Understanding Website Usability
An easy to use website site is great fun to explore and are often the most successful online businesses.
Usability is about how easy or difficult a website is to use. Generally an easy to use website:
* downloads info and images quickly and easily
* groups info logically
* tells the visitor where they are and what the site is about
It sounds simple enough and it is once the website designer is thinking from the point of view of the visitor. Problems generally happen when sites are made to “look pretty”, or “do this funky thing”. The most successful sites are kept simple and user-friendly (aka kind to visitors).
If a visitor doesn’t like a website they leave and don’t shop. They don’t come back and they don’t refer the website. The site fails and the business owner has spent time and money on a 24/7 marketing tool that simply doesn’t deliver. The solution can be as simple of fixing the ease of use of the site.
What not to do:
* colourful or pattern backgrounds reduce comprehension – they compete with the text, making it difficult for readers to understand and remember what you are saying. If your site is there to be a 24/7 marketing tool why would you want to reduce the understanding of your marketing message?
* more than 2 different font types on a page makes it look messy and also reduces the comprehension rates. Keep the look of a page clean and open.
* too many funky things frustrate visitors – Flash graphics require visitors to download files and when you have visitors with stand alone computers this is potentially a virus risk – not nice. Flash and its like also take a long time to load, this frustrates your potential customer – not good. Personally I think the only time these funky tools are useful for your audience is if your target audience expects it, if your audience is not usability focused but looks focused.
* continually moving animated graphics just irk visitors and they kill pages with these demons bouncing on and on. Animated graphics have there place and value as they add movement and colour to a page but simply limit the number of loops to 2 – 3 cycles. This way you get the best of both worlds – movement but keeping people happy.
* music files attached to pages to start tinkling away when open are simply a BAD idea. You have no control over the quality of the speakers at the other end and you have no idea of what type of music they like. Every one I’ve come across has been tacky and irrating. I closed out of the site and didn’t go back having decided they couldn’t have anything appealing to me because of the choice of music and actually using it. They might have had wonderful products that I would have spent happily on but they failed straight up.
* FrontPage templates are very recognisable because of their bad designs – the buttons are too big, as too is the standard font. I understand the attraction of having a theme all made up for you but if you want to use it spend the time to customise it so it looks a little more individual and easier to use for the visitor.
* ALL CAPITIALS YELLS AT READERS. Most people don’t like being yelled at – they usually either tune out or walk out. Title Case and sentence case are much more successful.
* fancy fonts with lots of squiggly bits or funny shapes are very hard to read and shouldn’t even be used in headings, let alone body text.
* Splash pages are next to useless as they frustrate more visitors than please visitors. These are the pages that you land on first that require you to click a button to get into a site. Some designers think this “front door” effect is stylish and impressive. Hopefully this fashion is over as it costs small businesses potential customers.
* don’t count on pop-up windows being allowed by the virus protection software people have installed. Pop-up windows are thought by advertisers to be effective but usuability tests show people kill them as quickly as possible because they are annoyed by them and considered to carry viruses and unwanted cookies (things that can wipe out computers).
Things to do for successful usability:
* keep layouts simple and clean.
* use white backgrounds with easy to read text
* keep the file size of images of pictures and buttons small – 72 dpi (dots per inch) and don’t put too many pictures on a page.
* follow the standard of linking the top right business logo image to the home page so no matter where people are within the site they can get to the home page easily.
* make use of sensibily named/group navigation bars – these can include left, top and bottom. I use image buttons for my top and left navigation buttons and text links for the bottom navigation bar. I aim to have the bottom navigation bar give an outline of the site architecture (the structure of the site).
* layout can be made easier using tables without padded cells to group info in different areas of the page.
* set tables to display by percentage of the page rather than fixed cell widths. This means that no matter what browser size is set to the page still shows the layout in one view.
* group files in folders, for example these Sea Change articles are grouped in the Business folder by year, eg. creativelybelle/business/articles/2005/file name.htm This makes it easier for loading and looking after files. Just make sure you link accurately as sometimes a folder name can be mistaken.
Remember, if a website isn’t easy to use people just leave and often don’t come back. If someone buys a video player and get home to find it is very difficult to use they have spent the money and are stuck with it. If they site is difficult to use then the visitor won’t even hang round long enough, nor spend any money, to find out about your goods and services – they’re gone, along with their wallet.
Websites that are easy to use and showcase popular goods and services are shared with friends. A very different result to a hard to use website.
So how to you figure out what you want your site to look like? Hunt round the web. Note down what sites you like and what sites you don’t like and why (make sure you note down addresses!). What colours do you think are working well? How is information grouped – what would be similar to yours (always an idea to do some market research as well and check out your competitors and what they are doing)?
Start drawing out on a piece of paper the rough layout of the page. There can be a variety of page layouts to meet the different purposes of the various areas of the site.
If someone is helping you build your business website you need them not only to have the technical skills of using Dreamweaver etc but they also need to be thinking of usability. Ask them about it, listen to what they say and find out how important it is to them. Personally I think it is the most important thing about designing a site – if it isn’t usable then it is useless.
You need to get them talking about usability. If they don’t know what usability is then think twice about letting them loose on your site and paying them good money. If they are learning then fine, as long as you know and you have agreed on appropriate money.
If you are buying someone’s templates for your website ask what are the key usabilty strengths of the designs and make sure it works by testing it yourself.
There is a very useful website about usability with lots of articles about specific details. It does look a little techie but don’t worry about that, the information is useful and works. So visit www.useit.com to start your research and education about usability for your valuable website. Jakob Nielsen’s “Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity” (ISBN 1-56205- 810-X) book is very good and I believe is the best in its category.
I believe being informed makes a huge difference. When it comes to website design it can mean lots of money on either end – it can save you lots of website development money because you are showing knowledge as well as with the results and the ongoing selling ability of a site.
A website is a 24/7 marketing tool – make sure it markets a good message about you and your business.