Websites are important. They allow us to promote, sell and communicate more effectively than we ever have before.
So it’s somewhat paradoxical that most websites fail miserably. What’s more, the reason that they fail is seldom a lack of investment or even effort. They fail because they are too difficult to use.
There’s no reason it has to be this way. Although much in the digital world is complicated and mysterious, web usability is fairly straightforward with sound principles that are well established. Here are 5 simple rules that will help you.
Use the Simplest Tech that Can Get the Job Done
Mathematicians have a great rule which says that you should always use the simplest model that explains the data. The concept is just as important in developing web sites: You should use the simplest technology that will allow users to do what you want them to.
Technology moves fast, but people change slowly. Humans, by nature, form habits that we are loathe to change. If you are hearing about technology for the first time, you probably shouldn’t use it. New tech is often full of bugs and there is usually a shortage of people who know how to deploy it properly.
Yet it is not just new technology that gets us into trouble, even old standards can ruin a website. The best example of this is Flash animation, which is often used with no regard to function. When in doubt, leave Flash out.
The web was designed to be scalable, so it’s usually easy to upgrade later if the new tech becomes truly important. If the old stuff works, go ahead and use it.
Design for Function, Not to Impress
Probably the most common website mistake is to load the design up with too many bells and whistles. What may look really cool to your colleagues in the office is probably confusing for the average consumer and downright annoying after repeated visits.
Most of the pitfalls can be avoided using these simple guidelines:
Follow web conventions: Most websites have the same basic layout. For instance the logo on the upper left links back to the home page, the search box is in the upper right, etc.
Unless you have a very good reason not to, you should follow these conventions. Most users expect your web site to look and work that way and it frustrates them when things aren’t in their usual place.
Use flat colors: Many designers like to jazz up a web page by shading colors or making cool designs. While this might keep your web designer entertained, it takes attention away from the important elements that you want to direct users to.
Preview Content: Users will click on something that grabs their interest and they want to know more about. Previewing content, especially on the home page, lets people know what you have to offer.
Furthermore, make sure that when users click on something, they will get what they expect. Tricking users into going someplace they really don’t want to go will just encourage them not to return.
Avoid Animation and Sound: There are good reasons to use animation, like when you are demonstrating a product. However, usually it’s just distracting and annoying. Again, when in doubt, leave Flash out.
This goes double for sounds on your web site. There’s nothing worse than surfing around and all the sudden being jolted (or embarrassed, especially at the office) by what somebody thinks is a cool tune or sound effect.
Web Menus are for Navigation not for Branding
When you go to the airport, the first thing you do is try to find your destination. It might seem creative to have signs that say, “Home of the Cubs” or “The Big Apple” or “Terrible weather, worse food and a cup o’ tea,” but consumers appreciate signs that say, “Chicago,” “New York” or “London.”
It’s the same with web sites. People go to your web site to get useful information and depend on menus to find what they’re looking for. They really don’t care how creative or brilliant marketing people think they are.
As a prime example, click on this Hermes site. It looks like a modern art exhibit (which I’m sure is some idiot’s idea of creativity) and gives the user no idea what they are supposed to do there. What’s the point of pleasing marketers in order to piss off customers?
Some Links Are Useful, but Too Many are a Disaster
Links are make the web so great. Tim Berners-Lee originally concieved the web as an efficient way to organize information at CERN, a nuclear laboratory. Rather than set up a hierarchy to organize documents, he realized that hypertext links could do the job much better.
As the web evolved, links became used (and overused) for promotional purposes. For instance, Time.com inserts often irrelevant links in between paragraphs. Other sites have links up and down the left and right columns. Both practices are ill-conceived.
Every link requires the user to make a decision and, as Barry Schwartz pointed out in his highly acclaimed book The Paradox of Choice, too many choices paralyzes consumers and decreases their satisfaction.
You can find a good summary of the issues surrounding links here. However, for starters, try to limit column links to three blocks of five links and use links within texts only to provide information that’s truly valuable and do it in a way that increases readability.
Test, Retest and Test Some More
Probably the best thing that you can do to improve your web site is to conduct ongoing usability testing. It’s a fairly straightforward process and there are a lot of good usability experts out there who can help you.
If your budget is constrained, feel free to conduct the tests yourself. You can find a good online guide here or, even better, pick up a copy of Steve Krug’s book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy.
There are other excellent resources out there as well, but probably the best thing you can do to make your web site more effective is simply to make usability a priority.
Your users don’t need fancy graphics or exotic animation or to see how cleverly you can “brand” yourself. What they need is a web site that respects them enough to take their time and effort seriously.