assuming knowledge hurts users
I was just reading How usable are university websites? A report on a study of the prospective student experience and found it struck a chord with my experience enrolling in a postgrad course a few days ago. From the abstract:
Only 62 percent of tasks were completed successfully. ...
The study highlighted five key usability problems that contributed to these results: poor information architecture, poor content, poor search results and/or search interface, a reliance on domain knowledge about the higher education sector that many prospective students do not have and negative reactions to or difficulty using PDF documents.
My postgrad experience aside, the most frustrating thing is how these issues are so common across the web. We go blue in the face telling people about these problems, but they persist. I tell people to "assume zero knowledge on the part of the user", I tell them not to use PDFs, I tell them to write simply and clearly with their audience in mind. Still we get confusing crap that assumes you know everything the author knows and you don't mind downloading Acrobat Reader just to get the next bit of information.
University websites are clearly still way behind the needs of prospective students (both undergrad and postgrad). I didn't know what a "Commonwealth Supported Student" is and I certainly wouldn't have thought the term applied to me. I didn't know whether I was doing a "degree", a "program" or a "course"; nor did I know if I was turning up for "courses", "subjects" or "units". To cap it off, the password they posted to me didn't work when I tried to log in for the first time.
No matter what your website contains or who it is for, you have to assume that users don't know anything at all about the topic. You also have to remember that the same acronym might mean something totally different in another industry. It doesn't hurt to assume the reader doesn't have time to read marketing spiel.
Just skip to the facts, thanks. But please, include all of the facts - even the ones you think everyone knows.