Help Your Viewers Help Themselves: Usability Tips

The following guest post is from Randall McCarley of 14th Colony

With Steven on vacation I thought I’d take advantage of this chance to conquer his website!

Or at least contribute a post.

I asked Steven what he’d like me to write about. He brought up something important that doesn’t get as much attention as it should: Usability.

How would you like to increase return visits, conversions and brand effectiveness for your website?

Usability is how a viewer experiences your website. Usability has three parts: effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction. The easier your website is to use the more people will use it.


Does your website deliver on its promises? This applies to outright and implied claims.

If you claim your website will teach me how to become a millionaire in 30 days, it better do just that! Outright claims are easy to measure. Implied claims are easy to overlook.

All websites carry implied claims by the nature of what they are:

  • Navigation will be obvious
  • Locating desired documents will be easy
  • Design will enhance content, not distract from it
  • Design will function in standard web browsers
  • Design will work at standard resolutions

Effectiveness is meeting your viewers on their terms.


Efficiency is what most people think about when they consider usability. Efficiency is the speed a viewer can carry out a task to make their visit a success. Efficiency is what Steve Krug discusses in his landmark book Don’t Make Me Think! Efficiency is what Tom Peters is talking about when he says “beautiful systems.”

Efficiency 101: Less is more

With more less, you get more action! More completed steps. More conversions.

The viewer should never ponder “what’s next?” – make it obvious

Efficiency is respect for your viewers. By respecting their time and frustration threshold you turn an average website experience into a great one! A great experience is where the user gets what they came for without interruption. Efficiency is getting the technology and process out of the way so the user can complete their mission.


Satisfaction comes when the job is done. Whatever reason your viewer has for being at your site they won’t be satisfied until they complete that task. They will be more satisfied if it is easy to do with little hassle or thinking involved.

Why do visitors go to your site? Is it to get information? Use a tool? Or purchase a product?

Your visitor experience ends with satisfaction or frustration. Satisfaction means return visits and referrals. Frustration means abandonment and telling other people what a horrible experience they had. This directly impacts your brand.

Satisfaction is easy to spot. Check your logs for completed orders and repeat visits. If your shopping cart has a high abandonment rate, satisfaction isn’t there. People unhappy with your website will not come back! A high return visitor ratio indicates success.

General Usability Tips

  • The more obvious and intuitive it is to complete a task the better
  • Use systems your viewers are familiar with for core elements like navigation
  • Clean design enhances the ability to process the information. I like the picture frame example. If you have a painting on your wall and people comment on the frame more than the picture, the frame distracts from the content. The same concept applies to website design.
  • Innovation is not innovative if it makes the process more difficult!

Warning signs your website is not usable

  • If your website requires directions you are in trouble!
  • If you have to think about how to get somewhere or how to complete a task that is a bad sign.
  • High abandonment rates with the shopping cart or other automated process steps
  • Low return visitor ratio
  • Low bookmark ratio

Final thought on usability

You and your visitors have the same goal. You call it a conversion. They call it getting what they want. The space in between is how usable your website is.

Randall McCarley runs into Steven Bradley’s alter ego VanGogh at Cre8asiteforums, SEO Refugee, SEOmoz and other social sites. He is the owner of 14th Colony, a Sacramento website design and promotion company. When away from his websites, Randall spends time with his beautiful wife and daughter.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.


  1. Thanks for the post Randall. I’m a big fan of Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think” when it comes to usability. I realize it’s the usability book for non usability experts, but I’ve always felt if you can at least follow what’s in the book you’ve created a pretty usable site. I haven’t read Tom Peter’s yet, but I’ve added him to my reading list.

    I really like the idea of design enhancing content and not distracting from it. I think too many people think good design is supposed to stand out when in truth the best designs are the ones that stay out of the way and draw little attention to the design.

  2. I think it would be better, if you pointed out the simple things to improve usability, such as make text readable, use the words visitors use and stuff. Somehow it doesn’t feel easy to go from this post to practice.

    Other than that, great post, Rand.

  3. Thanks for the opportunity here Steven – it was fun!

    Yuri, Thanks for the feedback. I suspect I could have wrote 200 pages with tips to make each aspect of a website more usable and still been 500 pages short! I hope these concepts give people enough information so the next time they look at their sites they think “…oh. Got it” From there they can make changes and look up specifics as needed. I don’t think general usability tips do much good other than whatever the font size is you think you need, make it 2 points bigger!

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