Interview with Vanessa Donnelly, author of "Designing Easy-to-use Websites" | WebReference

Interview with Vanessa Donnelly, author of "Designing Easy-to-use Websites"


Interview with Vanessa Donnelly

WR> Give us some background on IBM's Ease of Use site development? It's a very clean site BTW. Do you offer online usability courses or info?

Donnelly> The IBM's Ease of Use Web site is now designed and developed by our group in Austin, Texas. It is content-driven with templates and a workflow system that ensures content quality. As you may notice, the whole IBM site follows a standard template design that ensures ease of learning as well as ease of use. The design of the site is light, inasmuch as it doesn't detract from the content or navigation and yet it looks good and retains the IBM brand. We have had very positive feedback about the design and content of the site, but of course we are always looking at ways to improve it.

WR> Do you have a usability checklist? How does one measure usability?

Donnelly> IBM provides usability design and evaluation services to customers. We also provide training in User-Centered Design (UCD) and User Interface Design. One of the evaluation services we offer is an expert evaluation that involves a number of user interface specialists performing a heuristic evaluation. The heuristics that we use include general Web guidelines, trust and accessibility. We design task scenarios in order to "walk through" a site and measure how easy it is to complete these tasks against the standard heuristics. However, the most interesting usability tests involve observing real users trying to use Web sites and trying to work through some typical user tasks, e.g. "find a product and buy it." It is amazing, when you watch these tests, how often users blame themselves rather than the system when they cannot figure out how it works! It is also interesting watching developers watching these tests: it is sometimes the first time that they have even considered what it will be like for someone else to try and use their designs. It also shows up many problems that even the best experts will have missed.

WR>What have you learned from writing this book?

Donnelly> The subject of designing Web sites is too large for one book. Every time I came to review a draft, I kept on wanting to add some more. Also, there are some very real constraints that many companies have with regards to development schedules. It would be helpful to add some more information on how you can adapt a usability plan to where you currently are with your Web site development.

It would also be quite enjoyable to write up some of the funniest comments we have heard from users while testing Web sites. For example, a subject within a usability test was unable to find the page holding her personal details: she kindly excused the difficult-to-use design by commenting that it was probably a good thing that the information was hard to find, it would stop anyone else from looking at it while she went to the toilet!

WR> For prospective usability consultants, what training is available? What educational focus would be a good background for usability?

Donnelly> We take a whole range of professionals from software developers to cognitive psychologists. There are some HCI courses around, including Information Design and of course Graphic Design, but a lot of this work relies on experience and working on real projects. We find that the best results come from multi-disciplinary teams where one person acts as the user experience design lead. Essentially we advocate a user-centered design approach that also involves bringing in real users to help the design process and to validate design assumptions. To assess whether a system is usable we also recommend evaluating it with real users performing real tasks.

WR> Got a top 10 list of usability dos and don'ts?


  1. Understand the business goals and site purpose in order to be sure how business success will be measured.
  2. Define the target audience and involve real users to find out their goals and how they expect to undertake tasks.
  3. Perform a competitive evaluation to find out what sites do well, and where they fall down.
  4. Analyze the requirements and create a conceptual design, away from the physical design.
  5. Test the conceptual design with real users, and modify as required.
  6. Understand how the site will grow over time, and how the information on the site will be managed.
  7. Understand the search requirements and whether a classification system will be needed.
  8. Identify the roles and responsibilities within the organization for the Web site, and agree on ownership.
  9. Form a development team that includes a usability expert.
  10. Evaluate with users at regular intervals to make sure that the evolving design remains usable.

Further Reading

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Vanessa Donnelly is a software designer for IBM, and one of the firm's leading specialists on Web design, usability, and management. She has been directly involved in developing IBM's processes for building and evolving its own Web site. You can see her work at IBM's Ease of Use site at, and she can be reached at


Created: January 23, 2001
Revised: January 30, 2001