June 2007 - Online Strategies

Usability: Your Site’s Foundation

By Aaron Kahlow

Most websites are severely under-serving their customers online. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Fortune 500 consumer goods company who’s commissioned a leading interactive agency to creatively design the website, or an old-school manufacturer who had their “IT Guy” develop the site. Often, both design- and development-centered efforts fall way short of the best practices of website usability. Why? Philosophically, they start from a misguided perspective.

Let’s take the creatively designed website that a consumer goods company commissioned an interactive agency to “design.” Eight times out of 10, the interactive agency comes from a traditional agency background including the push mediums of print, TV and radio. They rely on advertising that’s provocative, creative and demands attention. Additionally, much of the focus is around the design, with graphic designers driving the final direction and decisions for a particular project.

So, here’s the disconnect. Unlike with print, the creative design of a website is one of the smallest components in the success of that site. Why? The web is a pull medium with the user in complete control. In a print ad, for example, you must try very hard to get the attention of a consumer flipping pages. On your site, you already have their full attention. Consequently, you need to give them exactly what they want before they hit that back button and search for a competitor.

Equally troubling is the company with technically challenged upper management that defers to the “tech guys” to build the website. This is equivalent to letting your electricians draft the blueprint for your new house. The developers have their place in building/coding the site and integrating various technologies, but they should not be the ones to drive the site. The site is about getting customers the information they want, not about how technologically sound the site’s backend might be.

We need to start building our websites with our customers as the strategic foundation. So don’t ask a graphic designer or a tech guy to do something they aren’t trained to do-to think about the best interests of your customers.

If your website is going to be successful, you must serve the audience and serve it well. If you give the user what they want, how the want it and when they want it, then-and only then-will you be able to truly maximize brand equity, conversions and ROI.

Website usability is the cognitive science of studying why people do what they do on the web-and the discipline of building a site around these principles. In the course of business we see the same usability mistakes made again and again. The accompanying chart lists the top 10. Use the top 10 to assess your site and to start the usability conversation in your organization to get your stakeholders focusing on the user first.

Those that put the customer first will win in the competitive website landscape. Good luck!

Aaron Kahlow is managing partner of BusinessOnLine, a complete website optimization company offering search engine marketing, website usability, social media and web development services. He can be reached via email at [email protected].

Top 10 Website Usability Mistakes
Usability Principle Area of Site Effect on User Details
1) Home page does not serve as navigation page. Home page Difficult to find desired content. Home page is meant to serve as a navigation page to facilitate the user in finding what they are looking for. Too much text, heavy imagery and other general information that does not help the user find intended information will severely hurt the experience.
2) Home page cognitive overload. Home page Difficult for user to focus in on main areas of page. Too many images or too many links. Most users can absorb 5 - 7 different groupings of content (links). More than that and they will scan and not read each link; additionally, the images can visually overload the user and cause focus on wrong areas of site.
3) User-centric nomenclature. Main navigation Navigation links do not resonate with user, so they will not easily find what they are looking for. Naming of content groups and main navigation elements are more focused around what your company calls and classifies items. The user does not care how you are broken into various divisions or is not accustomed to the unique product categories nomenclature.
4) Failure to use action-oriented links. Site-wide May not get past the home page or entry page because nothing tells them what can be done on the site. Links that are static like “products” do not compel users to click nor do they tell them what they will get once they click, so less propensity to view that next page.
5) No clear organization of content groups. Home page User confusion and negative brand experience. Without proper layout and spacing on your site, the user is going to have a very hard time focusing in on the content area. Additionally, proper use of white space will improve once organized.
6) Improper allocation of ads and enticements. Site-wide Back button is most likely next move. Most users will expect any “new products” advertisements or general promotions to be on the right side. If they are misplaced, your site could be perceived as impeding the user’s need for content and in turn devalue your brand.
7) The mental model. Site-wide If user returns, hard to find same information again. To find the content one is looking for, a site needs to accommodate a user’s expectation of organization for that site. This makes it easy for a user to recall on another day. Breadcrumb navigation is an example of helping in this regard.
Pull vs. Push. Home page User will click off site. Large taglines and over-dominance of a single image are built for push marketing found in traditional advertisements like mailers or print ads. When a user is on your site, you already have their attention, so no need for flashy dominant imagery like one would see in an ad.
9) What can I do on the site? Home page Users will not think your site can satisfy their needs or goals. Site needs to be clear about whether you can buy, download, contact a rep, request info or any other element that will help the user understand that the site has the tools to meet their needs.
10) No internal search. Site-wide Bad results or no results. Will end up having huge user abandonment. Not having a good search feature will cost you. Over 67% of users use search as their primary form of navigation. If you do not give them good results, you might as well not have a search feature.


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