What is Usability and Why Does it Matter?

When I start working with a client in designing a website for them, my job goes beyond just designing a website. A large part of my job as a web designer is also educator.  I educate my clients on usability.  I reign 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 on just how user-friendly a website is for a first time visitor. This doesn’t just apply to websites. The term “usability” can also apply to software, apps, and other designed items. Anything someone might have to interact with needs to be user-friendly.

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.  You don’t want visitors leaving in frustration. Website owners don’t want visitors 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 bit when discussing taxonomy issues: creating categories and tags. The whole point of categories and tags is not for you to be clever with words. Your taxonomy should guide your visitors to the content they are looking for without having to think too hard about it.

Studies have shown visitors are quick to leave websites they find difficult to read.  Visitors may leave before they find what they came for.  Usability makes it easier for them to find information quickly.

Don’t Try to be too Clever

Something Impractical Cannot be Beautiful. Otto Wagner

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. To see any content at all, you had to first wave your cursor over the logo.

(facepalm)

What was I thinking?!?

I’ve moved towards usability and user-friendly design since then. I’ve also moved further away from “ars gratis artis” (art for art’s sake). In doing so, I realize just how fool-hearty such a design was.

I was so proud of myself, you guys. SO PROUD.  I emailed all 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 what to do next, he’d leave. Period.

For better or for worse, this is how internet users think. Many have no patience for “clever” when using the internet if the design isn’t also clear.

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

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

Opening her 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 image. She hadn’t run any updates on her computer in ten years. Her ancient web browser couldn’t read CSS (the language of styling websites since the mid-2000’s). None of the “design” parts of my website were displaying.

My site, on her old computer, looked different compared to my newer computer with a large screen. Lesson learned.

Since that time, I’ve tried to consider what my site might look like on an old computer. I design options 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. But, there are easier methods for the solopreneur.

Quite simply, make use of your least techy friend. You should 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, usability is high.

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