Jakob Nielsen’s Useit website is the perfect technical example of usability: logically structured, free of unnecessary graphics with clear, concise copy. But, is it a site that people will want to use?
Today a website’s value is determined by the quality of its design: websites that are professionally designed will be deemed to be more relevant and trustworthy than those with a poor design. So I suggest that the everyday web user would be put off by Useit’s simplicity, instead preferring a more visually rich website.
Let’s be fair, though, Useit has been deliberately created with absolute usability in mind and I don’t believe that Nielsen seriously suggests that all websites follow a similar pattern. Instead designers and IAs have to walk a tight-rope between an engaging design and usability.
One of the first things you learn when you study film is that audiences are getting more and more sophisticated in their understanding of its visual language. You’ve probably heard stories of early film audiences fleeing the cinema as they saw a train rushing toward them on the screen. Modern cinema goers, however, take things like camera angles that swoop precariously over cliff edges perfectly in their stride.
The same is true of web users – they are becoming much more familiar with the visual language of the web. There are some web conventions that have arisen that most users even expect of a website: the search box is in the top right hand portion of the page, the site logo links to the homepage, underlined text is a link etc. But, if a website doesn’t adhere to the conventions and has, say, some kind of funky animated menu visitors are still capable of using it but to differing degrees of satisfaction.
So how do designers and IAs walk that tight-rope I mentioned above?
Below I’ve listed 8 points that have been drawn from best practices in usability and design. These guidelines are high-level and some of them are subjective and therefore almost impossible to quantify, instead requiring you to seriously meditate on the design and functionality of your website.
- The site is satisfying (I told you they were subjective!). The site is pertinent to its subject matter and uses a language appropriate to its audience. Think how the design and content of a website for a funeral home will differ from that of a skateboard park. This can only be measured by asking testers to give a satisfaction score for the site.
- The site minimizes thinking. Its structure should be logical and easily navigated. Its principal features or content should be obvious. Links should look like links, buttons like buttons and not banner ads. GUI features should be clearly labelled or identifiable.
- The site is accurate. Having current information on a site indicates that it is active, and ensuring that such content is factual and grammatically correct fosters trust in users’ eyes. I don’t know about you but I would think twice about buying a “lpatop” from a site with a copyright notice dated 2007.
- The site has appropriate functionality. User needs differ between sites; an e-commerce site requires that its users can drill down into detailed product description; a theatre may require that users see an interactive floorplan of the venue. The site should behave how the user thinks it should behave. Usability testing and discussions will reveal a site that does not match the users’ mental model of how it should work.
- The site is accessible. Although issues of accessibility are usually aimed at disabled users, complying with accessibility guidelines will enhance usability for all site visitors. Clear text is easier to read, an uncluttered interface is easier to scan for its most relevant points.
- The site functions as expected. Remember those web conventions I mentioned above? Does your site comply to them? If users are familiar with the key controls of the interface then the less time they will spend figuring how it works and the more time they spend using it (to buy things, perhaps).
- The site is responsive. Do site features perform promptly or do users have to wait as complex database calls are made? Technologies such as Ajax, which minimizes server round-trips, can improve the reaction speed of on-page functions. And avoiding unnecessary graphics or animation makes page loading quicker.
- Errors are handled effectively. In a perfect world websites are error-free but we all know this isn’t the case. So when an error occurs on your site is it explained and can the user get back from it with the least effort? The most common example is a custom 404 message that maintains your site navigation. Another example is a form that clearly indicates mandatory fields and provides a simple, friendly message if they are not filled out on submission.
Usability is subjective and different users have different levels of web experience and familiarity. Some people can learn and remember a web interface much easily than others but the fundamental driver of a website is that it as easy to use as possible.
Ease of use can be enhanced by stripping away unnecessary or ornamental elements of page design, but remember when you expose too many of the bare bones of a site its value is no longer recognisable by the majority of web users.
By simply following some simple usability guidelines you will find that you can have a visually interesting yet effective website – a usable website that visitors will want to use.