Monday, June 18, 2007/
Many websites designed by “professionals” are akin to cars without steering wheels – it makes a statement, but at what cost to the user?
Improving the bottom line with website usability
Many website owners will be aware that design and usability can have a significant impact upon the commercial success of your site.
Usability is a critical issue that is often underestimated. I am continually amazed at what designers take for granted in terms of usability, and also just how confusing the average website can be 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.
It is also likely that website owners are not aware of the usability issues of their own site. Having spent three months or more working closely with your web designer, you never do get the opportunity to experience your website through the eyes of one of your customers visiting your site for the first time.
All too often website users spent their energy trying to work out how a website actually works, rather than focusing on the content and functionality that they came for.
Looking at site statistics may paint an interesting picture with regards to just how deep people are getting 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 fully fledged usability review of your website (which I do recommend) there are some simple principles you can use to assess your website usability.
The ultimate goal is for navigation and comprehension of a website 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 simply for the sake of it. You might be very proud of your innovative creation, but your customers may be less than impressed.
Many websites that are designed by “professionals” are akin to cars without steering wheels. It might seem like a great way for a car company to make a statement by designing completely new controls, but is reinventing the “wheel” really such a good idea? And at what cost for the user?
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 is unique but still familiar. 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 example devices that user interface designers have borrowed from the physical world in order to create usability through familiarity.
It could be argued that truly unique computer interfaces can only develop as quickly as the population as a whole can expand their frame of reference and understanding.
Now on to some considerations for your own website.
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.
For example, 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 also important to help users to 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 you can 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 potentially less main navigation options.
There is an old rule that between five and seven navigation items is 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 for your competitors.
These rules do not mean that your website should be the same as your competitors’. But bear in mind (as per the steering wheel example) 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 would you rather your brand be perceived to be more helpful and accessible, or simply more unique and original (often at the expense of other factors).
- Establish clear navigation rules.
- The fewer rules the better.
- Rules should be easy for your audience to learn.
- Build upon what people already know.
- You pay a price for being “original” in a transactional website, as users must work harder to learn your rules.
- Help users create a cognitive map of your site by using a logical navigation structure, and revealing this through navigation design.
- Make navigation options as different from each other as possible, so that users can make choices based upon comparison.
- Test your website usability on your target audience.
- Consider a formal usability review.
- How important usability is to your own website depends upon the role of the website (transactional or brand messaging).
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