Why Should You Care About Website Usability?

© Diane M. Aull

What is Web site usability?

If you’ve been involved in product, software or Web site design for awhile, the concept of usability is probably familiar. If you’re new to design, you may not have heard much about it before.

There are a lot of factors that go into usability:

  • Ease of use: how simple your product, site, or software is to use.
  • Intuitiveness: how easy it is to figure out the use of your product without reading the instructions.
  • Consistency: how much your product functions like other similar products.

Let’s look at a practical example:

Most toasters would rank fairly high on the usability scale. It’s pretty easy to figure out where to put the slices of bread and how to adjust the desired degree of darkness for the finished toast. If the toaster doesn’t automatically lower the bread for you, it usually has a big lever or handle that most of us would intuitively find "obvious" to use for that purpose. And most of them pop up the toast automatically when it’s done.

There’s a good reason why most toasters don’t require a thick user manual.

However, let’s imagine another toaster. This toaster has won numerous design awards. It’s a gorgeous piece of equipment, all shiny and curved and very, very elegant and chic.

Only thing is, it doesn’t have any open slots. And there’s no lever or handle or much of anything else obvious on the outside. There are just a dozen multi-colored metallic buttons, none with any labels, artfully arranged in a stunning rainbow spiral pattern. You have to punch them in just the right order and combination to open the toaster.

Now, let’s imagine this new toaster doesn’t come with a user manual. You’d most likely give up in frustration and just have a bowl of cereal before you figured out how to make your breakfast toast.

So what has this got to do with the Web?

According to Jakob Nielsen, a widely respected usability guru:

On the Web, usability is a necessary condition for survival. If a website is difficult to use, people leave. If the homepage fails to clearly state what a company offers and what users can do on the site, people leave. If users get lost on a website, they leave. If a website’s information is hard to read or doesn’t answer users’ key questions, they leave. Note a pattern here? There’s no such thing as a user reading a website manual or otherwise spending much time trying to figure out an interface. There are plenty of other websites available; leaving is the first line of defense when users encounter a difficulty. (excerpt from Usability 101, by Jakob Nielsen)

That elegant new toaster is a lot like some Web sites out there. Initially you might think they’re beautiful and sleek, but you find out soon enough they’re darned frustrating to use! And what is the first response of most people when they can’t figure out how to use a Web site? Right! They leave!

So what can you do to make your site more usable? For starters, avoid "cute" icons or cryptic names for your navigational links. They may seem incredibly clever and amusing when you first think of them, but unless the majority of your visitors are psychic, they’re going to find them confusing and disorienting. And, as Jakob Nielsen says, if your visitors can’t figure out how to get what they want from your site, they’ll leave.

When you’re designing your site architecture, try to think like your site visitors. Try to imagine the kinds of things they might be looking to do, the kinds of information they might be seeking from your site, and make it as easy and intuitive as possible for them to find those things.

And, as much as possible, test your ideas with actual people, preferably the same types of people as the ones you’re trying to attract to your site. Check the Recommended Resources, below, for more information on how to go about usability testing.

"High Concept" Web sites may win design awards, but if your goal is to win leads or sales, your site needs to be usable.

Usable does not mean ugly.

Let’s dispel a few myths:

  • Usability doesn’t mean "plain text." It’s possible to have a very attractive, polished and professional looking site, complete with appropriate graphics, that is also very usable.
  • Usability is not the same as accessibility. Accessibility refers to making Web sites available to the differently-abled, specifically those using what are called "adaptive technologies," and those who are using standard browsers in non-standard ways in order to compensate for a handicap. It’s possible for a site to be perfectly accessible and still be unusable (and vice versa). Both are valuable and necessary.
  • You can’t easily "add on" usability at the end of the site design process. Site usability is tied in so deeply with your site navigation, architecture and design that it’s almost impossible to make a poorly designed site usable without completely redoing the site. It’s far better to design in usability from the start.
  • Usability is not only for large, commercial sites to worry about. Small sites can become large sites over time, as more information is added and more pages are created. Without a site "roadmap" and an understanding of the principals of usablity, however, your site may never realize its full potential.

Usability is an important consideration for all Webmasters, no matter what the topic of your Web site, no matter how big (or small) it may be. Usability is what will help keep visitors on your site long enough to find all your valuable content!

Recommended resources

UseIt.com: Jakob Nielsen’s Website

Jakob Nielsen is one of the world’s leading experts on usability, not just for websites, but for almost any product that gets used by people. This site is loaded with articles and information. If you’re serious about usability, be sure to subscribe to his "Alertbox" newsletter.

User Interface Engineering
Jared Spool is the other "big gun" in the Web usability field. He and Jakob Nielsen don’t always agree on what constitutes good usability, but they do agree that you need to design a usable website, or you’ll lose your visitors. I’ve attended a couple of seminars by Jared, and I can say he’s a very interesting speaker with some rather provocative ideas.

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Copyright © Diane M. Aull, an online consultant for small and mid-sized businesses. For more information about her services, visit NineYards.com or BootstrapSEO. For resources and tools for home based workers, visit Torka's Home for Wayward Girls.

For any other intended use, you must contact me in advance. If you do use this article on your website, I'd love to know about it; please send me the URL!

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