Features from Meantime IT

It looks good – but does it work?

Slick websites with media-rich features and glossy images may create a good first impression, but if the user can’t find what they want within a few clicks they’ll look elsewhere.

Similarly, software which is designed to streamline business processes but makes no sense to the user because it’s clunky and long-winded will soon be cast aside in favour of the original paper-based processes that were deemed too laborious in the first place.

At Meantime we regularly see websites and software that have clearly had no consideration given to the user journey. Business owners come to us frustrated that their staff won’t use the systems they’ve spent thousands installing and asking us to replace them; but when we look into it, the systems work fine, there’s just no consideration been given to how people will be using them.

Then there are websites that people need to use regularly, say for placing orders or submitted information. Here at Meantime we know our way around a website, but the way some sites are set up would have even the most tech-savvy person tearing out their hair in frustration. Jumping from one page to another, scrolling up a screen just to be sent back down to the bottom, having to go to X, Y and Z before you can get to A to B; there’s really no need for things to be so complicated.

We’ve put together a few simple guidelines for you to bear in mind when speaking to your web and software developers, and you don’t need a degree in software engineering to understand them.

Who’s it for?

All too often, this simple question is completely overlooked. Whether it’s a website or a piece of software to make your staff’s life easier, ask yourself who’s going to be using it and what they’re using it for. Is it a piece of software that will simplify administration processes for your staff? Ask them to talk you through their current processes and work out how software can speed them up. Is it a form to be submitted on a website? Are the people completing this form familiar with the web or will they need prompting at every stage?

A decent developer will go through these questions with you, but there are many who will just take away your requirements and build you what you’ve asked for. If no-one’s given any thought to the user journey, then the best system in the world is never going to work.

Take the user on a journey

But make it a pleasant one. If you run a shop, you don’t ask people to go up the escalators, around the warehouse, back down the stairs and into a separate area to pick up their goods (unless you’re Ikea). The same applies to websites and software. Is the help and information they need available without having to leave the page they’re on? Will information they’ve submitted on a form still be there if they leave it to check another screen? Don’t make people go through five screens that they don’t need before they get to the one they do. Give some thought to what your system will be used for, and make it as simple as possible to get from A to B.

Know what you want

When you’ve established who’s using your system and what they want it to do, thrash out the details at design stage before any code is written. Building a piece of software or a website is like building a house – you can’t decide you want to change the top floor after the foundations have been laid. Well, you can – but it’ll cost you.

Sketch out your requirements, thrash out the details with your developer, and ask for a flowchart of how they will work. Any long-winded and unnecessary procedures will become apparent before the building process has begun, saving you time and money. If you don’t say what you want at the design stage, don’t be surprised if it’s not in the working version you’re presented with. What you may think is a little change is often a major structural alteration, and they cost money. You may be lucky enough to work with a developer who’s happy to work unpaid for weeks, months and even years after delivering your site or software, but most of the people we know like to pay the mortgage and put food on the table so will charge extra for amendments.

Are you speaking their language?

You may know what it means, but does the person using the system have your knowledge? Here at Meantime we frequently talk amongst ourselves about PHP, Javascript and Ajax, but we wouldn’t speak in that language to our clients – we’d simply say, ‘We will make it so your system will do x, y and z’.

The golden rule is to keep things simple. Why say, “Please state your requirements by navigating to the online form submission page”, when “Click here to add your details” will do?

It’s clever, but is it too complicated?

If your system’s set up to trigger a chain of processes, is your user aware of what’s going on? If they enter an order and the screen goes blank, do they know it’s because your system is whirring away in the background checking stock and organising deliveries, or will they think it’s crashed? Make good use of help text; if it will take a few moments to process an entry, make sure that’s made clear. Think about what your user is seeing and talk them through every step.

Make design work

Print design doesn’t necessarily transfer to the web, and what looks great in a brochure or on a printed form may present complications when it’s on a screen. Design matters, but it needs to be functional and consistent.

A flash animation of your recent work with a music soundtrack on your homepage is the web equivalent of hiring someone to stand at your front door and subject customers to a two minute presentation on how brilliant you are before they can enter the building.

Think logically: group functions together and colour code if necessary, break up text with headings, sub headings, and make images relevant.

When it comes to software and the web, a little common sense really does go a long way and applying a bit of thought to the journey that your user will be taking can make all the difference between a frustrating experience and a satisfying one. If people are using your systems regularly, whether that’s to help you run your business or to make purchases from your website, you really can’t afford to put obstacles in their way.

Download this guide as a pdf