Improving the bottom line with website usability

I am continually amazed at just how confusing the average website is for the average user. There are great lessons to be learned from watching a new user navigate a website in an attempt to achieve their goals.

If you’ve just spent three months or more working closely with your web design partner building your site from the ground up, you never get the opportunity to experience the finished website through the eyes of a customer visiting for the first time. As a result, website managers are often totally unaware of serious usability issues within sites they control.

All too often website users spend their energy trying to work out how a website actually works, rather than focusing on the content and functionality they came for. This creates frustration, which manifests as frustration with your brand, rather than the positive brand-building experience that websites should be creating.

Looking at analytics related to user behaviour on your site may paint an interesting picture about just how deep people are traveling into your website (or not). They may be giving up before they reach their goal, which is not good for business. Short of commissioning a full-fledged usability review of your website there are some simple principles that can help assess website usability.

The ultimate goal is for user navigation and comprehension to be intuitive so that your audience can spend their time focusing on your content, key messages, and functionality.

This means drawing upon what the user already knows. The less they have to “learn” in order to use your website the more usable it will be. Avoid designing a completely new navigation paradigm for the sake of creativity. You might be very proud of your innovative creation, but your customers may be less than impressed.

This doesn’t mean that your website should be a copy of Microsoft or Apple.com. There are many ways a navigation system can be designed so that it provides a unique, branded experience while offering a familiar and therefore usable experience. Good usability is transparent. Users don’t notice that they know how to use the website because they don’t need to think about it at a conscious level.

Tapping into things that users know at a subconscious level is the key. While sometimes overdone, metaphors such as “tabs”, “folders” and “desktops” are devices that user interface designers have borrowed from the physical world in order to create usability through familiarity. Truly unique computer interfaces can only develop as quickly as the population as a whole can expand their frame of reference and understanding. It is important to quickly establish navigation rules, and these rules should be simple and used consistently throughout the site.

For example, how is a user to know which parts of a particular web page are clickable? What distinguishes navigation from content? You can’t assume that a user will “just know” the answers to these questions. Use design treatments to explain the rules.

Navigation items might all be red, all use an underline, all have a drop shadow etc. Once a user has clicked on one link, they should feel confident that they now know exactly how navigation on the website works. And never contradict the rules as this could undermine the user’s confidence in comprehending the system.

Establish clear and simple rules for each type of navigation. For example: first level, second level, related links, links to external sites and files. The system needs to be logical with the right visual cues, and the right amount of simplicity so that users can instantly “get” your navigation system.

It’s important to help users quickly create a cognitive map of your website. A website is non-linear by its very nature, and while you as the website owner or designer know what lurks beneath the homepage, your audience does not. The more easily they can create a mental image of your site structure, the better.

When planning main navigation sections, there are some simple rules to follow that will aid usability. The first is to make each main navigation item as “different” from the others as possible. This way users can compare the options and make a logical decision as to which is most likely to contain the information they are looking for.

As soon as ambiguity creeps in, users will become confused and anxious. By ensuring that each option is as different as possible, it becomes easier to keep the information categories broad, allowing for a more scalable website with fewer main navigation options.

There is an old rule that between five and seven navigation items are ideal for a moderately complex information taxonomy. Any less than five and you may not have broken down your content structure enough to create a scalable site with specific content. Any more than seven makes it difficult for a user to assess all options and compare in “one take”.

Of course, every website has different content and needs, so it’s important not to get too hung up on any one rule at the expense of other considerations. Quite often the goal of interface design is to create a site system that speaks to the very unique personality of your brand. You may want to offer a brand experience that has clear differentiation from your competitors.

These rules do not mean that your website should be the same as your competitors’. But bear in mind that the more unique and “surprising” you would like your website experience to be, the harder you must work to tap into the subconscious “understanding” of your audience. A key question to consider is whether you’d rather your brand be perceived to be more helpful and accessible, or simply more unique and original (often at the expense of other factors).

In summary:

  1. Establish clear navigation rules.
  2. The fewer rules the better.
  3. Rules should be easy for your audience to learn.
  4. Build upon what people already know.
  5. You pay a price for being “original” in a transactional website, as users must work harder to learn your rules.
  6. Help users create a cognitive map of your site by using a logical navigation structure and revealing this through navigation design.
  7. Make navigation options as different from each other as possible, so that users can make choices based upon comparison.
  8. Test your website usability on your target audience.
  9. Consider a formal usability review.
  10. How important usability is to your own website depends upon the role of the website (transactional or brand messaging) and the audience. Good website usability may be defined very differently for a government agency compared with an experimental art gallery. But a good experience should always be the goal.
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