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Red Routes: What City Busses Can Teach You about Website Usability

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Even though people in London drive on the wrong side of the road, there are still some things we can learn from their transit system. Their bus system, just like every other one in the world, is designed to get people where they want to go quickly and easily. However, they’ve found a way to optimize travelers’ experiences using a system called red routes. This same logic can help you optimize your website to guide your visitors to the information they’re seeking.

As you might expect, some places in London are more popular than others. In fact, just 5 percent of the city’s roads make up a third of the traffic. The city decided to fast-track busses on those popular routes by creating red routes, which received their name courtesy of the double red line land markings. These routes place restrictions on other traffic patterns and prohibit parking in bus lanes. By optimizing the efficiency of these routes, they’ve managed to reduce wait times on those routes by 15 percent in the first five years.

Now think about your own website. Chances are there are one or two pages off of your homepage that make up at least a third of your traffic. On my Web design company’s site, for example, most of the traffic from our home page goes to either a page about our services or our portfolio. I know that these are important pages to my visitors, and I also know how frustrating it can be when you can’t find what you’re looking for on a website. Therefore, I want to make sure this majority group can easily find links to that content.

Just as in London, Web developers now commonly refer to these critical paths as red routes. And, just as in London, optimizing them can have a big effect on your most important metric: conversions.

Identifying Your Website’s Red Routes
The first step is to identify these routes. A quick look at your analytics can shed some light on how visitors flow through your site today. Granted the paths might not be as easy as it could be for visitors, but these numbers will show you the popular tracks your customers are actively seeking out. By improving the flow to these red routes, your goal is to more easily direct the more passive visitor down the same path. After all, all red routes should lead to a conversion.

Optimizing Your Website’s Red Routes
Now you have two good pieces of data: where you want your visitors to go on your website, and where they’re currently going. It’s time to put those together to create a simple path for users to not only get to those pages, but more importantly, to also get from those pages to a conversion. Take this site as an example. Two obvious goals for this site are to get users to opt-in to the BlogWorld newsletter, and to register for the NMX conference. At the same time, let’s assume the most popular page after the home page is the most recent blog post. That is why there are prominent banners on the right of all blog posts showcasing these two things. There are plenty of sites that just feature these types of calls-to-action on the homepage, and they’re missing out on a big opportunity.

Testing Your Website’s Red Routes
Once you’ve identified your red routes and set them up, it’s time to see if they work. While things might look obvious to you, it’s best to try some user testing to see what an average visitor thinks. When testing your own site, it’s always a good idea to give users a series of tasks to complete to see how difficult it is for them. Think of this like a virtual scavenger hunt on your website. You want to know if users can easily find what they want, or in this case, what you want them to find. This is much more valuable than simply asking how your site makes a person feel.

In this kind of testing, it’s critical to test your red routes. Can people locate the content that is most important to them? There is nothing worse than a customer on an ecommerce site who is ready to buy but can’t find the product they’re after. Likewise, a visitor to a blog that can’t find the “subscribe” or “share” buttons would be equally frustrated.

Red routes are just one important way to give your visitors a better experience on your site. If you’re looking for more tips, then you’re in luck. I’m speaking at NMX in January on defining and maximizing conversions through better usability. I hope to see you there!

Why Care about Usability

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BlogWorld 2010 Speaker
Tools & Technology Track

Friday October 15, 2010
Tradewinds A& B/10

Time: 4:00PM to 5:00PM

 
Usability? Reader Experience? Meh. Who cares, right?

I’ll be speaking to you at this year’s conference about your blog’s “reader experience.” That’s a simple way of saying that we’re going to talk about website usability – which doesn’t sound as interesting, right?

Website or blog usability doesn’t mean you need to walk around with a labcoat and goggles recording obtuse figures on a clipboard. You could do this if you wanted, but yo’‚d be spending a lot of time and money to uncover things that you could find out in cheaper, less time-consuming ways. But why should you care about usability anyway?

First Impressions Count

As a blogger, content is your number one priority, right? That’s the whole idea of a blog – words, pictures, and videos that help express your viewpoint, your product or service, or just you. But when that page first loads, after I type in the domain from your business card or I stumble across you when looking for tweed blankets from Scotland, I’ll see a general look and feel and some header information that will orientate me to where I have landed. This is important because I’m quickly making a gut reaction on what I find. My first impressions could tell me things like:

  • You aren’t what I am looking for.
  • You aren’t trustworthy.

Bad first impressions could me a user hits the back button before you even get to start expressing yourself. Usability can help make sure you get new visitors off on the right footing.

Easy Usability Test: Find someone in a café and ask them if they have a minute, flash up a copy of your website for 15 seconds, then ask them what they thought you were selling and what you were about. The results may be surprising.

Keeping Them Along for the Ride

Catering to new readers is hard, but catering to your regular readers is even trickier and very important for the long term health of your blog. Successful bloggers know the kinds of problems you have to avoid when trying to keep your readers along for the ride:

  • Keeping a healthy balance of revenue-generation (advertisements, sales pitches, etc) versus value-generation (content, information, and advice that you are the expert for).
  • Organizing the archive of all that content so it remains useful and easily accessible.
  • Developing a unique voice without repeating oneself .

The key to making each of these tasks a lot simpler is to really understand your Ideal Reader as clearly and detailed as possible. How do you feel when you visit a blog and feel like that blogger wrote something just for you?

Easy Usability Test: Picture your Ideal Reader in your mind, then write down a list of tasks you might want to take after reading a blog post. Now, find an innocent victim tester from your mailing list or your forum and ask them to try and do those things. You sit and watch, say nothing. Did your tester get confused or frustrated at any point?

Closing the Deal

If you’re reading this, your blog probably is a business in itself or it is attached to a business, whether that’s your widget sales or your services. So, at some point you need to bring those readers back into a call to action. Usability can help you make that call to action and close the deal, because it is tricky. How many times have you heard someone say:

  • You do what? I didn’t know that! Why didn’t I know about this service before?
  • I unsubscribed from his list – it was nothing but sell, sell, sell!
  • I definitely wanted a copy of her new eBook, but I couldn’t find it on her site. I guess it isn’t available anymore.

You have to ask people to do something, make it easy for them to do it, and you have to keep repeating yourself to remind them without being a jerk. Testing and usability gives you a structured way to do this.

Easy Usability Test: You’ll need another victim tester for this one, but find one and just ask them if they know about the products and services you provide. Do new people know what you do? What about those who’ve been around awhile? Candid feedback can make a huge difference (and improvement) to your approach.

Andy will be presenting Does Your Blog Create A Great Reader Experience? Why Ugly Websites Sometimes Make Happier Readers, on Friday, October 15th at 4 PM. If you can‚t make it, or want to know more about website usability right now, have a look at his popular new eBook, Why Your Website Sucks ˆ And How to Fix It.

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