Will bigger and better measurement make a friendlier web?

Technology Blog

New services for measuring the performance of websites seem to appear every week. One reason is the much better support for Javascript in modern browsers, which makes it possible to measure user activity non-intrusively yet comprehensively, simply by adding a little script code to each page.

What about measuring usability, though? Is usability as a concept well-defined enough to be measured? A recent discussion on the Cre8asite forum throws some light on the issue, though in my opinion the two sides here are talking about different things. Usability cannot simply be measured in terms of conversions, because many sites don’t have conversion as a goal.

For example, it is meaningful to ask whether the BBC‘s website is more usable than the (appalling, in my opinion) one belonging to Channel 5, and it is reasonable to give a qualitative answer based on experience. That answer could be backed up by quantitative research which would produce real numbers, but as is well known, statistics can be used to prove practically anything. For sites that don’t have narrow goals, asking the right questions about usability is to some extent an art.

CrazyEgg heatmapAn innovative approach to measuring usability is offered by CrazyEgg, which helps you to visualize what site visitors are actually doing. You can see which links and buttons actually get followed, and how users proceed through your site. A lot of this information has been available from other tools including Google Analytics, but CrazyEgg’s views of the data are for the moment at least somewhat smarter.

With tools like this appearing and Google’s Website Optimizer now available to all Adwords users it looks like 2007 may prove to be the year in which website measurement grew up. It is even possible, although I am somewhat sceptical about this, that the increasing use of such tools might finally persuade designers and site owners to avoid user-unfriendly practices like – as on the home page of the Channel 5 site at time of writing – embedded video you can’t turn off.

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