Reflections on Site Usability and the State of Flow (1998)



The answer to the question how many people are using the Internet and World Wide Web is like the answer to the question, “How long is a piece of string?” It depends!

It depends on who you ask. It depends on exactly when you ask the question. And, it depends on whether you mean the number of computers with Internet access or the number of people using that access.

One thing is for sure, the number is large and is growing every day. Work by research organisations, such as GVU and Forresters Research, suggests that the number of computers connected to the Internet has doubled every year since 1982. While it is not possible to know the exactly how many people are using the net at this point in time, it would be fair to say that by the end of 1998 the number will be approaching 100 million world-wide.

For many business organisations the Web has become an exciting, but largely elusive, commercial frontier. ‘We know it’s there. We know it’s big. But, what can it do for us?’

Increasingly marketing academics and practitioners are turning their attention to the Internet and World Wide Web, and while estimations of the value of electronic commerce vary greatly, most are confident that it will exceed $50 billion by the year 2000.  In the Journal of Marketing (July 1996) Hoffman and Novak provide a good overview of the marketing implications of the Web. Many commercial Web sites however, are failing in this new environment and the problem is often poor site usability. Forrester Research recently reported that bad Web design could result in a company losing about 50% of potential sales.

In this article I’ve drawn on a range of online and print resources. In particular, the work of web pioneers, Jakob Nielsen and Jared Spool and web consultant Keith Instone. Since much of their research is already published on the Web, I will confine myself to providing a brief overview of their work with links to more detailed information. I’ve also made extensive use of the work done by Professors Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak from the Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University. Many thanks to these people and the many others who are working to improve our understanding of the Internet.

Failure of Commercial Web Sites

“On the average, the Web doesn’t work: when you think of something to do on the Web, the expected outcome is that you will fail.” So wrote Jakob Nielsen in a recent Alertbox feature, citing three recent studies by different researchers to back up his claim. Nielsen believes a major source of the problem is a failure to appreciate the importance of site usability in Web design. He estimates that “90% of commercial sites have poor usability.”

Jared Spool from User Interface Engineering has been looking closely at how people use a Web site to obtain information. Preliminary findings from a study, which required testers to compare facts available from a series of sites that contained the information being sought, are presented in an article Surprises on the Web by Spool. In general, the testers found the task frustrating and many were unsuccessful. Spool reported that, “All the sites we tested appeared less complete to users immediately after they attempted the tasks involving fact comparisons, and they also rated the quality of the information lower for the site.”

The apparent problems and frustration many people have in using the Web raise the obvious questions: Why do they continue to do so? And, why are the number of Web users increasing so rapidly?

Part of the answer to these questions lie in the fact that different people use the Web for different reasons as Spool indicates in his book “Web Site Usability: A Designer’s Guide”. Under the heading, “Information Retrieval is Different than Surfing” Spool writes. “We didn’t study surfing, the other primary use of Web sites. When users surf, they are just browsing, clicking whatever looks most interesting or ‘cool,’ and content may not be the driving force in coolness.”

While the media often uses the image of the ‘surfer in search of the cool’ as a convenient stereotypical way of describing Web use, the reality is quite different. During his latest study on Web usability Spool found that most users were saying, “I don’t want an experience, I just want information.” Results of this study are contained in a Webreview report on a paper presented by Spool at the c/net’s Web builder conference in April 1998.

The focussed or purposeful Web user will be the primary target for most commercial Web sites, and yet it is these sites which are often the most difficult to use. So the question remains. Why are people continuing to use commercial sites? In his article The Web Use Paradox, Jakob Nielsen offers several explanations, including this observation. “Even though 90% of sites are bad, users don’t spend 90% of their time at bad sites. People only visit a bad site once but become loyal users of good sites.”

Although the general performance of commercial sites is poor at the moment, increasing awareness of Web-user behaviour and the importance of site usability will improve this situation.


The editor of “Usability in Practice”, Michael Wiklund, describes usability as a cumulative attribute of a product. “When a product development team designs a product, it tries to include the features people need to accomplish tasks, present those features in a manner that people intuitively grasp and find efficient to use in the long term. They also attempt to eliminate the potential for critical, design-induced mistakes and to include design qualities that make people feel good about using the product.” (p.7)

Wiklund credits the software industry with raising consumer awareness of the importance of usability. He says that it has done more than any other industry to expose consumers to usability engineered products and in the process has increased consumer intolerance for hard-to-use products. Given the close alliance between the software industry and the Internet, it is therefore surprising that many Web site designers and proprietors appear to pay only scant attention to the importance of usability.

This observation is underscored by the Alertbox feature about the failure of corporate web sites. Reporting on a recent study by Forrester Research, Jakob Nielsen writes, “Forrester interviewed 25 executives in charge of various companies’ Internet efforts. Most had very few design goals& 24% of sites conducted usability testing: this is more than I would have expected and probably reflects Forrester’s bias toward bigger and more well-funded projects. (Of course, this data implies that ? of large sites are managed without any usability data: essentially poking blindly into the design space).”

