The Importance of Website Usability

When most people hear the words “website usability” their eyes glaze over and their attention wanders. But as a concept it’s really not that hard to grasp and if you do you’ll be rewarded with online success you’ve only dreamed about.

What is Website Usability?

The definition of “website usability” is: “The ease with which a User Interface can be used by its intended audience to achieve defined goals. Usability incorporates many factors: design, functionality, structure,

information architecture, and more.”. (Source: sitepoint.com) Put in more reader friendly terms I like to define website usability as having a website that prospects can use – it’s easy for them to figure out what the site is about, find what they’re looking for and carry out tasks – easily. Emphasis on easily.

7 Common Usability Blunders

Usability incorporates more areas that I can cover in this article however by ensuring the following elements in your website are usable will go a long way in ensuring your online success:

1. Confusing Navigation

There’s nothing worse than when a user has to guess what a navigation label means, or worse, click and realises what they thought they were clicking on has no relation to what they have landed on. Confusing navigation causes frustration and increases the likelihood of the user giving up and going to your competitor’s website instead.

Users want a website’s navigation to guide them, easily, through your website to the information they are looking for. Review your website’s navigation for the following:

1. Do the words used in the navigation meet users expectations? If a user clicks on “Contact Us” for example they would expect to find information on the various ways they could contact you. It’s also important to avoid “clever” words which force the user to guess what they will find if they click on the link.

2. Does your website utilise common navigational elements? Over time some navigation elements have become almost standard. For example most websites would contain some, if not all, of the following:

  • About Us
  • Contact Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Site Map

Where possible use standard terms to describe navigation and sections as it will make your users life a lot easier.

3. Is your navigation grouped into logical sections? For example Admin type links, such as Privacy Policy, Copyright and Site Map, can be grouped together.

4. Is your navigation consistent? It’s important to ensure your main navigation is consistent in location, ordering and design. Having it change throughout the website will cause confusion and frustration. Think of it like a supermarket – you may visit a store in a different location to what you are used to but no doubt the layout will generally remain consistent.

2. Inconsistent Design

Whatever page of your website a user is on you want to ensure that they know they are on your site. Using

consistent design elements such as logos, colours, layout and fonts will help you to achieve a consistent look and feel. Similarly ensure that your website has the same written “voice” throughout.

3. Illegible Fonts

The use of hard to read fonts, or font colours of similar contrast to the background colour, can make it hard for your users to read your website. Make sure the fonts and background colours you choose are easy to read and offer a good contrast.

Similarly think about the size of the fonts you will be using. Your target audience should help guide you to the right decision. A website targeting the teen market could get away with a smaller font than one targeting an elderly audience who’s eyesight is failing.

4. Unusable Forms

It is vital to design your forms with your target audience in mind. This will help you ensure that your prospect finds the form easy to understand and complete, avoiding form frustration which can often lead to them giving up.

When designing your forms think about your target audience – is it Australian, local, International or a combination? Your audience will help you to determine what standards do you need to apply in terms of address information such as zip code or postcode, country codes, phone number formats and so on.

It’s also a good idea to think about what information you want to make mandatory and what can be optional. Sometimes asking for too much information can scare off the user. Likewise if the form stretches over a few pages clearly note how long the form is and what point the user is in the filling out process – eg Page 2 of 4. This gives the user an idea of what is required, how long the process is and what step they are up to.

5. Badly Implemented Search

How often do you try searching for something using a website’s search function and end up tearing your hair out? Sadly it’s a common problem. I would almost prefer a website to have no search engine than a badly implemented one.

Think of it this way, if someone is searching for something you are selling you want to make it as easy as possible for them to find it. For this reason it’s vital your website has a good search engine that can handle typos, hyphens, plurals and search term variations. In addition if the search engine returns no results look at ways of helping your user find what they are looking for or have clear contact information displayed so they can get in touch with you.

6. Using PDFs for Online Reading

PDF or Portable Document Format is great for saving and printing documents, especially longer documents such as manuals and eBooks. It was not designed as an alternative to users reading HTML pages online. As well as interrupting the users’ reading flow and causing them to have to open more software it is a hindrance to the search engine optimisation process. Search engines love HTML content so convert your PDF’s into HTML and benefit both your users and the search engines.

7. Unclear Links

The only thing worse than an unclear link is having underlined words that are not links, although both are pretty bad in my book. Links are the mainstay of the internet. They allow you to get from point A to point B. As such you want to ensure that your users can find those links easily. They’re also used as a navigation aid to help you work out your current location and where you’ve been.

Make links obvious by choosing bold colours and have them underlined either at all times or when the mouse hovers over the link. If it’s not a link don’t underline it! It’s also a good idea to have a link change colour after it has been visited so a user knows they’ve already been to that page.

Testing the Usability of Your Website

I often hear people say one of the main obstacles to testing a website for usability is the cost. This doesn’t have to be the case. While a web design/usability consultant is the ideal way to test your website you can do some simple testing yourselves.

When testing your website for it’s usability you need a group of people in your target audience who you can observe as they perform tasks. This can be done with family and friends – just make sure they fit your target audience.

Once you have your group set them tasks to perform on your website and record their progress. This will help you determine where uses get stuck or frustrated, what causes confusion and how easily they can perform the tasks you set them. This information can then be used to make improvements to your site.

Some Final Words

Usability testing can appear daunting when you first look into it but the rewards you can reap make it a vital part of your online strategy. if you want to improve sales, increase enquiries, boost your subscriber list or make more money online website usability testing is for you.
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