Usability is the Key to an Effective Website

People come in a whole range of aptitudes and abilities, some learn quickly and others have trouble completing even the simplest tasks. The trick to meeting everybody’s needs is to build a usable website. Usability has three main components:

  • Effectiveness – how easy it is to learn or complete a task.
  • Efficiency – the speed at which a task can be completed.
  • Satisfaction – the user’s perception or opinion of the process.

If you want a deeper definition then the wikipedia article is pretty good: wikipedia.org/wiki/Usability

Why usability is important

Have you ever purchased a product and then spent hours trying to work out how to put it together or turn it on?

One could argue that you should have read the instructions first but that isn’t the way it happens. The old adage that ‘if all else fails, read the instructions’ is unfortunately the way most people go about things. Did you read the help file for the browser you are using? More likely you just clicked on things to see what would happen.

When is comes to using the Internet people are notoriously fickle. If they cannot find what they want quickly and easily they will go elsewhere. If your website is not very usable then don’t expect your visitors to stick around. And if they leave unsatisfied, they will never return.

The secret of a usable website

So what makes a website usable? The answer is: lots of things. I know that’s not a lot of help but there is no quick fix or magic solution. Just search for usability in your favourite search engine and see the millions of web pages dedicated to this very subject.

So where do you start? Here’s a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

1. Keep it simple. The more complex the design the less usable the website. You are not producing an innovative and award winning design, you just want to sell stuff so just keep it nice and simple: a logo, navigation system and some content, that’s all you need.

2. Create a logical page structure. This means building your pages from headers, lists and paragraphs and nothing else. No structural tables, no layers or positioning, no weird layouts. And if the document works without images, CSS and scripts you are onto a winner. Logical structure advice here.

3. Write jargon free content. Keep it simple (again). Write things out in full, don’t use abbreviation and acronyms, describe the products or processes, don’t skimp but don’t be verbose: use elephant rather than pachyderm or even ‘large, grey, subtropical, mammalian quadroped’. People scan rather than read so the more long winded the prose the less likely they are to appreciate your efforts. Hints for better content here.

4. Use a simple and intuitive navigation system. No JavaScript dropdowns, flyouts, image maps or unintelligible anchor text. Descriptive anchor text and a bit of CCS will suffice. More navigation help here.

5. Treat each page like a homepage. Make sure your visitors know the purpose of the site no matter where they land. This means the intelligent use of pages titles, logos, taglines and headers. Homepage hints right here.

6. Don’t build barriers. Don’t use a splash page (click here to enter…). Don’t require a logon to access the content. Reduce the number of links between landing page and completing the sale.

7. Test for cross-browser compatibility. Simple this one. All you need to do is make sure your site works on all the major browsers: Firefox, Opera, Safari and Internet Explorer. And then test it on a mobile phone and PDA. Solving browser problems.

8. And last but not least, carry out user testing. Just because you like the way your site looks and works doesn’t mean everybody else feels the same. So do some testing. Make sure you meet the 5 usability criteria set out by Jacob Nielson: useability 101.

Useability Resources

www.useit.com

www.usability.gov

www.squiz.co.uk – a_hitchhikers_guide_to_the_obvious

www.webcredible.co.uk – web-usability

And finally…

But (and there is always a but); making a website usable is time consuming but the rewards easily outweigh the penalties.

Have fun.

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