Who needs usability? You do!

Recently I read an interesting bit of research conducted by E-consultancy which grabbed my attention. I was about the growth of the UK usability market. According to these guys the UK usability market will be worth more than £200 million by the end of 2008. It is undeniable that the usability market has seen great growth in recent years and if this estimation is accurate then why are there still some site owners who blindly ignore usability?

As I trawl through websites all day long tutting and tisking at user-unfriendly sites it continually puzzles me as a budding SEO executive how some sites can get it so wrong! Despite the increasing recognition of the importance of usability and the abundance of fantastic work in this area (especially that by Jakob Neilsen the “usability guru”) many people still don’t seem to “get” the importance of usability.

But what is there not to get? If a site isn’t user-friendly people won’t use it and they will leave, most likely never to return. Internet users are a fickle bunch. But then why shouldn’t we be? If one site proved difficult to use in our attempt to retrieve certain information then we know there are many other sites out there from which we can gain the required information.

However, it is encouraging to see that this usability market value estimation predicts more and more businesses are embracing usability as a necessity rather than a luxury. At the end of the day, lack of site usability can have a negative impact on profit margins for many companies.

When working closely with a website it is often difficult to notice niggling usability issues. This is where usability testing comes in. Usability testing is an effective way to identify issues visitors experience when using a site. It involves asking independent users to complete set tasks on the site and monitoring them to see how they use the site to accomplish these tasks. User feedback is extremely important to identify what they found good / bad / ugly whilst moving around the site.

Take a quick look over our top tips below for assessing a site’s usability. This is by no means a fully exhaustive list but it gives a good idea of what should be considered within web design.

Conform to user convention. This includes keeping layout and navigation consistent throughout the site. Users expect the navigation to be positioned at the top of the page or down the left hand side. If this is what your site visitors expect don’t deliberately confuse them by positioning your navigation elsewhere. Users also expect to find a company logo to the top left side of the page, preferably one that is clickable and directs them back to the home page.

Break text up into manageable chunks. Use bullet points. Bold out important words / phrases. Use headings and subheadings. Keep paragraphs short. Keep language simple, no jargon! For more information about how we read on the web and tips on how to write for the web check out Lazy Eyes a great article by Michael Agger.

Font size is also really important. Anything under 10pt is too small for reading on a computer screen. Anything smaller than this and visitors are unlikely to stick around straining their eyes trying to read your content, no matter how useful / insightful / amazing it is. Also vary font size throughout the copy, for example, make headings larger than the rest of the text.

Make hypertext links stand out. Traditionally, convention has been to show hypertext links in blue. However, current convention is to show hypertext links in any colour as long as they stand out from the rest of the copy. According to Agger, links embedded in the copy give a text more authority, making visitors more likely to hang around.

Make it obvious what page the visitor is on. Search engine friendly page titles including relevant keywords for the page are not only helpful to the search engines, but also visitors. A visitor will only stick around if they think the page content includes the information they are looking for.

Incorporate a breadcrumb trail into the site. Breadcrumb trails are very good for usability as they provide visitors with a sense of place on the site. Breadcrumb trails offer one-click access to higher site pages so visitors can see the navigational path they took to get to a desired page. Thanks to a breadcrumb trail visitors can see where they are on a site, how they got there and how they can get back.

If there is a search facility on the site make sure it can handle misspellings, hyphens, plurals and other variants of search query terms. A good search facility is fundamental to the visitor’s experience on your site, especially as it provides a life line if the visitor fails to use the navigation to move around the site.

Keep page download times to a minimum. In an interview with E-consultancy Jakob Neilsen recommends that page download times be kept under one second for smooth navigation throughout the site. Anything between one and 10 seconds is the limit of most web users’ attention. Anything over 10 seconds and people are likely to become impatient.

For ecommerce sites, it is essential that your checkout process is simple and confusion free. 

Sometimes it is just a few simple tweaks to make a site more user-friendly, sometimes it requires a little more work. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that usability is an area that simply must not be ignored. Site owners take heed…us web users are not very forgiving, you burn us once with a badly behaving site and we will not return. If your site cannot help us out, your competitors’ just might…

2 Responses to Who needs usability? You do!

  1. Good tips and incredible that these are still relevant in 2008! We started Foviance in 2001 and thought that the high volume of education that we were having to do then would diminish over time. However as the market grows more and more people are entering the space without skills and knowledge required and so the education process continues. Let’s hope that it ends soon!
    Paul

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