By Todd Follansbee, Web Marketing Resources (reprinted with permission)

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I have many years of web experience. I put up an e-commerce site before the term existed. In fact, I went online for the first time using the Dartmouth college mainframe via a Teletype machine in 1969. Add to this experience a multi-year focus on web usability and marketing and you’ll understand that I am a user comfortable with the web.

Nevertheless, when I found myself trying to place my first online order with Amazon.com a few years ago, even after filling out every field, I was at a standstill. I could see no way to complete my order. I sat staring at the screen, my frustration growing by the minute. As a co-worker walked by I happened to ask: “Am I missing something? What do I do to complete this order, I feel like an idiot!” The co-worker’s response was justified, and at the root of this usability issue: “You are an idiot, click on the graphic where it says Click here to complete the order .” My response: “What graphic, I don’t see a graphic.” She trudged back, put her finger right on the screen and said: “It’s right there, look.” It was then we realized that my fairly typical colorblindness was preventing me from seeing this crucial piece of information on their website. It was unreadable to me.

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I am one of the 10% of the male population who is colorblind. Approximately one million people visit Amazon.com each day. If we assume that half of these visitors are male, then approximately 50,000 will be colorblind. Few of us can afford to frustrate 10 customers, let alone 50,000! (For more information about male colorblindness, see: Colorblindness More Prevalent Among Males, Howard Hughes Medical Institute.)

My marketing background piqued my curiosity to explore the problem further. Who else was losing business and why was no one talking about it? First, I explored Microsoft with a friend having normal vision. I discovered that I was unable to see several crucial components which halted my progress through the site. I noted the positions.  Next, I went to another major site that follows a big blue graphic theme. Again I discovered entire sections of text and information that were unreadable.

How would these monoliths respond to my comments about the colors they were using? I detailed the problems, outlined the simple solutions and emailed their web support staff. Within days I was pleasantly shocked to see that both Microsoft and Amazon had made these fairly significant changes. This prompt response speaks volumes about their commitments to usability and the user experience. As for the “big blue” site, nothing changed and, the last time I went to the site I had to get an interpreter, I have avoided buying from them.

What Your Company Can Do to Help?

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Regardless of product quality, if I can’t get support, and the company makes no effort to meet my needs, what choice do I have? Do not be deceived into thinking that because you have not heard from colorblind customers or users, you have no problems. Our experience is such that we reach a point in the site where we get stumped. Often we cannot discern the instructions but it is common that we do not even see them. If we complain it is unlikely to even touch on colorblindness because we can’t see the problem! Unfortunately, you will probably wonder how anyone could be so stupid as to miss “obvious” instructional graphics.

Fortunately the solution is simple and can be summarized in one word, contrast.

You do not need to hire a team of colorblind usability experts (Nuts!). Simply remember that whenever you use a colored background for a page or a graphic, make sure the text message on it has strong contrast to the colored background. Black will always work (except maybe on dark blue or purple) and you can use contrasting shades as long as the difference is strong. Be careful using white text on a pale background as it can also disappear. The worst thing you can do though is for example, pale green text on a similar shade of green. The graphics folks may love it but you are throwing dollars out the window.

Studies show that 40% of users won’t go back to a site that sucks, and if we can’t make your site work, click we’re gone. Is it worth worrying about? Amazon and Microsoft thought it was! I hope you do too or you can kiss my business goodbye.

Additional Resources

About the author Todd Follansbee consults as a “virtual partner” for a variety of web marketing firms and has been on the leading edge of technology since he first went online in 1969. In 1996, before the Internet became a household word, his passion for marketing innovation led him to help launch eCommerce at http://www.mysticseaport.org. His innovative work with Psychographic web marketing and profiling had him speaking on TV and in seminars on converting internet visitors into customers. He has worked or consulted with a variety of companies including SNET and The Day newspaper, (winner of NE Newspaper of the Year site). His marketing work in AdWord campaigns, blogs, an Internet audio talk show, and guerrilla marketing helped a small player in the crowded developer training business win the prestigious Windows Developer magazine award for “Best Training Company in the U.S.”. Todd focuses on persuasive architecture and usability testing. This technique combines usability, psychology and a thorough understanding of the online sales experience to build a clear and compelling online presence insuring the highest possible web sales often doubling sales.

He is currently the usability and conversion columnist for the nationally known eNewsletter: Web Marketing Today reaching over 140,000 web marketing professionals every week.