Web consultant, Keith Instone, in one of his Web Review articles, User Test Your Website maintains having a URL is no longer enough for doing business on the Web. Companies must have sites that are easy to navigate, and where visitors can actually find what they are after. A study of the Internet Travel Network site by Instone provided a useful insight into the importance of usability.

For Instone, along with Jakob Nielsen and Jared Spool, the best, and perhaps only, way to understand the full web experience is to study people using the Web.

Jared Spool is often credited with being the first person to develop a comprehensive set of guidelines for web design. During 1995 he asked testers to find information from 9 different Web sites. Spool observed the testers, measured how successful they were at finding the information and then asked them to rate the sites afterwards on issues like information quality. This study became the basis for the book “Web Site Usability: A Designers Guide”.

In essence, where information retrieval is the primary consumer task Spool found that;

  • Graphic design elements had no significant correlation, either positive or negative, with users’ success.
  • Most users examined text links before considering image links. Also, the better users could predict where a link would lead, the greater the likelihood of success.
  • Sites where navigation and content were inextricably linked were the most successful. Generic links as used in “shell” sites were less effective since users rarely got what they expected.
  • When looking for information users are much more focused than they are when surfing. Design elements included to attract surfers often proved distractions during information retrieval tasks.

In the Surprises on the Web article, Spool reports on further research into site usability, which found that users often ignored the content of animation, becoming frustrated with the delays it caused, and that Imagemaps could result in unforeseen navigation problems for consumers. When looking at the relationship between the number of jumps (link transitions) and user satisfaction, Spool found that, “When users made more jumps during a task, they felt better at the end of the task, and they had a higher perception of the quality of the site.”

At the c/net conference referred to earlier, Spool describes how people find information on the Web by foraging in much the same way as hunter-gathers foraged for food, balancing effort with reward. “According to Spool, information essentially has a “scent” and as users link from page to page they pick up the scent of the data they’re searching for.” Since users seem to know when they are on the scent but can’t say why, Spool looked at identifying those attributes which made them feel confident they were on the right track.

Usability Evaluation

Jakob Nielsen is probably best known for his bi-weekly Alertbox column and for the concept of heuristic evaluation.

Heuristic evaluation was developed by Nielsen and Rolf Molich in 1990 as a usability engineering method for finding problems in user interface design so that problems could be addressed during the design process. Nielsen and Molich originally proposed a set of 249 usability elements which they called heuristics. Since its introduction heuristic evaluation has been used effectively in a diverse range of industries which require human-computer interaction (eg banking). Further information is contained in the article How to Conduct a Heuristic Evaluation by Jakob Nielsen.

More recently Nielsen has refined the concept and reduced the set of heuristic to the 10 most important, which have direct relevance to the Web.

  1. Visibility of system status
  2. Match between system and the real world
  3. User control and freedom
  4. Consistency and standards
  5. Error prevention
  6. Recognition rather than recall
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
  9. Help users recognise, diagnose and recover from errors
  10. Help and documentation

See Nielsen’s Ten Usability Heuristics also Keith Instone’s annotated list for information about the use of these heuristics in Web site evaluation.

Heuristic evaluation is well suited to the task of assessing Web site usability. In essence, it involves a small number of evaluators (Nielsen recommends 3 – 5), working with a site for about an hour and evaluating how that site performs in reference to the ten heuristics.

Different evaluators find different problems, and though some problems are so obvious they are identified by almost everybody, there are also problems that are found by very few evaluators. Each evaluator rates the significance of each problem found, often on a scale of 1 -5, ranging from no problem to a usability catastrophe.

When the results of the different evaluators are collated they provide a good indication of the site’s usability. If all evaluators agree that something is a catastrophe, then clearly rectifying that problem will be a high priority, conversely if something is only a problem for one evaluator then it is likely to be of less significance and may even just be the result of operator-error.

Web site designers and proprietors should make greater use of heuristic evaluation. They are easy to set up and provide quick feedback on problem areas. In addition, when compared to the costs of developing and maintaining a Web site, heuristic evaluation is comparatively cheap, in the order of $5000 – $10,000 for a commercial Web site.

Go with the Flow

The Web is a hypermedia computer-mediated environment (CME), and as such presents a new marketing paradigm, requiring new models of marketing communications. The Web, according to Hoffman and Novak “is a many-to-many mediated communications model in which consumers can interact with the medium, firms can provide content to the medium, and in the most radical departure from traditional marketing environments, consumers can provide commercially-oriented content to the medium. In this mediated model, the primary relationships are not between sender and receiver, but rather with the CME with which they interact.”

