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The cost of failing to usability test designs before deployment has unfortunately been shown again in Scotland's controversial election results.

We see it all the time in usability testing of websites - the fact that users don't read instructions on forms. Instead, they tend to to start filling it in straight away, particularly when the form starts with easy questions about their name etc. The same thing happens on offline paper forms; a subconscious voice says 'I'll read the instructions if I need them' and potentially useful information is missed.

But you would think that users would take a bit more care when filling out a voting form, wouldn't you? Apparently that is not the case, hence the controversy over last week's important local elections in Scotland, where 1 in 20 votes have had to be thrown out in Britain's worst ever voting debacle.   

The reason for the mistake? As shown in this example on the BBC site, voters had to put two crosses on their Holyrood voting papers - one for their constituency and one for the regional list - but it appears many wrongly put two crosses in one section. Simultaneously staging the council elections, in which voters had to rank candidates, also caused confusion.

Having completed the ballot papers myself through a postal vote, I agree that the system did seem confusing. On one ballot paper, the instruction was to use a single X to mark your choice - the traditional method. On another, I was asked to rank the candidates by order of preference, as part of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system for local authority candidates. 

I had the luxury of doing all of this at home and although I found it odd, I was put right by the instructions and hopefully did it right (but will never know for sure I suppose). The bigger problem I found was the rather complex origami needed to put the completed ballots in one envelope, then fold back another piece of paper to ensure that a return address was shown in the lower left, and put all of that into another envelope, aligned with the window of the envelope.

Voters in polling booths however often have other factors that make the likelihood of errors even greater. They may be in a rush, getting their vote in on their way to work, and it is certainly not a familiar task or environment, which will increase the likelihood of errors. As shown in the US presidential election in 2000, with the controversy over the 'hanging chads', users' ability to fully and completely follow voting instructions should not be overestimated. That event showed the importance of conducting usability testing of ballots, rather than relying on the view of the local Electoral Commission that it seems clear enough.

What does all of this have to do with the online world? We are faced with forms all of the time, and some basic rules and conventions have fallen into place to help minimise the chances of errors, such as :

  • Keep the instructions clear and concise.
  • Locate the instructions close to the form fields themselves.
  • Apply ways to visually emphasise instructions, such as shading, bolding, larger fonts and borders.
  • Provide examples on the correct completion of the forms.
  • Provide clear and helpful error messages if the form does not validate (admittedly something that can't happen on offline ballot papers).

Hopefully the Electoral Commission has learned an important lesson and when major changes to the standard voting method are made, they will be reviewed carefully and tested with a few end-users to refine the designs.

Chris Rourke is the managing director of User Vision.

Chris Rourke

Published 8 May, 2007 by Chris Rourke

Chris Rourke is Managing Director of User Vision and a contributor to Econsultancy.

23 more posts from this author

Comments (12)

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James Robertson, Web Marketing Manager at www.venuebirmingham.com

Why on Earth does an otherwise excellent article on usability violate one of the most fundamental usability principles?!

Why is the link to User Vision's site allowed to open in a new window?!

I read this article, thought it well written and apt and thought that Chris's site deserved a look; I clicked on the link and had a new window inflicted on me without warning; which now means I will NEVER go back to that site, will not save it as a bookmark and generally have a bad taste left in my mouth.

I am sorry - this kind of thing utterly ruins all credibility of the author; how can I beleive they know what they are on about when they permit this to happen?

And in this I am a typical user - I do not care if it is the fault of the E-consultancy site, their CMS, or the author; JUST FIX IT!

about 9 years ago

Chris Rourke

Chris Rourke, Managing Director at User VisionSmall Business Multi-user

Sorry about your bad experience James. I am afraid that is the behaviour of links from e-consultancy, nothing I can do about it, happens with all external links I think. I agree that in general new windows should be avoided but when the do happen fair warning needs to be given to the user (for accessibility reasons among others). Chris

about 9 years ago

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James Robertson, Web Marketing Manager at www.venuebirmingham.com

Fair enough; in that case - why does E-consultancy allow this to happen? Uusally they are up to speed on usability issues and this does seem out of character for them...

Will anyone from E-consultancy join the debate? - and defend the decision to have external links open in a new window?

And please bear in mind that I am a paying subscriber; and that I am commenting and involved in the discussion as I actually like almost everything else this site does. (especially getting in external experts like Chris to write good articles like this)

If I did not want to see this site improve I wouldn't bother posting comments like this!

Over to the E-consultancy chaps then...

about 9 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Hello James,

This has nothing to do with the author - rather, it is how we designed this part of the E-consultancy website. If there's any website not to come back to it is this one, since this is all our design, rather than a stupid accident or the fault of the author.

Jakob Neilsen says links as new windows is bad, which is why I presume you think they are bad? That was guidance issued 8 years ago. Is it still relevant today? Perhaps, but perhaps some web users actually LIKE links to open in new windows?

I'm one who does. I much prefer a new window, especially in the new tab-style browsers, than a new page in an existing window. I don't like using the Back button, and if I am researching online I prefer to switch between windows (that's what they're for) rather than pressing back and forwards all the time. It is more annoying to wait for the page to render after hitting Back than to close a window, in my opinion. Each to his own.

