The Importance of Website Usability

Have you ever visited a website that was so hip, so cool, so modern, that you couldn’t figure out how to navigate around in it? Or used a software program that crashed because of an “unknown error”?  These are symptoms of poor usability. It’s a common problem in the world of computers (and devices in general), but fortunately, it’s a problem that is easily identified and solved through usability testing.

What is Usability?

The usability of a device, program, or website is an assessment of how easy it is to use. Usually, something is considered usable if someone with no advance training can figure out how to use it without any kind of outside assistance. Obviously, this is subjective – something that is inherently obvious to one person might be completely inscrutable to another. Also, it’s not possible to make everything completely intuitive to everyone – some things do require instruction, either in advance or while using them.

From research, however, we know some basic principles that can be applied to any device or software to maximize its usability. For example:

  • Feedback: For every user action, there should be a system reaction, to let you know it’s doing something. Even if it’s just a spinning circle on the screen while the system is processing, you know that your action had some kind of effect.
  • Error prevention: The system should be designed to prevent you from making a mistake, such as entering a phone number or ZIP code with letters or the wrong number of digits.
  • Informative error messages: When user errors do occur, the system should explain what went wrong and how to fix it.
  • Logical order of operations: If the steps for a task must be completed in a certain order, the system should enforce that order. It should be obvious to the user what to do next.

How Do You Know It’s Usable?

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to merely follow the principles of good usability to ensure that your website is usable. The good news is that it’s fairly easy (and inexpensive) to evaluate its usability through testing.

A usability test can be as fancy or informal as you like. Professional usability testing labs feature multiple video cameras watching the user, plus the video capture of what is happening on the screen, observers behind one-way glass, and more. Your testing can be as simple as sitting someone down in front of a computer and asking him or her to perform a few tasks. You will be surprised how much you can learn from such a modest test.

Preparing Your Test

There are a few things you need to consider before you do any testing:

  • Know your user: Try to find someone who closely resembles your typical user. Generally, someone who knows only the basics of using a computer will provide more realistic feedback than a total computer nerd.
  • More is better…to a point: If you can test with more than one user, you will get more comprehensive results, but don’t go crazy. More testers means more time, and eventually you stop getting useful information.
  • Test with a prototype: Preferably, you should use a prototype site, not your production site, to test on. However, if your production site is in need of a design refresh, you might do some testing on the live site to see what people like and dislike.
  • Have specific test scenarios: You won’t learn anything by just telling the tester to “poke around and tell me what you think.” Put together a short list of specific tasks you want to test (four or five is good for informal testing), such as “find information about product X” or “set up a user account for yourself.”
  • Test on different platforms: Don’t just test on a desktop or laptop computer – make sure you test on mobile devices as well.
  • Reward your testers: Offer a modest incentive for participating, such as a coupon or a gift card.

Watch and Learn

Ideally, during the test you should observe only. Avoid the temptation to offer help or advice, unless the user is totally stuck and frustrated. Here are some things to look for:

  • Points where the user gets confused
  • Instances where the user goes down the wrong path
  • System bugs
  • Places where the system lets the user input bad information or make other mistakes
  • Cryptic or misleading error messages

After the test, ask your users some open-ended questions about their experiences with the test and how they think the site could be improved.

When you have compiled your results, share them with your web developer and designer. The tweaks they make as a result of your findings will improve your site immensely, and they’ll get you closer to your goal:  happy, profitable visitors.