Much of our understanding of the way humans behave in a CME like the Web stems for the concept of flow, first introduced by Csikszentmihalyi (1977). Csikszentmihalyi described people as being in a flow state when they became totally absorbed in their activity. “This mode is characterized by a narrowing of the focus of awareness, so that irrelevant perceptions and thoughts are filtered out; by loss of self-consciousness; by a responsiveness to clear goals and unambiguous feedback; and by a sense of control over the environment.” (p.72)

The flow construct has been expanded and refined over the last 25 years by researchers concerned with increasing our understanding of human-computer interactions. A good summary of this development is contained in Modeling the Structure of the Flow Experience Among Web Users by Thomas Novak, Donna Hoffman and Yui-Fai Yung (1997). The article builds on earlier work by Hoffman and Novak (Journal of Marketing 1996) which defined the flow experience “as the state occurring during network navigation, which is (1) characterized by a seamless sequence of responses facilitated by machine interactivity, (2) intrinsically enjoyable, (3) accompanied by a loss of self-consciousness, and (4) self-reinforcing.” (p.57) Consumers in the flow state are often so preoccupied with the task that their field of focus narrows to the screen before them and their awareness of time is greatly diminished.

It is now also generally recognised that for the flow experience to occur users must perceive a balance between their skills and the challenges of the activity, and that both their skills and the challenges must be above a critical threshold.

Most computer users have an inherent understanding of the flow concept, either from their own experience or from watching someone else totally involved in a computer-related task such as unravelling the mysteries of a new piece of software. The marketing implications of the flow construct are perhaps less obvious and require a closer look at some of the underlying conditions that are necessary for flow to occur.

Marketing Implications of Flow

The ability of a commercial Web site to provide its users with the flow experience has a number of positive marketing benefits. As well as enhancing the enjoyment of a site and the amount of time a consumer spends there, flow can lead to increased consumer learning, exploratory behaviour and the likelihood of repeat visits to a site.

The need for a perceived balance between skills and challenges by the consumer presents Web site designers with an interesting quandary. According to Hoffman and Novak, we need to know whether and at what point in the process consumers are likely to become bored (eg when navigation is not sufficiently challenging) or anxious (eg when it is too difficult), since both states can increase the chances of a user leaving the site.

This observation has to be tempered by the knowledge that consumers come at all levels of skill and will visit different Web sites for different reasons. For example, if a consumer is after a specific piece of information, such as the price of an airfare, then any challenge to finding that information could be detrimental. On the other hand, the threshold for challenge is likely to be much greater for those visiting a games site, or for users surfing in search something “cool”.

Ghani and Deshpande, “Task Characteristics and the Experience of Optimal Flow in Human-Computer Interaction” (The Journal of Psychology), also agree that there is an optimal level of challenge relative to a certain skill level. “If the challenges are too high, the individual feels a lack of control over the environment and becomes anxious and frustrated. If the challenges are too low the individual loses interest.”(382). They also found that a sense of being in control was key determinant of flow, and that that flow was linked to exploratory behaviour, which in turn was linked to the extent of computer use. Within the web environment these findings suggest that by enabling users to feel in control of the navigation process a site is able to enhance the experience of flow. As a result, consumers are likely to stay at the site longer exploring more of the options it contains.

As indicated, consumers in a flow state focus their attention on a limited stimulus field, filtering out irrelevant thoughts and perceptions. The sensory or cognitive curiosity of consumers is also aroused in the flow state, making them more receptive to varied novel and surprising stimuli. While this heightened state of curiosity can result in greater exploratory behaviour, inappropriate stimuli which conflict with the highly focused attention of consumers could break the flow experience.

Within the context of a commercial site, the use of complex animation and banner advertisements, especially those with visually arresting graphics, may diminish rather than enhance the flow state, leading to consumer dissatisfaction. Jared Spool found that users generally don’t view graphics as fun and that some graphics can directly annoy them. The level of distraction often resulted in users covering animations with their hands in order to better see the text.


The Web is a new commercial environment, presenting marketers with unique opportunities and challenges, which it appears many are failing to meet. Many leading web researchers are pointing the finger at poor site usability as the main problem. By outlining some of the work done by Jared Spool in developing a comprehensive set of Web design guidelines, and by Jakob Nielsen in providing an effective means of assessing site usability, this article hopes to have contributed in some way to rectifying this situation.

In order to understand more about the problems of site usability this article also examined some of the basic determinants of the way humans behave in a computer mediated environment. In particular it looked at the early work of Csikszentmihalyi in developing the concept of flow in human-computer interactions and the contributions made by Hoffman and Novak in using the flow construct to enhance our understanding of the Web.

In conclusion, I believe that a greater understanding of the need to facilitate the flow experience for Web users and the importance of site usability by Web site designers and proprietors are essential for the long term usability and viability of commercial Web sites.


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