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Empirical Results of Audience research on Internet- and E-Business-Communication


Dimensions of Usability

Although usability meanwhile has become a buzzword in human-computer-communication we do not find many theoretical and conceptual approaches to that topic. What we can find plentiful are endless lists of usability aspects which show less hierarchy, less system or coherence. And we find much less efforts to deal with questions of usability within a theoretical and empirical framework - apart from the research of the omnipresent Jakob Nielsen. In this presentation I would like to do both: to accomplish a theoretical and conceptual foundation of "Usability" and to present some empirical results from audience research in Internet communication.

We should keep in mind, that usability is not a univalent concept -like for example length, height and weight - but a trivalent concept: A thing X is usable for a specific person Y under the aspect of Z. To deal with usability therefore presupposes, that we have to consider three perspectives:

First the perspective of the object, whose usability we want to measure. In the case of online communication that means, that we need a theory of hypertext, multimodal discourse and non-linear-communication, because these are relevant aspects of this specific form of communication.

Second the perspective of the user: usability is the result of a judgment and therefore relative to a user and his knowledge, his competence and his intentions.

Third the perspective of usage: what is usable for one reason must not be usable for another reason. So usability depends on the purposes the judged object is supposed serve.

One can combine these three perspectives on usability if one tries to define usability with the help of the concept of interactivity: as usability interactivity is also a trivalent concept with a very similar structure. In an earlier publication of Jakob Nielson, we find a definition of usability which points to the direction: "Usability applies to all aspects of a system with which a human might interact" (Nielsen 1993, 25).

Usability and Interactivity

Similar to the concept of usability the concept of interactivity has become a buzzword in human-computer-communication. Its use is so inflationary that sometimes even a cigarette machine seems to be interactive. The different approaches to disambiguate the concept of interactivity roughly speaking can be divided into two groups: members of the first group try to define interactivity technically, what leads to a rather wide concept. Members of the second group define interactivity on the basis of sociological or psychological theories. Crucial for these definitions is the idea of reciprocity: If it is the case that A interacts with B then that implies that B interacts with A. As this definition does not fit to human-computer-interaction representatives of the latter group normally argue against using the term "interactivity" for this kind of communication an try to restrict it to human-human-interaction. To escape this dilemma I will try to define interactivity and usability based on action theory and a theory of problem solving in a hypertext environment. Within this perspective interactivity in human computer communication is defined as a kind of "as-if-activity": a user who is communicating for example on an internet platform - be it a learning system, an e-business-platform or an online-newspaper - implies that he acts with the online program as if it was a real partner in a face-to-face-interaction. Especially the thinking aloud procedure provides a lot of evidence for this kind of as-if-interaction. The utterances and the behaviour of the user show that interaction in human-computer-communication is not virtual but that it is a natural implication, with real consequences for the acquirement of websites.

Usability and Problem-solving

Besides the concept of interactivity the concept of usability is defined on the basis of problem solving in a hypertext environment. The common feature of all internet content is the nonlinear hypertext- or hypermedia structure. Browsing in a hypertext means that the user has to solve the following typical problems:

  • the problem of entrance: Is the page relevant, interesting for me and what can I select?
  • the problem of navigation: Where can I go to and how to manage?
  • the problem of orientation: Where did I come from and where am I?
  • the problem of coherence: What has this page to do with the preceding ones?
  • The problem of framing: Which parts of a page form a functional unity and which parts serve different functions on different levels of structure?

These types of problems of online communication form a good basis for systematic research on the one hand and for defining aspects of usability on the other hand: The more a website enables a user to solve the named types of problems the higher the usability of that website. From that we can deduce the most central dimensions of quality for evaluating a nonlinear hypertextual program: coherence - on the macro and the micro level, clarity, orientation quality, navigation quality and open-up quality.

The typology of problems is not only of theoretical interest but is used as a starting point for empirical usability research. It provides an orientation of what features of a website are relevant for usability research and it provides standards as to what degree a website fulfill criteria of usability. So the data of the empirical research can be analysed in two ways: they can be analysed for building up a theory of media reception including a better understanding of usability and interactivity. And the data can be analyzed in respect to an evaluation of a website: to what degree does it fulfill the criteria of usability.

