How Usable is YOUR Site?

Posted: February 10, 2010 in accessibility, best practices, content, usability

Detour Ahead

Detour Ahead

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We often get lost as site owners in seeing how our site is actually useful or not as useful from the user’s perspective. There are countless books on usability for sale and lots of free tips on the internet, but what is the essence of good usability? I’m going to say that it’s about leading… 

Let’s face it, the visitor to your site is there either: 

A) by accident (it’s not exactly what they were thinking it was) 

or 

B) to accomplish a goal of some kind. 

Assuming that the visitors that stay are in the B category, we must then assume that they prefer to have a helpful bit of hand-holding to get where they need to go.  Afterall, you simply can’t afford to assume that they already know your site, or will appreciate that “you just have to get used to it!”. 

A website (unless it’s actually intended to be used as a work of art) is used to find information in the form of text, images, and other media. All of this must happen via the visual sense of sight (or in the case of blind users, the alt tags and other accessibility user interface tools). Since most users of most sites tend to be non-blind, let’s focus on visuals. A site’s usability can be accurately gauged in terms of content scanning cues–the presence or lack of helpful scanning cues. Why? Because nobody is reading your site from top left to bottom right. Sorry if that’s a shock to anyone, but…we all scan information, epecially in our free moments when we are surfing the web, or even during research. We have to scan to conserve our time. Thus, you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of visual cues (as well as alt tags where possible for the seeing-impaired users). 

Next, you’ll want to be sure to provide titles of sections of content when appropriate, epecially when your site contains different categories of content. A sub-index of media like videos, and one for images can really be helpful to researchers who are looking for the information you provided, but are not otherwise going to find it. This next step is something that is a pain in the rear, and is never finished–validation of code. My rule here is simply: keep trying to validate your site once a month or however often you can allot the time. If you don’t have the resources to have someone to webmaster every site you own, just make a schedule and try to try. Again, my own sites probably suffer the most in some cases. By validating regularly, the users will appreciate the effort over time. 

We all want our websites to be work well worth the effort. Taking the time to ensure proper usability creates more busy work for those who tend to the company website(s). In the end, however, the site’s traffic and conversions all depend upon this most crucial aspect of any website. Getting them there is nothing if they turn away in disgust upon arrival. 

Be a good host–mind the store like an undercover CEO would on your sites. Poke around, make sure the presentation meets the ideal user’s needs. I’m going to try harder on this one, too. After all, the whole reason for this post is that I noticed one of my own original sites has long languished without a validation and usability review. Don’t let my mistake also be your own. 🙂 

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Comments
  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by MarkBrimm: How Usable is YOUR Site? : http://wp.me/pJ9Ex-10

  2. Jon says:

    I don’t think I put enough attention on usability either and it bothers me like a fly buzzing around my ear. I know it needs a good housecleaning, but it’s so hard to start to look at it afresh. I am starting to see how it might be best to pay someone to review and make recommendations. ANyone else having this weird mental block?

  3. Paul Sontag says:

    I know my site is languishing into irrelevancy over time but not addressing usability. I suppose I haven’t wanted to look at it, even though I’m sure a once-over would be long overdue.

    …Blah! Arg! Guh!

  4. I’m still trying to determine what;s wrong with my site before we launch. It doesn’t look or feel right. I’ve tried to get volunteers to surf through the site and tell me what they think is missing. I think I’m too close to it, since I basically created it. Help!

    • Mark Brimm says:

      Hey StartupGuru, we offer this service for a fee normally, but I’m perfectly willing to give it a look for you since you support this blog with your comments here. Be in touch later today via email you used to register.

      – Mark

  5. Rhonda says:

    This issue drove me nuts when I inherited it at my job. It doesn’t get the attention and respect it deserves. Nice points, Mark. I agree this is too ignored by most established companies with little web savvy.

    Rhonda S.
    Pensacola, FL

  6. WebmasterX says:

    I manage many sites and I’m frequently asked to provide redesigns. Often the core issue is not the look and feel of the site or the branding, it’s just the usability of the site layout and navigation scheme. I try to recommend only the changes that make sense to me as a netaholic, and I frquently bring up usability as the first critique and solution.

  7. Great points here, Mark–it’s really easy when we do this a lot to forget how familiar we are with the process…we naturally start drifting toward new and different ways of doing things, sometimes at the expense of what’s proven and expected. Form really has to follow function (unless all you want to do is show off your creativity–but even then, that’s a design choice). It’s a good reminder to do everything we do as deliberately as we can do it and to use design as a means to an end. Hope you get lots more comments–very interesting discussion.

    • Mark Brimm says:

      Thanks for your comments on this Will! In hindsight, I think this usability post could have used more visual illustration about the visually organized aspect of a site’s usability…note to self.

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