Photo by Aaron Fulkerson on Flickr

In another life, I mark undergraduate writing assignments that involve doing usability research and writing a report on that research. Through the years marking these assignments, I've learned quite a bit about web usability and its importance. It actually gives me an interesting perspective as a writer, as I understand more of the context where my words appear.

In plain language, usability is the degree to which something is easy to use. High usability means that something easily fulfills its purpose; for a websites, it means that visitors can easily find the information they're looking for. Bad usability, especially in a fast-paced environment like the internet, can actually have a major impact on your reputation and, more importantly, your ability to attract leads and make sales.

What does usability consider?

Different studies on usability use different names for the criteria, but there's a general consensus that these three things are those that matter the most when it comes to web usability:

  • Navigation
  • Design
  • Content

Navigation relates to information architecture: good navigation depends on how well your website is structured and if the pages are grouped logically. It means paying special attention to link labels, menu placement and the depth of your website.

Design can seem like a more subjective criterion, and to some extent it is. However, there are best practices to follow to ensure that design does not come in the way of usability. In fact, the proper use of colors, logos, images, white space and other visual elements can (and should) actually contribute to usability by indicating important information or helping draw the eye effectively across the website.

Content is often (and sadly so) relegated to the back burner when it comes to usability. But content is the primary reason for people visiting websites–easy links and a beautiful design are great, but if your website contains no useful or relevant information, it's pretty much useless.

Why should my website be usable?

A website is a website, right?

Well, no, not really. Any user of the web–especially inexperienced ones–will identify good websites as usable websites. Usable websites have several characteristics:

  • They provide the right information to the right person at the right moment
  • They give visitors a sense of where they are and where they have been
  • They provide a pleasant reading and viewing experience

Having a usable website matters because visitors get easily frustrated with unintuitive navigation, missing content and unprofessional design. And on the internet, frustration means high bounce rates and more visitors going to your competition. You want a usable website if only to keep your visitors on long enough to learn about your product or service and get in touch with you.

How do I know if my website is usable?

Website usability is fairly easy to evaluate–when you know what you're looking for. 

One easy way to tell if your website is usable is to ask someone who is unfamiliar with it to spend a few minutes on it–otherwise called a usability test. You can ask your test subject to find specific pieces of information and to comment on how easy it was.

A badly constructed website will cause delays and frustrations. You will usually see a lot of using the "back" button and frantically clicking around trying to end up on the right page. There might be a lot of scrolling or looking for a sitemap. Some people prefer using a search bar–if you don't have it, it might convince your visitor to leave. 

You can ask questions about the design and content too–do they like it? Do they feel they're dealing with professionals? Is the content easy to read and informative? Does it answer their questions?

Repeat that process with 2 or 3 more people–a sample of 4 to 5 test subjects is enough to find most usability issues with a website.

Why you need a professional designer

Good professional designers have a good grasp of web usability. They understand how good navigation, appropriate design and relevant content work together to make websites easy to browse, view and read. They know that usable websites are more likely to keep visitors interested and will provide more leads and more sales.

As you discuss your web needs with your designer, you should make sure that you also understand what a website needs to be attractive to your customers and visitors. Hopefully, I've given you some useful information with this blog post!