Methods and Testing design

An adequate strategy for empirical research, which tries to generate user-centred data is to follow qualitative methods. Data from quantitative methods like counting click rate or page views, log file analysis, standardized questionnaires for users or experts only generate secondary data, from which one has to deduce hypothesis about the how and why of using an online program. The following approach combines different qualitative methods and could therefore generate primary data on how, why and to which result website is used. The empirical results which are presented are based on tests with about 150 users, each one tested between 60 and 90 minutes. (Test set-up see figure 1)

picture showing test set-up for research
Figure 1: Test set-up for online audience research.

The websites for audience research were different kinds of online newspapers, e-business sites, information sites of television and radio stations. The procedure for the test persons was a mixture of free surfing an solving some retrieval tasks so that a quite natural situation of online communication was modelled. The methodological design of the test combines the following methods:

  • a pre-analysis of the site to specify the most relevant or most problematic parts
  • a moderated testing session of 60 to 90 minutes during which the test person can explore the site in a free surfing style and has to solve some specific tasks.
  • the thinking aloud procedure
  • Video and audio documentation of the test person
  • the digital documentation of the visited sites and the navigation actions of the test person
  • questionnaire or interview at the beginning and at the end of the session

Starting point for the analysis is a videotape which combines the digital documentation of the web navigation, the video documentation and the audio documentation of the thinking aloud utterances (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Screenshot of the video documentation.

This kind of research design guaranties primary data and direct access to the human-computer-interaction. Findings in usability can be deduced from a wide range of different indicators: action indicators (curser moves, navigation actions like scrolling or clicking), utterance indicators (comments from the thinking aloud method), behavioural indicators (mimic and gesture, signals of surprise and of being asked too much of), problem solving indicator (scrolling, back navigation, repeated reading). The interplay of these different indicators allows highly reliable assumptions on the reception of online programs and of course guarantee highly user-centred results for questions of usability.

Results and Conclusions

First the empirical data show that using online programs is indeed a case of "as-if-interaction". Utterances of the test person, their actions, their difficulties and the corresponding strategies to solve them show clearly that acting on an internet platform is indeed inter-acting with an implied partner on the assumption that he re-acts on what the test person is doing.

Second, results of the empirical research prove a tight interrelation between knowledge or competence on the side of the user and their navigation strategy. Especially knowledge of the structure of an online program - on a micro and a macro level - proves as a central factor of the chosen problem solving strategies.

Third, On the level of exploring a single website - for example the entering page - as well as on the level of navigating from page to page one can observe patterns and rules, which guide the actions of the test person. Although internet is a new media, we already can find standardization and prototyping in a high degree. Users try to build up special "scripts" to have standard solutions for the above mentioned typical problems of browsing in non-linear, hypertextual and multimodal communications. A script - in the words of Schank and Aberlson (1977, 41) "is a predetermined, stereotyped sequence of actions, that defines a well-known situation".

Fourth, the consequences of the results may not be the most joyous for creative webdesigners: Under the aspect of usability and user orientation and in the light of the empirical results the basic principle of web design should not be innovation but standardization. For most of the users the new media is full of surprise so that it is more economical to meet their "scripts" than to present them another surprise. The more similar a website is to this prototype the higher the usability rating by the audience in the reported tests. That must no be the end of creativity in web design. But each deviation from the standard form must be reasonable and understandable from the point of view of the audience.

Fifth: There is a strong correlation between usability and trust. The higher the usability of a website and the acquaintance with it, the more trustworthy a website is. We can see online communication as highly disembedded in the sense of Anthony Giddens which means "the lifting out of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite span of time-space" (Giddens 1990, 21) Especially for these forms of communication trust is a crucial feature to compensate the risk of communicative failure.


, Rezeptionsmuster der Online-Kommunikation. Empiri-sche Studie zur Nutzung der Internetangebote von Rundfunkanstalten und Zeitungen, Media Perspektiven, 10, pp. 517-523.

Giddens, A. (1990), The Consequences of Modernity, Standford University Press, Standford.

Nielsen, Jacob (1993), Usability Engineering. AP Professional, Boston, San Diego, New York.

Nielsen, Jacob (2000), Designing web usability: The practice of simplicity, New Riders Publishing, Indianapolis.

Schank, R. C. / Abelson, R., P. (1977), Scripts, plans, goals and understanding. An inquiry into human knowledge structures. Lawrence Earlbaum Ass., Hillsdale.


Erschienen im Rahmen der 6th International Scientific Conference on Work With Display Units, Berchtesgarden, 22. bis 25. Mai 2002