going to arrive from a search engine, they're going to give you a little bit of time, and then they're off," Nielsen told the audience of Web designers.
As Web users increase their reliance on search, they're being more precise in their choice of search terms. In 1994 the mean length of a search query was 1.3 words, and 95 percent of all searches were one or two words long. By 1997 the mean length of search queries was 1.9 words, and 77 percent of searches were for one or two words. In the most recent survey, the mean search-query length was 2.2 words, and only 72 percent of searches were for one or two words.
Nielsen points out that while people are getting more adept at Web searches, improvements in search technology are still needed because the Web itself continues to grow. "We have to teach [ordinary students] in the school system how to do searches," he says.
He goes on to say that as things stand, the only people who make any use of advanced search options are search engine programmers and librarians.
Room for Improvement
We're more likely to have a positive Web experience these days, but there's still plenty of room for usability enhancements, according to the survey.
Web designers are showing more restraint in their use of gratuitous graphics and are now more likely to follow interface conventions, but people new to the Web are still overwhelmed by the volume of information they're presented with, and they continue to struggle with the mechanics of using a mouse to move through a site. On the other hand, as users gain experience, they spend less time struggling with the technology and more time on the task at hand.
One area in need of improvement, according to Nielsen, is site search. While 56 percent of the searches conducted by survey participants on a popular search engine were successful, only 33 percent of searches done using a specific site's search tool succeeded.
"This is a complete paradox," says Nielsen, because on a site you're only searching thousands of pages at most, while a search engine works with millions of pages.
Site visitors are also struggling to find reliable content. "It's kind of hard for users to differentiate the bad from the good," Nielsen said. "Some sites just don't have good content editors."
Nielsen is generally optimistic about the outlook for Web usability. He points out that as Web design conventions take hold, companies do complete site redesigns less often than they did in the past, which allows them to allocate more resources for developing multimedia, collaboration, and other new tools. "We've already come a long way," Nielsen says, "and as long as we can keep going forward, then we are going to do pretty good."