Colette offers businesses a fresh perspective on internet marketing, covering specialist techniques, previously only available to big companies using expensive design agencies.
Ensuring a website is user-friendly is a key part of any online business strategy. From domain names to taglines to menus to search buttons, Colette reviews and user tests web sites for their ease of use for site visitors.
She has worked on web projects for multi-million dollar projects for blue-chip companies (the biggest was $500m), as well as ’mom and pop sites’, professional bodies, radio stations and more. She is available for consulting, mentoring and speaking engagements.
How it all started
Looking back now, I can’t believe I got my first computer in 1981. Sir Clive Sinclair had just launched the ZX80, followed shortly after by the ZX81 and I got one for my 11th birthday.
My Dad bought it for me because he hoped I would “get into computers”. As soon as I got the ZX81 out of the box and plugged it into my black and white portable TV, I was hooked! I spent most of that summer typing in programs and games, learning about how to write code.
His plan for me worked (”for once..”, he would probably say!), because since then I have used a computer almost everyday for 28 years. I got my first job in computing 3 years later when I was 14. I worked at a local wholesale company using a Commodore 64 to manage their customer lists and do some basic stock control and reports. I did all these with some text files and very basic spreadsheets.
I did that job nearly every weekend until I was 18 and left to go to University in London. I spent the next few years studying for an honours degree in Economics. The only computers on campus were big UNIX based mainframes and a few desktop PCs that people used to fight over so they could get their coursework assignments done just before their deadlines.
I left university in 1993, thinking “I need a full time job to pay for going out enjoying myself…..and maybe rent too.”
It was 1993 and my graduate career path had a very slow start. Throughout university, I’d wanted to do something cool like be in a band or work for a record company, so I didn’t bother applying for boring roles like accountant, project manager, or a management consultant. Unsurprisingly, my lack of planning meant the first graduate job was frying cooked breakfasts and being a room cleaner in a local hotel. It wasn’t very glamorous and it didn’t pay well.
The lady in charge was very bossy and pedantic. I hated it!
I stuck it out for a fortnight before quitting – with glee. I thought being skint was obviously better than being bored.
PC Support – The Endless Joy of Fixing Broken PCs and Servers
Since computers were obviously my thing, I thought I ought to get a job in computing, which is what I did. I got a few temporary jobs in offices, doing admin work. Because I knew what I was doing with computers, I developed a role as the “Office Guru”, that person everyone asks when they needed to know how to write time-saving macros in Excel or to help find a massive word document when their PC crashed spontaneously Windows 3.11 computers were very good at crashing frequently. They just couldn’t take the pace as office workers became more reliant on IT to get jobs done.
I did that for a year, then in 1994 I got my first decent IT job, paying £20,000 a year, which was pretty good money. I managed to close the gap with the people who’d left University with a half-decent plan, at the very least.
Part of a team of 3 IT Support staff, I was now responsible for 200 PCs and 4 servers, for a manufacturing company near Liverpool. It was a bit of a jump from being the “office guru”, but I blagged it successfully, and spent a year working there. Because there were only 3 of us, we had to do everything: hardware installs, network administration, servicing printers, disaster recovery plans, PC support, deskside training – the lot. We were tucked away in a little computer room, keeping everything running.
I stayed there for a year. Before long, I was looking for new challenges – there were only so many possibilities to learn new stuff. Also, I’d learned that it was a lot more lucrative to be a freelance rather than a permanent employee, so I quit the job and set up my own business offering IT support services to other companies and move back to London.
My first contract was for London Underground, part of a team looking after a network of 10,000 users and 23 servers – quite a bit bigger than the last network, but I managed ok. There were a lot of one day strikes that summer, and my friends joked that it was my fault.
That contract was for 3 months, then I moved on to supporting users in the city banks, ING, Baring’s shortly after the Nick Leeson thing calmed down (my friends started to ask if I was always going to work for ”cursed” organisations), and finally an American Bank, where I did dealer room support. That was meant to be the pinnacle of IT network support – making sure the dealers could do their multi-million dollar deals. In reality, it wasn’t fun sometimes – the dealers tended to think there were above you and would throw office staplers at your head to get your attention, and stuff like that. It was also a pain having to continually do work at weekends because you couldn’t take the systems down during the week.
In late 1996 to early 1997 I spent some of the time at the American Bank teaching myself how to write HTML and how to edit graphics. I used Microsoft Frontpage because Dreamweaverwasn’t released until 1998. I built my first company website – a 5 page disaster zone. It pains me to say it now, but I made all the mistakes everyone seems to make with their first site. Looking back now, I’m mortified I added dancing tomatoes and running dogs to the home page of a corporate website! What was I thinking, apart from “Hey, that’s cool, look what I just built”.
Nevertheless, these basic skills were enough to get me out of IT support and into website development, and in 1997, when my contract was up, I did some creative editing on my CV and got my first website development job, with the Department of Trade and Industry (UK Government).Bottom of Form
Escaping into the World of Software Development
Now I was officially a software developer (no really!) and I was working on converting about 10,000 pages of printed material into an interactive website. Now that I was working on a full-time development project, my skills continued to grow.
I moved from the DTI to the London Metropolitan Police, developing an intranet from scratch, to run in 66 constabularies throughout London. I really enjoyed being able to build lots of different web applications and attending meetings at Scotland Yard gazing up at the rotating sign as I went in.
