Feature Article (Pub: September 03) Save Money - Cut Documentation! by Tim Fidgeon

A lot of people wonder why websites are so expensive.

"All I need is a small website to tell people what I sell and let them put in an order online - how come it's going to cost me this much?!"

Well, here's a tip to any business looking to get online for the first time or improve its website: The fewer bits of paper between the signing of the contract and delivery of the website, the better!

Now, a lot of people will tell you that all sorts of 'steps' are required between these two things, and that each step has to be documented. For large-scale, complicated websites, they're right - for smaller-scale, simpler websites, they're just plain wrong. The web industry has been fleecing businesses for years by insisting that all sorts of documentation is required for every project, every client. The thing for clients to remember is that documentation takes time, and time costs you money.

This phenomenon isn't, of course, unique to the web. We've all heard horror stories about rip-off plumbers, electricians, etc. A lot of people assume that the people who build websites are educated, and are therefore trustworthy - well, don't! The key to choosing a plumber, electrician or web agency is to find someone who is trustworthy and has your best interests at heart. The easiest way to do this is to use personal recommendation as a way to choose your provider. Another is to talk to an agency and find out whether they want to work with you to find the best, cheapest, quickest way to achieve your goals, or are just trying to get as much money from you as possible. Now, of course a web agency should know a little bit more about the web than you - but don't let that intimidate you.

My top tip would be to find a web agency that is honest and flexible in the way they work - that way, you know you'll be getting value for money!

Ask the user, stupid! (...or 'why user-testing works') by Tim Fidgeon

There is always the temptation in life to pretend to know things we don't. Most of the time we do it to look big and clever, especially in the workplace.

The problem with doing this, however, is that when you are called on it in the workplace you're likely to be left looking and feeling, mighty stupid.

The other problem if you're a Usability professional is that the site you've worked on could fail because of your mistake!

Usability professionals are more prone to this 'of course I know the answer'-syndrome than most. The 2 main reasons for this are:

  1. Other people expect us to have all the answers
  2. Users have a nasty habit of surprising us

These issues go to the heart of what people can expect from a Usability professional.

Lots of bosses/clients (justifiably) think "Heck, I pay you to know the answer, you went to school to learn the answer, your job is to tell me the answer - so get on and give me the answer". The problem with this attitude is that it misunderstands the nature of Usability.

Whilst there is a body of knowledge that Usability professionals can draw upon, and we can very often give pretty good answers to peoples' questions (especially on smaller-scale, simpler projects), a key assumption of the usability-trade is 'If in doubt, ask the users'.

Sometimes, the best answer is to admit that you don't know the answer and got to the people who do - the users.

Now, lots of usability-people will try and take a 'best-guess' at the answer, which is fine as long as we make it clear that it's no more than that. The real damage comes when some hot-shot wannabe usability-consultant starts pronouncing opinions like they're engraved on stone and the unchallengeable Word of God.

A quick bit advice of advice to anybody looking to hire usability-people : never trust anybody who says they have all the answers! Instead, put your faith in people who have a realistic view of Usability and who encourage you to ask the users.

So in conclusion - a good Usability-person will be able to help lots of clients in lots of ways - but one of the most important is educating them as to how important the guarantee that usability testing provides.

Tim Fidgeon (MSc HCI) has worked as information architect and usability consultant for a number of FTSE100 companies for 9 years leading a variety of projects, and heads the usability team at CommerceTuned.

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