Usability: Making Web Sites More Effective
The most attractive, informative site on the web will do nothing for the organization that sponsors it if visitors cannot figure out how to use it. A useful web site must let users know how to access content, how to use any interactive features and what to do next. If it does not, visitors will only know how to do one thing: leave.
How to improve usability
An organization that sets out to improve the usability of its web presence must do three things. It must figure out what is wrong, figure out how to make it better and then test the solutions to make sure they work.
Track User Activity
Web conscious entities usually have tracking technology in place already in the form of click trackers, heat maps and so forth. To identify usability issues, it is important to analyze every bit of data yielded by such software. How long was the user on a given page? Was the visitor scrolling as if reading, or playing with an interactive feature? Or were there random clicks, as if the user did not know what to do? Or worst of all, did the page just sit there until a confused surfer gave up and closed it? This sort of data helps web site builders identify problem areas.
Once web designers know what the problem is, they have to come up with the solutions. For instance, if visitors are clicking through the navigation menu, one link after another, chances are that they are looking for something. Designers will brainstorm a number of possible solutions, ranging from explanatory button graphics to test adjacent to the button to text that appears when the user mouses over the link. Then the best idea for the particular situation would be selected and implemented.
Putting a better system into place is not the end of the process, however. The new procedure may present problems of its own of which the developers were unaware. To make sure users can now access all the features of the site, it is necessary to test it. Initial testing may involve calling in a naive user to try to work through the site in the presence of the developer who can profit from both conscious feedback and moments of puzzlement. Once the web site goes live, the same type of monitoring that identified the initial problem should be used to make sure the solution works.
All web sites must be usable to be useful, but some sorts of web presence require more thought and expertise in order to achieve a degree of user friendliness.
The complexity issue
Some sites, such as e-commerce sites or communities with a large number of features, require navigation of intricate subsystems and complicated controls. These sites require additional thought to achieve usability. The web page that the user sees is less a piece of information in these cases than a user interface in itself, and it should be designed with this in mind. The same sort of sketches, mockups and tests required when developing software interfaces will be needed for complex web sites, and they are most easily accomplished by trained professionals.
If web sites meant to be used on computers must be user friendly, those for use with mobile devices must be even more intuitive. The smaller screens and different controls common on mobile devices require different best practices to achieve usability. Even the simplest content will have to be optimized for mobile devices on a page by page basis. Because of the rapidly changing nature of mobile technology, this is another area where web site owners may find it advisable to consult a professional.
Sites under the control of certain entities, including the US government, have to be accessible to everyone who uses the web, including disabled people using adaptive technology. Even those not under the mandate may find it good business not to exclude anyone. Very simple pages that are carefully validated against HTML standards are accessible by nature, but anything more complex is likely to require the assistance of someone trained not only in web technology but also in accessibility.
Web site usability is a huge factor in the success of any web presence. In order to act on the information presented in a web site, users must be able to get to it and they must know what to do once they have accessed it. A testing and brainstorming strategy can achieve acceptable levels of usability for simple sites, but complex web systems like e-commerce sites and any site that must be accessible through mobile devices or adaptive technology may require the help of a professional trained in the latest web technology.