Menu Close

Usability Basics: It’s Not Rocket Science

  • Jim Thomas
  • Jun 21, 2010

Usability is the technical term for how we use things and with what effort. It is a vital element of a website that affects the success of your website.  It takes careful planning and research to make a website usable.

This post will be the first of a series of posts on usability and user experience. Today we will focus on the basics to get a solid foundation for building more usable websites.

Usability vs. User Experience

Be sure not to confuse usability with user-experience which, while related, encompasses a whole different set of considerations. Usability is about the ability to use something. Can the user find what they need without trouble or errors? Can they use the object for its intended purpose without question or confusion? Is the purpose clear? These are all questions raised when evaluating usability.

On the other hand, user experience is all about emotions. How does the user feel while using the item? Does the object give the user a sense of happiness? Does the user feel more important or superior by using the item?

User experience is an exciting topic that I will touch on in the future, but we will focus on usability first because without a high level of usability, a great user experience is not possible. A product which is hard to use will always yield a poor user experience.

So to get things started on our mission to make people happy, we will focus on mastering usability.

The Importance of Usability

Whether you knew it or not, you are quite familiar with usability. In fact, we are all usability experts in our own right because we know what we like and do not like. Quite simply, if a product is not straightforward in its purpose and if we can’t figure out how to use it within 2-5 seconds, there is a high percentage chance that we will not purchase the product.

Websites are no different.  In fact, our usability gauges are set even lower when it comes to viewing and using websites. If a website user cannot figure out their way around your website in less than 3 seconds, they will likely become confused, disoriented and ultimately leave your website.

So if usability is such an important part of your website, how do you ensure that your site is user friendly? I thought you’d never ask! Let’s take a look at the basics to ensure that you make your website users happy and keep them happy.

The Essentials to Usability

  1. Always remember: “Make it easy”
    Above all, you must always keep in mind the goal of usability: Make it easy. Frustration and confusion are the worst things for a website user to experience while using your website. These traits will almost always result in the user leaving your website and you missing out on a potential opportunity for new business. Make it easy. People like to feel like they know what they are doing; it makes them happy (yes, that’s an user-experience benefit of usability).
  2. Get to know your user
    If you are trying to please someone, it makes sense to learn everything you can about them. Knowing your user’s demographic will allow you to set goals and priorities for your website. For example, if your demographic is primarily 45-70 years old, you shouldn’t assume your users will be internet savvy. That information could help you decide the types of features to include or to avoid.
  3. Don’t abandon the expected
    Do not get me wrong on this one, you should always reach for new and better way of doing things; however, you can alienate users by doing too much. There are certain nuances that are expected when browsing a website that you are best off sticking to unless you truly think your users will appreciate it (in most cases that is doubtful). For example, most internet users expect a logo or some form of recognizable branding to be prominently placed at the very top of the page and a navigation to be very near to that. Also, many users know that the logo should have a link to the home page on it. These are all things your user expects (but there are many more). If you do not abide by the unwritten laws of the web, users will be annoyed. Certainly shoot for the moon to wow your users but always evaluate the costs of abandoning the expected.
  4. Don’t make people think
    This one is borrowed from Steve Krug, one of the foremost experts on website usability. His number one rule for website usability is “don’t make me think.” In fact, he has a book entitled “Don’t Make Me Think.” He means just that:  do not make your users think by giving them too many options or by not defining a clear hierarchy of importance. Krug points out that website users do not read. They scan at best. Everyone is in a hurry on the internet and any extra step you give a user slows them down and gives them one more reason to leave your website. If you are fascinated or even just mildly interested in usability, be sure to read Krug’s book.
  5. Remember content is king
    Flashy graphics and illustrations are like energy drinks: they work great first at first, but without natural energy, you will crash later. Great graphics are good, but they should always be secondary to your content and should only aid in guiding the user’s understanding of your content. Well written content is essential, and to be well written it must be written for the web only because the web is unlike any other media. As I mentioned earlier, website users are in a hurry and want to absorb as much information in as little time as possible. Short paragraphs, descriptive headlines and sub-headlines, and highlighted key points are all great ways to give the user every they need to know very quickly. So keep the graphics subdued and the content to the point.

Effective web usability is a detailed and sometimes complex issue which some large corporations pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get right. Unless you are a multi-million dollar company, you can’t afford to spend that kind of money for detailed usability analysis. However, there are some ways to get it right without breaking the bank. Start with the basics listed in this article to get started.  When I revisit this subject in the coming months, I will talk about user testing on the cheap and other cost-effective methods for ensuring usability.

Mike Shelton
Web Designer at Key Web Concepts

Ready to get started?

We'd love to chat!