This was around the time of the “Millenium Bug Crisis“, and a few months beforehand, there was a discussion about who was going to monitor the system during New Year’s Eve when 1999 turned into 2000. I’d never worked a New Year and I wasn’t about to start, so I booked up a foreign holiday pretty quickly, and checked on the BBC world news in the morning to see if there had been rioting in Trafalgar Square – fortunately there hadn’t and the intranet coped admirably. We even got a nice email from the Chief Inspector leading the project, saying the intranet had helped the different offices communicate and co-ordinate activities that evening!
When that contract was completed, I moved on, doing more development work for all sorts of projects, like a recruitment website, www.workthing.com, Cable and Wireless, Number 10 Downing Street, and a promotional site for the hair-loss treatment, Regaine. Bald men worldwide rejoiced because of my contribution. (Note: These sites have since been redeveloped).
User Centered Design – How I Learned to Build Stuff People Wanted to Use
In 2004, I got another Government contract, doing a website for the Immigration and Nationality Directory, which is a part of the UK Government’s Home Office. It was here where I got the opportunity to learn about the importance of designing user-friendly information for people to use.
I worked for 2 years at the Home Office, developing their intranet into something that the users actually wanted to use. It was the longest contract job I’d ever done in my life at that point, so I must have found it interesting….
We started off with a team of 3, which ballooned up to around 8 people by the end of my time there.
The intranet we inherited was truly dreadful – there were 500 broken links on the site, it was almost fluorescent pink in colour, and none of the staff visited it if they could help it. I think they only ended up there if they clicked on a link by mistake. This system was inflicted on 16,000 members of staff. It was so bad only 5,000 pages in total were viewed in an entire year which is a tiny amount considering the amount of users who had access to it.
A new team leader join in July 2004, someone who had previously worked at the BBC, an organisation that thinks user-centred design is very important. Having seen how good the BBC Sport and BBC News websites were and a usability expert in our midst, we had big plans for how to improve the intranet.
We fixed all the broken links, and got rid of a lot of what I call “Vanity Publishing”, where the department head creates 2 pages, one exalting themselves (“ I am the greatest…blah blah blah) and another describing the vast number of minions under their control in their vast empire (“….see how powerful I am”). It was painful stuff no one in their right mind would read.
We also re-evaluated pages that hadn’t been updated in several years, something the team leader called “Toxic Content”.
I saw what usability could do. I decided usability was cool. I bought a ton of books off Amazon to learn more.
We proceeded to do more user testing, and conducted sessions where we discussed with groups of people the information they needed to do their jobs and how they would like the data organised for it to be useful to them.
We also ran some internal courses so that the department heads could be involved in the gathering/ writing of the new information the users had requested.
After we applied all the suggestions, the number of visits went up for from 5,000 a year to 8,000,000 a year! That’s an increase of approximately 1200%. I learned 2 valuable things – first, there are real benefits to be made by talking and interacting with the people who use information and tailoring it to suit them, and second, it was something everyone could get involved in. It wasn’t just senior managers, or developers. Everyone’s ideas could be judged on merit, no matter how high up or lowly they were within the organisation.
I really enjoyed being able to give a voice to the lower-level employees in an organisation, which was all the more special because of the rigid organisation chart hierarchy in place.
One of the best bits was that a group of web authors we had trained submitted their part of the intranet for the Kable Government Computing Awardssponsored by British Telecom and we were given a runner up award.
In February 2009, when the Home Office project came to a close, I moved on to a London Design Agency to do some work for their client, UK television broadcaster ITV. I was tasked to work on a site to help them promote their forthcoming programmes with journalists.
One of the perks of this job was that I ended up interviewing the TV editors of some national newspapers and magazines asking them what they want on the site – I decided this usability lark is definitely cool as I look at some of the TV awards and signed photos of ITV’s main “Stars”. I linger over the Coronation Street pictures as it’s one of my favourite programmes on British TV.
Once that project was complete, I was working for a City investment bank again (*groan*), developing a very high-profile project: doing the interface for a desktop application used for a share settlement system. The job did sound glamorous as the work was based in the Paris, Brussels and London offices. At that time, the custody and system dealt with settling €243 trillion Euros of share deals a year. It was by far the biggest system I had worked on and the size of the project helped me focus on getting my bit of the UI right!
As the work was going to take some time, I got a frequent traveller pass for Eurostar, but only ended up going to Brussels and Paris twice, so sadly, I never got enough to quality for a free trip on the Eurostar!
From 2006-2009, I worked with the UK Post Office as their “Usability Consultant”. We plan to come up with a new touchscreen-based point of sale interface, part of a £1.4bn contract spanning 10 years. The part of the system I was working on is going to cost £240m to develop and roll out. As people judge software quality from the interface and the user experience, I definitely think I have finally made it into “the big boys usability league!”
I was the person responsible for seeing the design through to completion and then to the sign-off of the interface for this £240m systems, determining whether it met the appropriate standard from a usability point of view and would also continue to meet the business needs of the users and the Post Office once the old system was replaced.
To give you an idea of the size of this project, the Post Office is
- the largest retail and financial services chain in the UK
- UK’s biggest high street banking network, bigger than HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds TSB and Nat West all put together
- 60 Million citizens use the Post Office each year, with 24 million visiting a Post Office Branch each week
- 170 different types of products and services are available at any time
- 14,000 branches with 38,000 terminals and a user community of 60,000
- £2.7bn transactions are handled each year
- 350 million household bills are paid annually in the branches
- £90 billion pounds in cash passed over the counter annually
March 2009 – My consultancy business has gone from strength to strength and I am able to pay off the mortgage and take a step back and choose what I want to do with my professional life. And what I have decided to do is to pass my usability knowledge and techniques on to small to medium business owners who want the benefit of my experience to help make your website a success.
If you want to find out more about the course, visit http://www.websitesuccesssystem.com.