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What Is Website Usability, and Why Should You Care?

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

What does it mean to say you have a “usable” website? The term “usability” is actually an industry term that is based on an entire field of research and testing that, simply put, has to do with how easy it is for people to navigate and use your website.

One of the first experts to explain, in laypersons’ terms, the concept of usability was Steve Krug, in his 2000 book “Don’t Make Me Think,” which was most recently revised in 2005. His theories and advice still hold true today.

Usability is based on the premise that people don’t “read” web pages, per se. We scan or skim them.

Essentially, Krug argues that everything on a web page should be obvious. Visitors should be able to immediately discern what is clickable. Web designers and developers should create pages with a “clear visual hierarchy,” with pages nested in a logical manner, and each page broken into clearly defined areas. You are doing your customers a courtesy and building goodwill if you make things easy, save them steps and anticipate their questions in advance, Krug says. Pages should also be printer-friendly, a goal that can be easily achieved by any designer experience in working with cascading style sheets (CSS).

Once you are fairly confident that your web site is usable, or even partway through the process, you should test it. This way, you’ll be able to make final decisions about site design with greater confidence.

There are consultants who charge big bucks to very specifically test for the “user experience” and determine how easily visitors are reaching the “call to action.” Some test for the overall usability of the site, while others focus solely on navigation – an element of the user experience that is especially important for ecommerce and information-based sites. They’ll test for things like time spent on a site or page and the “bounce rate.” In some cases, what’s best for your particular site, from landing pages to drop-down menus, depends on your audience (age, skill level, etc.) and how they prefer to use the web.

Or, if you are on a shoestring budget like many of my startup and nonprofit clients, you can still do formal testing. Krug suggests paying participants a small stipend and using cheap video cameras to record them as they experience your site. In Krug’s opinion, focus groups are not a good way to test for usability, because in a group setting participants will just react to one another’s views. It’s best to show a site to one user at a time. If your site isn’t complete, you can show them page sketches or a prototype. Tell your testers to try to “figure out what it is,” writes Krug, and try to use it to do a typical task. Krug’s 2009 followup book, “Rocket Surgery Made Easy,” explains how to do your own usability testing, and Krug even offers some free scripts on his site that you or your web developer can download to test usability.

There are also less-customized usability tests that can be done via a remote service or online tool, such as: Usabilla, Userfly, UserTesting, UserZoom and Loop11. To test specifically for navigation, consider the “top nine” recently reviewed by Forrester’s: Adobe Test & Target, Amadesa Customer Experience Suite, Autonomy Optimost, Google Website Optimizer (that one’s free), Maxymiser Content MVT, SiteSpect, Vertster Conversion Optimization Suite and Webtrends Optimize. Some companies track navigation and other browsing behavior via services such as ClickTale.com and Mouseflow.com.

It’s important to note that usability is not the same as accessibility, although an accessible website is inherently more usable. Accessibility is about making your website available to as many people as possible, regardless of what computer and web browser they use, disabilities they may have, and other factors that could affect how they experience (or don’t experience) your site. I’ll write more about accessibility in a future post.

Happy visitors are engaged visitors, and as long as you can keep them on your site and give them the experience and information that they want, they will reward you with their loyalty, traffic, clicks and dollars. Giving people what they expect to see gives you sales. Fail in the usability task and you lose goodwill, customers and money.

What bugs you about websites that aren’t as “usable” as they could be? Do you despise being forced to scroll down to find what you’re looking for? How about vague page descriptions such as “Resources” or “Other Stuff.” Please let me know your pet peeve by leaving a comment on this post.

Posted by: Sitehatchery.com – a Chico web development company providing web design and development services nationwide.

4 Responses to “What Is Website Usability, and Why Should You Care?”

  1. kevin Says:

    so, how important is usability to a search engine?

  2. admin Says:

    Kevin, thanks for your comment.

    Usability is very important to search engines – particularly the user interaction with the search engine results.

    For instance, Google has spent a great deal of money researching the how subtle differences in color affect buying behavior. Google’s vice-president of search product and user experience, Marissa Mayer, has lead the charge in testing the interaction of users with 40 different shades of blue. Through their research, they believe they have arrived at the perfect link color which demands higher click through rates. Microsoft also engaged in similar research for Bing at a cost of around $80 million according to CNet. This only illustrates the importance of getting the user experience right. For the online business owner, it translates into higher conversions.

    Search engines also know that the descriptive text under the linked title is important for click throughs. In addition to the title and positioning, the relevance of the descriptive text is a major reason why users will often choose one link over another. If it hits them, they click you.

    Placement in search engines is also tied to usability. Users come to expect that the links closer to the top of the list are more relevant. Usability involves giving users what they expect so that they can find what they are looking for quickly. So placement directly involves usability.

    Search engine ad placement and design, such as with Adwords, is also the result of in-depth usability studies. Google, for instance, has strategically placed highly relevant ads for the best click through rates. Not only does this improve the user experience by giving them relevant information at their fingertips, but the high click through rates also drives demand for their ad program.

    Luckily, you have the ability to influence the user’s experience with a search engines in all of these areas: page title, page description, listing placement and ad placement. Page titles and descriptions come from the meta data on your website – which you directly control. You also have the opportunity to increase the popularity of your site by getting backlinks and developing content on your website, eventually leading to better placement in search engines. Ad programs, such as Adwords, is generally a cost-per-click paradigm where the amount you are willing to pay and the relevance of your ad to the content being searched influences positioning.

  3. kevin Says:

    So, usability is important and this I agree. So what you are saying at the end of your comment is that as a website I have the ability to place myself in front of searchers by doing better marketing then the other websites?

    Does this insure that the searchers really want me or that i did a better job getting in front of people?

  4. admin Says:

    Yes. Placing yourself above your competitors will require better marketing strategies, consistency, and time.

    Doing a better job at marketing does not equate to relevancy. However, Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines are constantly researching and refining their search algorithms to improve relevancy (although not this only; as mentioned before, they also are attempting to drive demand for their own products with link colors, positioning, etc).

    Savvy marketers have identified the key things Google is looking for: among other things, relevancy and popularity. They determine relevancy through keyword matching and density (on-site and off-site) and popularity through the number and quality of backlinks. Relevancy and popularity do occur organically, but a website and references to the website can also be manipulated to mimic these qualities. Google is also working to blacklist those websites that are trying to gain an unfair advantage through black hat techniques.

    To stay ahead of the competition, it is important to do things that lead to more traffic. After all, like a brick and mortar business, it’s a business that needs to be marketed. The rules of engagement are just a bit different. They key to long term success, however, is to develop a site that truly speaks to your audience and gives them something of value. This, combined with good and consistent marketing efforts should take your website to the next level. If you truly provide a value advantage over the next website, then over time you should see your search listing positioned more appropriately.

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