Far too many people equate flashy graphics with web design. While graphics are important to good web design, usability is more important.
Jakob Nielsen has long been considered the usability expert and his site useit.com is a good place to get usability tips. Ironically I have never found the site the easiest or most usable, but it still has a lot of good advice. Jakob is very clearly on the opposite pole from flashy graphics as is obvious if you look at his site.
What Is Usability?
Usability in web design is creating a site that lets visitors to your site achieve their goals and complete their tasks as easily and quickly as possible. It’s about making it easy for them to find what they’re looking for and simplifying the steps they need to complete their task.
The best way to increase the usability of your design is to test it with real site visitors, but often that isn’t possible. Even without thorough testing there are some things you can do to improve usability on your website.
Giving your website a consistent look across all site pages is an important consideration. Your visitors should never even for an instant question if they are still on your site. Does this mean that all your pages have to look exactly the same? No, but they should remain consistent enough in look that it’s immediately obvious what site you’re are on.
The navigation of your site should be easy and intuitive to understand. Make your links obvious and stick to established web conventions. There’s a reason you see so many sites using a navigation bar across the top of the page or a menu of links to the left. These are the two most common forms of navigation on websites and website visitors have come to expect they will be there.
The text of your links should also make it obvious where the link leads. Give your links meaningful names. The often used ‘click here’ is perhaps the least useful text link. Someone should not have to ready anything other then the link itself to know where it wil take them.
Make Site Tasks Understandable
If you want a user to fill out a form to sign up for your company newsletter make sure the form is easy to understand. Can they enter their phone number as (123) 456-7890 or does it have to be 1234567890? How about 123.456.7890 or 123-456-7890? If they need to fill something out in a certain way tell them before they click the submit button.
Easy Click Paths
Click paths are the path of links a visitor must follow on your site in order to complete their desired task. Make these click paths as obvious and as short as possible. Don’t make your visitor click through 5 pages when 4 pages will do. Don’t make them click through 4 pages when 3 will do.
Make it obvious where they need to go next to complete their task and place that cue just where they finish the current task. Visitors to your website shoud never have to question what to do next on your site.
Usability In The Details
Much of usability can be found in the details of your website. Sometimes even the smallest detail can make your site more usable.
For an example take a look at Google and when the page loads start typing before doing anything else. What you typed should have immediately appeared in the search box. Now go to alltheweb and do the same. What happened? Which site is easier to use.
It’s a shame that for the neglect of a single line of code alltheweb makes you move your mouse and click in the search box in order for their search to become usable. It may not seem like much, but what if you had arthritis or carpel tunnel syndrome.
Web design usability is the most important consideration when designing your site. Yes your site should look good. It should have pleasing graphics and maybe even be an artistic masterpiece. But guess what? If it’s not usable no one will use it.