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Why Web Usability Matters

You know the scene. You or your boss thought it’d be great idea to build a new web site and it’s the first planning meeting. Across the table someone shouts: ‘No! It’s gotta feel sharp!’

‘Feel sharp!? Like a knife?’

‘No, like Motorola!’

….Ahh – sharp like Motorola. Of course. (Mutters ‘What the !!!***##@!! ????????’)

When it comes to web site design, much of our intent and language falls halfway between the creative and the prosaic. In your early discussions about how your new site should look you may have a technical guy in the room, a boss, a writer and a designer….but no common language with which to communicate other than half-baked hunches about what’s hot and what’s not. It’s a common problem.

To ‘feel sharp like Motorola’ might mean to have a sparse, corporate, but strikingly modern design packed full of crisp simple content nuggets for users. Or, it might mean to have a subtle use of the corporate logo, with more time and space given over to campaign led microsites (like ‘Hello Moto’). Or it might mean both. The first thought is a design thought. The latter is a functionality and branding thought.

Back to your meeting….

If you don’t nail design your vision in the five minutes before lunch, your site will fail. Without absolute clarity you are doomed to create a soupy mess of compromise between design and function. What started out as a language issue – Motorola, lost in translation – will very soon end up as a big fat usability issue.

Here’s the facts:

  • Once it’s built, your web site needs to perform like an olympic athlete to grab your users’ attention. You will be competing against Manchester United and Scarlett Johannsen for their attention, not the competition next door.
  • It’s likely that at least 50% of users will arrive via your back door rather than your home page as a result of search activity. (Google has a lot to answer for!)
  • When they arrive, the vast majority of users won’t know you, trust you, or care for you. Their only assumption is that there’s a slim chance that you’re relevant to their needs… because Google told them so – but you’re just one click away from the ‘other’ 1,678,963 sites related to their search term.
  • Contrary to popular wisdom, they won’t scan your page in any logical sequence (folks like to assume that they eye zig-zags down a page). Nope, the pupil does a crazy dance in a nanosecond and your first impression will be made.
  • In addition, they’ll see your site like Mr Magoo. No sweeping panoramic views here (after all, they’re late for a meeting and their phone’s ringing). Just a squint. Then the mind’s made up.
  • If they stick around then they’ll probably just wade in and muddle on through. No clean click paths, just a muddle. Whatever works to get them from A to B – usually via Z, F and M (in that order). If they make a purchase or sign up for stuff at the end of this process then it’s all credit to them, not you.
  • Further, they may be drunk. Their mouse may have two years of fluff preventing them from scrolling right. They may be on a GPRS connection and they may be on a train where the line drops every two minutes as they pass under a bridge. Or they may even have disabilities which means they’ll be using a range of assistive technologies to view your site – screen readers, text-only browsers, that kind of thing.

The point is that, setting aside your functional and design ambitions, you absolutely do not have a common user to create a beautiful web site for. Instead, you have a schizoid, multi-limbed, technologically-challenged mythical creature who’s only consistent attribute is that’s she’s in a darn big hurry.

…So, talk of building a ‘sharp’ site like Motorola isn’t really going to help at the planning stage.

What you need is a sound grasp of web usability principles.

More on this later….we’re putting a paper together on the subject, because good usability is critical to the success of any public web site.

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