Creative Thinking, Views and Musings

Website Usability

Friday, May 07, 2010
User-centric Website design has become standard for successful Websites today. It is the user that controls where he goes and on what he clicks. So from a design perspective, usability is where function truly does meet form. So what exactly are the principles of good usability design? Here are just a few:

   1. Quality content
   2. Understanding how users read
   3. Clear navigation
   4. Minimizing your demands on the users time

Quality Content
The quality of your content depends on, well the actual quality of it! It should be well written and engage the reader immediately. The presentation of the message, or the layout of the fonts and the hierarchy of the messages is critical to showing the reader that the content is what they are looking for. But of course, you must know what your target market expects/wants and be sure that your message is right.

Understand How Users Read
The truth is people don’t read as much as they used to. Your target audience is bombarded with information on a minute-by-minute basis in today’s media frenzied world. When they land on a Web page, they ‘scan’ the page to determine if the product they desire, the service they need or the information they want is there. This eye movement is punctuated with what are called ‘fixations’ or points in time where the eye fixates on a specific piece of information. How you design your page layout and the presentation of your information must take this into account.  Check out these ‘heat maps’ showing eye tracking:

Heat Map of Reading Patterns

Present Clear Navigation
User expectations when it comes down to navigation are largely driven by accepted norm. For instance, in the publishing industry, no one would consider putting the publication contents at the back of the book or magazine. People expect it to be in a certain place. Just like page numbers and footnotes.

These kinds of norms are also ever-present online. Don’t create navigation that makes the user have to think about where to go or how it works. Here is an interesting article about CNN’s Website navigation development, discussing the changes they made and why they currently use a horizontal navigation style:

Challenges of Horizontal Navigation

Minimize the User’s Investment of Time
Time is being crunched for everyone, all the time. If you are offering something free on your site like a subscription to your newsletter, a coupon to download or a white paper, keep the process as simple as you can to avoid wasting the users time. Don’t be too clever with your calls to action or navigation links. Again, convention is your friend here. For instance “sign up” is better than “start now!” “Our services” is better than “explore our services”.

Users hate having to spend time filling out forms. Don’t add to their frustration by making them fill one out for something you could give in a single click (like a case study or a price list). If you have to use a form, avoid complicated layouts or confusing language. Forms should be as short as possible with a minimum of scrolling required to complete. 37signals do a nice job of their sign-up form for Basecamp:

Basecamp Sign-Up Form Example

Take the User by the Hand
As a designer coming from a traditional corporate identity, branding and information design background, I used to cringe at the sight of typical Web 2.0 design with it’s larger than life buttons, big headlines, and simplistic instructions often set out in 1-2-3 steps as if the user didn’t have a brain.

But I have since revised my thinking on this because usability studies clearly show Websites benefit from presenting information as simply as possible. Users like it when they don’t have to figure things out. When a user lands on your home page, make sure they have the option to review your product or service with a simple series of clicks, ideally in a slide-show format or even better in a video.

Video is powerful way to simplify your communication. When we were commissioned by UserLytics to design both front and back-ends of their usability testing Website, we also produced a short video that explained the new service in an easy-to-understand way. The link with the most clicks on the site is the video because users can get the information they want quickly and easily in a format they have become so accustomed to.

If you're wondering whether or not your Website is performing the way it should, consider trying the UserLytics testing service. At only $299 for a five-tester analysis, the service is the most economical and effective laboratory standard, remote user testing service available today.