October 23, 2007
Usability, as you hopefully know, is all about making sure that the people who come to your website can find the information or product they want, and ensuring they can find it quickly, efficiently, and with minimal hair-tearing.
Unfortunately, some people just don’t know the guidelines, or just don’t follow them. This can lead to a lot of frustration on the part of the user, and if users are frustrated, then chances are good they won’t be back to your site. Whether you’re building a new site or redesigning an old one, here are a few usability tips you should be keeping in mind.
Consistency Consistency is one of the most important aspects of usability. The page style, text style, colors and navigation should be consistent throughout your entire site. Not only does this help with usability, but it will also help with building your brand online. By using those visual cues throughout your site, people will know exactly where to look for the links they need, and they’ll always know for sure that they’re still in your site.
According to Jakob Nielsen, a usability expert, a good navigation system should answer three questions for your users:
- Where am I?
- Where have I been?
- Where can I go?
Keep your navigation consistent throughout your site, and this is one case where it’s okay to be redundant. Provide multiple ways for your users to find what they’re looking for, such as text links, graphics links, a clearly marked search function and a site map, just to name a few. Also, cookie crumbs (home > products > Product Name > features) are a good way to let visitors know where they are on your site and how they got there, so it’s easy for them to go back if they need to.
Yes, pretty pages are a plus, but if there’s no meaty content to the pages, there’s no reason for users to come back. Don’t dump big blocks of text on your site. Break it up into smaller paragraphs, and organize your content with headings and subheadings so that people who are skimming the site can quickly find what they’re looking for. Giant text blocks only serve to give people headaches.
Either stick with a light background and dark lettering, or a dark background with light lettering. Contrast is the key here. Use a sans serif font (like Arial) for the regular copy, and don’t make it too small. Don’t make your information difficult to read, unless you really want to drive people away from your site.
And proofread, proofread, proofread. Nothing will damage your credibility quicker than blatant grammar and spelling mistakes.
Yes, you’ve got that gorgeous flowery picture that you just HAVE to have on the background of every page. But did you ever stop to consider how distracting it could be, or how the color changes in the picture could obscure the text on top of it? Unless you really know what you’re doing, steer clear of background images.
For all images, make sure that you have appropriate ALT and TITLE attributes. This is the text that shows up in an image box before the image loads, or appears when you mouse over the image. Not only will this increase usability, especially for people using text browsers or site readers, but it will also increase your keywords, which makes search engine spiders happy.
Custom error page
It happens to the best of us. Pages get removed from sites. Links get changed. Sections get taken down and updated. People enter file names wrong. No matter the reason, it’s entirely likely that somebody visiting your site will click on a broken link. If you have a custom 404 error page, then you have a chance to let your users know what happened, redirect them to a page that might have what they were looking for, or just take them back to your home page.
Plus, that way you can keep your colors and branding consistent, even on the error page. It’s much more professional than having your site host’s 404 page show up when somebody clicks a broken link.
Contact and feedback
You should have a clearly marked contact page, and there should be more on there than just a form “contact us” box. Let your users know who you are, where you’re located, and give them options other than just email for getting in touch with you. If you do have a form, clearly note what information you require and make sure you don’t require information, like ZIP codes, that international users won’t necessarily have.
Not everybody using your site will be from North America, have a monitor with 1280 x 800 resolution, and be surfing via Internet Explorer. You’ll have international users, users with older, fullscreen monitors, users on dial-up, users on Macs, users on PCs with Firefox or other browers, blind users with site readers, you name it. That’s always something to keep in mind and a big reason why you need to test. There has to be usability across all platforms, not just the one you use to build your site.
Get real people to test your site so that you can get an idea of how users will experience it, and you can fix any problems before it goes live. Usability testing is the only way to make sure that your site fits both yours and your users’ needs. That way, you can find out what works and what doesn’t, and can adjust your site so that everybody has an enjoyable, pleasant experience browsing your site.
For a few more tips on website usability and optimizing your site, check out these blogs: (http://smbtips.blogspot.com/2007/08/website-usability.html) and (http://www.xeal.com/blog/index.php/2007/08/15/5_ways_to_optimize_your_website_for_univ).
Website usability is a vast, important topic, and it’s nigh impossible to cover all the applicable points in just one article. However, one of the most important things to remember about these guidelines is that they are just that: guidelines. You won’t get in trouble with the Internet Higher Authorities if you don’t slavishly adhere to them. Just keep your users in mind with your site design. The easier it is for them, the better it will be for you.
Author: President and founder of Xeal Inc., Tony D. Baker is Oklahoma’s leading Internet marketing expert with more than 10 years of Internet marketing experience. You can catch Tony on the Xeal Radio Show on Sunday nights on 1170 KFAQ Tulsa. Sign up for a free 25-point website evaluation and pick up crucial tips at Xeal’s free Thursday webinar at http://www.xeal.com/webinar.