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Usability and web management

The professional manager is always looking for feedback. They test their plans and theories constantly. They are sensitive to cues within their environment, adapting as appropriate. The website manager operates within a feedback-starved environment. Thus, they need to be much more proactive in seeking feedback. Usability is a way of doing this.

Classic management thinking dictates that you need to mix practice with theory. It's easy for higher levels of management to lose touch with their customers and staff. That's why many organizations make sure that their managers 'get their hands dirty' on a regular basis.

Progressive supermarkets get managers to spend time packing shelves, filling bags, answering customer queries. Sitting in an office and making plans is one thing. Finding out how things actually work is another.

As supermarket managers participate in basic functions, they are keenly observing. They think about ways of making processes better. They wonder if a new trend is emerging because several customers have asked for a certain product.

The Web is a cold, clinical, feedback-starved environment. Yes, we have all these website log files that give us all these wonderful statistics. Most of these statistics are irrelevant; many are misleading. I have yet to meet a manager who is happy with their website statistics.

When well implemented, these statistics are of a certain use. They will tell you how many people visited your website, what were the most popular pages, how long they stayed, etc.

But they will not tell you why people stayed for five minutes. Was it because they really found the content useful? Or was it because they got confused by the navigation, and couldn't find what they were looking for?

Some people think usability is a new discipline. It's not. It's as old as management. It comes from the walking and talking school of management. It's about testing the theory with the customer. It's about observing the customer to see what can be improved, what new products can be developed.

Usability has developed as a serious discipline in relation to how to test new software and new website designs. That is not my focus here. My message is that you, as a manager of a website, need to integrate usability thinking into how you do your job.

Those who design and manage websites tend to exist in a rarefied atmosphere. There is very little interaction with and feedback from the customer—the user. Organizations have got into the very bad habit of creating websites by reflex. It is lemming-like behavior. We need a public website. We need an intranet. Why?

Good managers get their hands dirty by getting to know their users/customers. How well do you know your users? When was the last time you had a conversation with them?

We are not talking here about doing a bit of usability testing before you launch your website. You need to make 'usability' part of your job. At least once a month you should set aside time to find out how your user is interacting with your website; to find out what they'd like improved; to find out what new services they'd like.

This is not an optional, nice-to-have. This is fundamental management 101.

Usability is not just a tactic, it shoud be the culture of your organization.

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Last modified on 27 june 2004

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