For many people, the word “usability” conjures up images of lab technicians with eye-goggles and clipboards peering over the shoulders of test subjects as they helplessly click around a painfully befuddling website. While observing users in a lab and other larger-scale methods of usability testing have their place, there are plenty of other ways to bake usability into your site without spending lots of time, money, or effort.
Remember the Basics
Over the years I’ve read all the books on web usability I could get my hands on. I’ve attended conferences and seminars on the subject. I’ve listened to podcasts and participated in lengthy discussions on usability and user experience. And it all boils down to some simple truisms that might as well become law. Here’s a short list of things you should consider when designing with usability in mind:
- People don’t read on the web, they scan. Keep your text short and relevant.
- Lists hold users’ attention longer.
- Whitespace is good.
- Text attracts more attention than graphics.
- Fancy fonts and formatting are generally ignored.
- Navigation tools work better when placed along the top of the page.
- Testing on more than 5 users is a waste of time (see why).
Case Study: The Devil’s in the Details
You can have a beautifully designed site that has all the information and functionality your users desire, but it’s that one simple thing you missed that will drive users away to never return. One place this is all to common is in the checkout process. When you have customers attempting to give you money, don’t make it hard on them. Keep the form as short as possible and grouped logically (don’t throw phone number in between street address and city). Allow the user to go back and forth through the wizard without losing the information they’ve already entered. If they fill in something incorrectly, tell them exactly what is wrong.
I recently encountered an issue when attempting to purchase a pair of Toms shoes. The website was very easy to use. I easily found the exact pair I wanted and was all set to checkout. I patiently entered all my info in their slightly awkward 3-step wizard. When I got to the payment portion, I entered my credit card information, which they insisted had to be verified before moving on. So I verified and moved on. Much to my dismay, when I clicked the button to submit my order, I was sent back to the beginning of the wizard with a vague message telling me to try again.
There was nothing to tell me what I had entered incorrectly. I tried a couple more times (more than usual, because the shoes weren’t available anywhere else) and finally had to give up because everything looked right to me but I still wasn’t passing. Something as simple as a highlighted field would have helped them take my money!
As you can see, you don't have to make huge changes to your site in order to increase it's usability. Small things can make all the difference. Whether you're putting together a new site or just want to improve on an existing one, just remember that the easier you make it for people to get around and use your site, the more successful it will be.