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

Designing Easy-to-use Websites Book

We caught up with IBM's usability guru Vanessa Donnelly, talked about her new book Designing Easy-to-use Websites (read our review), and the state of usability on the Web.

WebReference> How did Designing Easy-to-use Websites come about?

Vanessa Donnelly> It's a long story, but I'll try and keep it short. I am certainly not a writer. I would classify myself as a software designer who specializes in user interface design. I came to the Web primarily as a user at a time when I was involved in class library design for user interface objects. As a user of the Web I was amazed at how unusable many of the Web sites were; they seemed to be breaking every single rule that we had painfully learned from the software development process. I became pretty vocal about it at the time and, consequently I was soon asked to get involved with evaluating and re-designing our own Web site,

This first foray into Web design was quite a departure from normal software development projects that I had been involved with. Firstly, the time scales were pretty hectic. Secondly, we needed to get involved with information design. Lastly, we had to consider the whole area of content management. At first, anyone within the group could have put anything they liked onto the site due to the fact that there were no controls in place and no review procedures to follow. In software, we have this punishable offence called "breaking the build," which is when someone puts code that does not compile into a library. On the Web, no such censure seemed to exist. In fact, link errors, spelling mistakes, missing graphics and JavaScript errors seem to be commonplace. There were many usability problems and there were also some serious quality control problems with Web site publishing processes.

Developing a successful Web site is far more complicated than people think. It has all the problems of a software development project and all the quality problems of a publishing environment. Because there is so much to think about, I decided to look at defining a process to improve usability and information quality. This work was really for product and services groups inside of IBM; however, I was persuaded to bring it to a wider audience by publishing my work externally, hence the book.

WR> Give us an overview of your process and thinking when you approach a new project.

Donnelly> There is some key information that is needed at the start of a project. What are the business goals of the site? Who is the target audience? What are their goals and tasks? Building a solid conceptual model for a site depends on understanding the users and how they expect to work at the site. If a site breaks the user's mental model, the site will seem unusable. Designing around the way users think, the goals they come to a site to achieve and the way they approach tasks is the basis for building a conceptual design, which is quite independent from the physical design that can be seen on the screen.

In my experience, too many development teams jump into physical design before they really understand how the system should behave. They often design sites around the structure of information that they have, rather than the user goals or how users expect to be able to find that information. The process I advocate defers physical design until all the relevant pieces of information have been gathered, such as clarifying the business goals and objectives, brand messages, business relationships, business model constraints, user critical tasks, information priorities, classification and so on. At every stage design assumptions are validated with representative users from the target audience. It is far cheaper to correct problems during the analysis stage, rather than finding usability problems after a site has gone live.

WR> How important is upfront analysis for Web site success?

Donnelly> The analysis stage has to be the most important, because it is where all the important decisions should be made. I say "should" because some Web site teams have a very ad hoc way of developing sites that mainly hinges around a graphic designer, a storyboard and someone from marketing liking the way the brand is portrayed. Fortunately, many companies are now waking up to the fact that ease of use is critical to the way that they do business on the Web. They are asking for more methodological approaches to the way that their sites are designed and developed.


Created: January 23, 2001
Revised: January 24, 2001