The Usability Tightrope: Making Complex Websites Simple

I’m fortunate to have worked on the Internet long enough to experience the evolution of usability first-hand: a few years ago, I was responsible for giving people who had little familiarity with the web, didn’t have an email address, and perhaps only used a keyboard on mainframe-type systems an easy way to register for and earn sales incentive rewards. As my incredibly talented team and I assessed how to best migrate people who typically performed these activities using a fax machine to this new thingy called the Internet, a few facts drove our approach in developing custom UI – and they are all still quite relevant today.

In evaluating the latest wireframes and development specifications for WhereWereYou.in, my online memory bank for baby boomers, I’ve kept these principles in mind – and experience with great, deep, complex sites like Ancestry.com bolster these contentions:


1. Introduce the interfaces in stages.
 Compare the first user experience of your website to dating … let users become familiar with who you are and what you do before snapping open the raincoat and flashing them with all your goodies. If your site needs a multi-step registration process, request as little info as possible to allow a user to register, then offer advanced options. Hook the user, let then get to know you a bit, and then seek more information to support advanced functionality.

2. Keep the initial experience linear. Millenials are notorious for multi-tasking, but studies are revealing that this is not necessarily the most efficient way to manage anything, especially website user interfaces. After you’ve created a great, complex website chock-full of fantastic information and tools, it is definitely tempting to throw it all out there in sidebars, tabs, three layers of header navigation and account options – but this is often overwhelming, especially for baby boomer generation users. Always make sure the user can get back to the point of entry – this is a HUGE element in successful interface design for older users – they want to know how to get back home, and home should have a valid place in the site structure and not simply act as a login page.

3. In advanced interfaces, retain simplicity and anticipate user needs. After the user is comfortable in your environment, it is easier to lead them to more information and tools in a comfortable manner. Later in an initial visit or on return visits, users tend feel the info they need is there and they are more confident seeking it. Make logical suggestions for branching off the main interfaces, but watch how they are layered – resist the urge to create too many possible branches for a user to take, and you’ll have less “fight or flight” response, which lead to site abandonment.

Overall, baby boomers need elegant interfaces that allow them to perform complex tasks and queries without being overwhelmed. When working on UI for any age group, organization of options and simple presentation is key to success.

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