Yesterday Google announced their Google+ (that's Google Plus) service which looks like their first large step into competing with Facebook. They also announced a major design change to all the Google services.
It seems Google did some heavy usability studies and we're going to take this opportunity to explain what they did, compare it to what we've previously said about usability, and perhaps you can learn something new.
We use the phrase "website usability studies" when referring to all the research that shows us how a person uses a website. This includes watching how they move the around the screen, what they click on, testing the same words in different colors, and changing images to see if one image is better than another.
Ultimately the usability studies tell us "what get's the click" so we can correctly design a website for profits. When done correctly, we can funnel a customer through a website and make them believe they have total free will when in fact we are playing mind games to trick them into taking actions that make us money.
Sounds devious, doesn't it?
In early 2010, the website AttentionWizard.com started a service to create website heatmaps. Their software can mimic human behavior to about 70% accuracy and tells you if your website design is viable.
One of Attention Wizard's common suggestions is to "ghost" anything on your screen that you don't want your users to notice right away. If your website has a white background then lighten all the side links, footer links, logos, and any information that you don't want your users to see right away.
Only the important items on your website should be brightly colored to draw attention, thereby enticing the user to click.
AttentionWizard.com is very cheap to use, and only a guesstimate. If you want accurate information you have a few choices:
1. You could pay survey companies to do real life studies for you. This is about $40 per person in the study.
2. You could install tracking software on your website at the cost of a few hundred dollars per month.
3. You could use Google Analytics and look at their overlay of clicks.
Even after you get your test results back, it takes a long time to analyze the results and determine a design strategy. Once you have the design strategy, you should only implement it once step at a time, measuring the effectiveness of each change.
In 2010 Google implemented a new SERP design that included very confusing looking icons in the left margin. At first it looked like the icons were all matching the blue-red-yellow-green color scheme, but then they started adding too many icons and it became distracting (well, for us it did, anyway).
The transformation on Google's SERP yesterday removed all the colors in the left margin and made all the links and icons gray. The only items in colors are selected options. When you first do a search, the word "Everything" is in a dark red, but other search options under it are gray. The words "Any time" are also in red with other time choices in gray under that.
Google's has also changed their top menu to black, and the Google logo, search bar, and search button now have a gray background.
Between the muted gray words on the left and the darker navigation on the top Google is forcing all user attention toward the search results again.
Knowing Google, they spent a lot of time and money with real usability testing before rolling out this large design change. But the methods they used are pretty standard.
If there anything you can take away from today's Nugget? Perhaps take a look at your own website design. If there is too much color in the header, footer, and navigation, you may want to have it reviewed. Take a look at your Google Analytics site overlay as a start.
There is no magic bullet of website design and usability. Every website design needs to be studied for its own merit, and sometimes you will find out that the design you love actually hurts your business.