I can give you the detailed definition of web usability, but in a nutshell, it all boils down to how easy it is for people to use your website. (A great, non-technical and quick read is Jakob Nielsen’s Usability 101: Introduction to Usability.)
Usability can make or break a site. If you have good website traffic but not enough sales, and your products are good and reasonably priced, maybe you should look at how usable your site is. If members are complaining to your non-profit that they can never find certain information, it may be time to examine the site.
To be fair, you can have a giant, flashing arrow that takes up half the page screaming “IT’S RIGHT HERE!!” and some people will never find anything. But it’s still best to work toward getting your site to where critical information is as obvious as possible.
Steve Krug says the most important thing to do to make sure your website is easy to use is to remember this: “Don’t make me think!”
And he’s right. It’s been proven for years, repeatedly, that the longer it takes someone to find anything on your site, the more likely that person will give up and leave. People don’t want to think. They don’t want using a website to be difficult. The Back button is your friend. And remember that it is the friend of your site visitors too.
One way to keep things simple is to cut down information and choices. Paul Boag, another expert says “Studies in supermarkets have shown that if the shopper is presented with too many varieties they are less likely to make a purchase.” (Read his article 10 Techniques For An Effective ‘Call To Action’) So remember: watch out for information overload.
Of course, the challenge here is that most people are also concerned with SEO. They want their site to show up in search engines, and for many, that means filling up a page with information. Well, you have to decide what’s more important to you: getting to the top, or having people that actually find your site be able to use it. There are ways you can make your site be search engine friendly without it being just a pile of keywords crammed onto a page. In fact, a well-designed site that people like using has a better chance of moving up in the rankings because people are more likely to want to share it with others they know.
So how to test your site?
Nielsen, and another industry expert, Steve Krug, agree that you don’t need long, expensive tests to determine web usability. Their numbers range from 1 to 5 people to test a site. Better yet, get people that are representative of your target audience. Personally, I’m fond of what I call the Grandmother Test: if my Grandmother can’t use it, I did it wrong.
Ask a friend or someone that will give you honest feedback. A great way to test is to stand next to someone and ask if they can perform specific tasks on the site. If they struggle or can’t, something needs fixing.
Look at your site with your customer in mind. If you were them, how would you use the site? Will they find what you want them to find?
Remember that any site features that have annoyed you will annoy your customer too. Popup windows are a great way to chase off your customers. Websites that don’t work in most browsers are another good way. Websites that don’t work on phones are also bad. Can people search your site for what they want? Is there a sitemap? How about an obvious FAQ? Where is your contact information? Where is your navigation? Is it in the same place on all or most pages, or does it move all the time? These are important things to think on what looking at your site.
How about when something breaks on your site? Try typing in a page address for your site that does not exist. What happens? Just a blank page saying 404? Or do you have a custom error page that will help your visitor when something goes wrong?
These are just a few of the many things to consider when looking at your website. If you’re looking for some good, non-technical books on the subject, check out Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition and his later book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems.
And of course, you can always get in touch with a web designer for a review of your site. If you have a site, I’d be happy to look at it as part of our one hour consultation, and give a list of things that can be done to make it easier to use.