What is Usability and Why Does it Matter?

When I start working with a client in designing a website for them, I feel that a large part of my job is educating them on usability, as well as reigning in some of their ideas to keep the site as user-friendly as possible.

What is usability? you might ask.

The bare bones answer would be a description as to just how user-friendly a website is for a first time visitor. This doesn’t just apply to websites, however. The term “usability” can also apply to software, apps, and other designed items anyone might have to interact with.

What is usability and why does it matter?

Think of Your Visitors in Design

The reason why usability should matter to you is usability matters to your visitors. You want visitors to stay on your site and interact with it, instead of leaving in frustration and going somewhere else for what they are looking for. Usability means designing and writing your website with your visitors in mind.

I addressed this a little bitCategories and Tags: What are They and How Do I Use Them? when discussing taxonomy issues: creating categories and tags. The whole point of categories and tags is not for you to be clever with words, but for you to guide your visitors to the content they are looking for without having to think too hard about it.

Studies have shown over the years that Website visitors will leave a site without getting what they came for if they feel they won’t find it easily after only a minute or so on the site. Yikes.

Don’t Try to be too Clever

When I created my first design website way back when (using Macromedia Flash no less), I was super proud of myself. My design degree was from the Reagan era, so web design wasn’t covered. I took it upon myself to continue my education and broaden my horizons. I liked Flash because it was creative. Like me.

My first site involved complex user-activated animation programmed with ActionScript. In order to see any content at all, you had to first wave your cursor over the logo.


What was I thinking?!?

Now that I’ve moved towards learning more about usability and user-friendly design and further away from “ars gratis artis” (art for art’s sake), I realize just how fool-hearty such a design is.

I was so proud of myself, you guys. SO PROUD.  I emailed all of my friends (we didn’t have Facebook in 2005 just yet). Most of the said, “I don’t get it. I see a line and a logo.” “Hey, I think something’s wrong. There aren’t any words.” “Kim, are you going to actually write stuff on this site or is it just a logo?”

Me, with my art degree and all, was super frustrated that people couldn’t figure it out.

I personally loved sites like this. I loved hovering my mouse over things and watching other things appear. To me, with the way my brain works, I loved websites that were like a puzzle I needed to unlock. Why were people too lazy or dumb to figure it out? I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I was the problem, not my visitors.

It was my dear husband who explained it to me. He said that if he came to a site and he didn’t know clearly what to do next, he’d leave. Period.

For better or for worse, the bulk of the people has no patience for clever using the internet if the design isn’t also clear.

Not All Visitors Update Their Browsers (I know, I couldn’t believe it either)

Later editions of my website were made with my user in mind, or so I thought. A local website visitor told me upon meeting me that she enjoyed my articles on my motherhood website, but that she was frustrated with “that big picture that is at the top”. I had no idea what she meant.

Opening her very old computer for me, she showed me what she meant. Her computer rendered my website entirely unreadable. I can’t believe she persisted in reading articles on there! The “big picture at the top” was actually the background. She hadn’t run any updates on her computer in ten years, so it couldn’t read CSS (the language of styling websites since the mid-2000’s).

My site, on her old computer, looked way different from how it looked on my super fast, new, frequently updated computer with a large screen. Lesson learned.

Since that time, I’ve made sure that there are options designed for my websites for anyone who hasn’t updated Internet Explorer in 20 years.

Usability Testing Made Easy

There are whole companies out there that specialize in usability testing. This is great if you have the budget for it, and you want to pursue it. However, there are easier methods for the solopreneur.

Quite simply, ask your least techy friend to look at your website, and hover over them, WITHOUT TELLING THEM WHAT TO DO, and watch them interact with your site. Then, ask for honest feedback.

Bonus points if you can get your mom or grandma to do it. If grandma can navigate your website without getting lost, then it’s been designed with usability in mind.


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