HP, one of the world’s largest technology companies, was interested in improving the usefulness of — and user satisfaction with — their online customer support. To this end, HP contracted Nielsen Norman Group to recommend a redesign strategy.
Together with HP, NN/g conducted a competitive usability analysis on the customer support sites of several companies, including HP’s own site, in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. My involvement at this stage was mostly as an observer.
Based on our findings, I created some alternative designs and built HTML mockups, which we subjected to usability tests. The best aspects of the designs were combined into a single design and re-tested. Our recommendations, based on 3 rounds of user testing, included the following key points:
Don't make users guess what category you think they belong to
Most users don’t know if they should click on “Home”, “Home Business”, or “Small Business”. Many sites required a decision like this up front, which left users confused and worried they might miss important information unless they checked each section.
Design around your products, not your organizational structure
If a user searches for “Deskjet 970cse”, it should be easy to access all pages related to that product: support, manuals, marketing, how-to-buy, and info about related supplies or peripherals (and links to buy those as well). Because different departments are often responsible for different parts of a website, this integration can be hard to achieve, but with collaboration and agreed upon conventions, it’s certainly possible. Not doing so makes it more likely users will get lost, frustrated, and eventually give up.
Many users don’t bother figuring out the browse structure and go straight for search. Take the time to help these users. Invest in quality search tools, provide relevant user assistance with search results, and let users search directly from the home page.
Improve document content and formatting
Many support documents are so hard to read and understand that users often stared at the answer to their problem, and just didn’t realize it. Improve scannability of content through better use of whitespace and bullet lists. Make reviewing the quality of documents an ongoing concern.
These recommendations seem pretty obvious now, but in 2001, many sites — including the major ones we considered in our testing — did not follow them. Many still don’t.
Refine by product: A search result can be significantly refined by identifying the product, so if the query appears to contain product information, the search results should lead the user to identify the specific product of interest.
Information scent: In search results, document titles may not provide enough information to determine the content. A good description can go a long way toward helping users to identify if that content is relevant or not. As with quality of document content, quality of the title and description matters a lot.
Search tips: If the user is not finding answers, some tips are provided for improving their search. The worse their search appears to be going, the more prominent this bit of guidance becomes.
Cover page: This sample product page integrates the content from multiple departments. It provides an overview of available content, clearly indicating which pages are relevant for new vs. existing users, while not preventing them from seeing other content in related sections.
This is important; users care about your products, not what kind of customer you think they are. Making them up front and dropping them into a silo from which they cannot see other content is bad. New users may want to see what support is available before buying. Existing users may want to refer to information they saw on marketing data sheets.
Navigation: There is also a common navigation panel that allows access between the various relevant pages across the organization. One of the challenges is different departments maintaining pages on their own. With a little work, as long as a common navigation widget is included, individual departments can continue to maintain their own pages, and users can enjoy easy access to all information about their product.