Much of Jakob's guidance relates to NEW users. But, once you become familiar with a website, you know whether or not a link will open a new window or not. I wish sites like Digg would open third party listings in a new window. It doesn't, but - speaking from my perspective - I think it would improve, not worsen, the Digg user experience.

Other reasons not to open links as new windows (according to Webcredible) are:

1. Expectations. Again, this reason is aimed at *new* users, rather than users familiar with how your site works. You can argue it either way.

2. It resets the Back button. So close the window instead, same result, right? Resetting the Back button isn't a good move in an existing browser window, but in a new one it is surely expected by the end user?

3. Disorientating for novice users and visually impaired. Again, novice vs existing users familiar with your website. As for the visually impaired, the suggestion is that they may not realise a new window has been opened. This is a potential problem area.

4. Disrespectful to web users. I totally disagree. I prefer it when it happens, so how is it disrespecting me? I like it. And that's why we've done it like this. You can please some of the people...

5. Cluttered taskbar. I use a tabbed browser so this isn't the case.

So, is this rule still valid?

c.

about 9 years ago

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Ken Joldersma

I also like links that open in a new window. Often I will right click on a link and force it to open in a new window when I am not using a tabbed browser interface (which I very much prefer). just so I can eliminate the wasted page refresh time when using going back and forth between pages.

In this case I think that opening the link in a new window is entirely appropriate. It allows you to check out the information while your are reading the article while maintaining the same location in the original article.

No matter what you do with an interface you will never come close to pleasing everyone.

FWIW

about 9 years ago

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James Robertson, Web Marketing Manager at www.venuebirmingham.com

Sorry - but usability guidelines do not date as they do not depend on technology but the way our brains are wired, which is not going to change anytime soon.

What Nielsen said about opening new windows is still true; YOU are presuming to tell ME how to use your site. Also everyone reading this or working at Econsultancy is involved in web design in some way - you can NOT take the necessary distance and see it through a users eyes; put simply web designers only design websites to impress other designers; it is up to those of us who manage them to restrain them and make sites easier to use.

Why is it in the interest of the site I am looking at to break the back button? Do you honestly think that by leaving your window open beneath the new one that you are going to get more people to come back to it? You need to conduct usability tests with real world users; in every single case I have ever observed they are irritated at new windows and dislike the site that did it to them; also they usually fail to get back to the site that opened a new window and go somewhere else instead.

And finally; if I want a new window or tab I am quite capable of asking for it myself! - why do you presume to know better than me what I want to do with my browser?!

about 9 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Hi James,

Your points...

1. Brains wired. I disagree with this, because I believe that (web) users evolve their habits and preferences the more they use something.

2. We are telling you how to use the site. Isn't this also be the case for sites that don't open new windows, eg Digg.com? My preference is that third party links appear in new windows. I might be in the 1% minority, but that's my preference in 2007 (and it wasn't always thus).

3. Everyone at E-consultancy is involved in web design. To some extent, yes, but we are long-standing disciples of usability. We certainly do not design to impress other designers. We try to create functional, usable websites, for our users. We're at the start of a long project to completely revamp E-consultancy and will be engaging our users to help us understand what you all want from the website.

4. Breaking the back button. As I mentioned, a new window doesn't break the back button! There is no 'back' because it is a new window. Granted, this would be confusing if for some reason you fail to notice the new window opening up. If you read Ken's comment you'll see that not everybody finds this sort of thing irritating. But if 99% do then we need to change.

5. You can do it yourself. This is what our head of web development says too. So we'll review this as part of the user experience planning for the new E-consultancy website.

At any rate, thanks for flagging it up, points noted.

c.

about 9 years ago

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Joshua Ledwell

While I found James Robertson's tone overbearing, I think his main point is apt. In testing I have repeatedly seen users didn't notice a new window opening, and got stuck as a result. Even when they do notice, the majority tend to find it annoying.

Please note that for your users there is no such thing as a "third party link." They don't have a mental model of your site where some links are internal and some are external. To them, every link on your page is the same.

Users who prefer new windows always have the option to use any link that way. So it's best to design for the users who prefer the same window or who might not notice the new window and become confused.

(Frankly, the user agent cursor ought to alert users by changing when you select a new-window link. But it doesn't, so here we are.)

about 9 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Thanks Joshua. While I still have *some* reservations about this rule I think we've realised the error of our ways and will be removing the new window function during the next site update.

Cheers,

c.

about 9 years ago

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Kula bácsi

Why don't you all use some decent browser like Firefox or Opera instead of the piece of shite Explorer, then external sites would open in new tabs.

about 9 years ago

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Steve

Isn't this all a little over-the-top? James, you clearly found your way back here because you wrote a comment...
New windows can be irrirating or useful, depending on the situation. Real usability is about the appropriate application of techniques as opposed to blanket conformity with 'regulations'. Thats why UXdesigners are called designers.
Doesn't mean in this case a new window was needed, but it's not somehting to get upset about either.
Let's keep some sense of proportion here...

about 9 years ago

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kate simpson

don't open new windows.

almost 9 years ago

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