Site Usability
The job is not only to build it
But to make it functional

Site Usability, what does this word really mean in terms of how you build your website ?
Web site usability = The ease with which visitors are able to use a Web site. End of facts. So, our job as the designer is to make it as foolproof as possible, as a frustrated user most often becomes, and EX user.

The guide lines are many, but simple enough if you give the matter some thought. By the numbers

1. Give them a clear starting point

By this I mean, make the most common task on the site, the very first thing they see, for example: The site is about, CD's, and you know from marketing, that the most common information they want to know is, how to find the CD they want ... ergo the first task, your starting point, would be a in plain sight, on site search engine, so they can accomplish this task quickly.

2. Answer the three big questions

Where am I now?
Where have I been already?
Where else can I go?

This is where navigation comes in. The site navigation, should be simple, clear and concise. Do not use fancy names, odd fonts, or jargon for your links, as these might be perfectly understandable ... to you ... but be sheer gibberish to your viewer.

Give them guides, by that I mean, make sure the text links change colors, from link to visited link, to guide the user if they have already visited a page. Make it clear where the link is going, if it's an off site link, say so up front.

Use simple to understand text for your in-house links, make it easy to find what they are looking for. Don't hide sections, put up group links that lead to other menu pages if you have to, but give the viewer a general baseline on that main navigation, of just about anything they can do on the site and let them be able to get to any main page, within two to three clicks, tops. If a page is buried 5 clicks in, you can just about bet it's not going to be viewed much.

The main navigation links must be consistent, meaning they can find them in the same places, no matter where on the site they go. Put in a text based site map, in case they get lost, and always, always, put a Home link on every page.

3. Use examples:

This means, if you sell CD's as the top example states, show a few on the front page, not just words, as it's said in the industry, " reveal your goods, not just explain them". Studies indicate that a sampling of goods on the home page is your best form of advertisement. It also reassures the user that they have indeed arrived at a site that can provide them the goods they are after. This can be images of your product, or short text messages that start an article, that have a "see more" link for the rest of the article, for example.

4: Give them tools:

As the first example shows, the main tool for a CD seller would be, an on site search engine, so the user can sort out what you have in stock, by their own personal agenda, meaning it answers the big question of " do they have what I am looking for ?" This is top priority to the buyer, as most people have a given thing in mind when they start off on a web hunt, and that's what they want at this moment.

Make it easy for them to find out if you have it or not, and you will have a much happier customer, even if you don't happen to carry what they are after right now. They "learn" via this tool, that they can come back anytime they want to and search your inventory.

5. Don't look like an ad layout:

Warning to the wise, do not put the tools in question, in areas that are typically used for adverts, which are normally to the left or bottom of the page. The reason for this is simple, viewer blindness.   Ads have been so over used, that if you put your relevant information or tools in such areas, and if it even remotely looks like an advertisement, it will be totally and completely ignored by the user. Your search or navigation does them no good .. if they cannot find it.

6. KISS for the content:

Keep it simple simion. While it's a temptation to use hype and jargon, as is typical in most other forms of advertising, resist the temptation to use it. Your content needs to answer questions, and sales hype does not do that task well. Example: Sticking with our CD example, if you put up a notice like: " Newest CD's Looking for music ? You've come to the right place!"

Now, this seems reasonable doesn't it ? And, your right, it is, IF it's combined with examples of the CD offerings, however, in this case, as is all too often the case, it was not combined, this was the main text on the front page, along with a lot of other marketeze words, and worse, you had to click away from the page with all this useless verbiage, in order to find out what was being offered. The number of sites I have been on that I have to jump through hoops like this, to even find the inventory, is unbelievable.

This kind of "splash page" or advert lead in, is a waste of the viewers time, and provides no guide lines or inventory listings for them. Your content in this case is the CD's, so, on that all important front page, and any page, what you offer should be spelled out, in enough detail for the buyer to know what you do have. Sales hype, lets be honest, does little but irritate most people, so do NOT give in to the temptation of hyperbole.

Remember, they found your site, if you have done your keywords right, while they were looking for the kinds of things you offer, they don't need to be sold on it nor do you have to get their attention ... you already have their attention, if they have arrived on your site. What they want now is to get to the goods, with as little interference as possible.

Further, such sales pitch words are nearly useless when it comes to the all important keywords for the search engines, as no one is going to put in such words on your average engine to find your site, so wasting space, and your viewers time on them, becomes pointless. Use your real keywords, the words that your normal user will plug into an engine to find what you have, but, keep the human visitor in mind as you do so. You are selling to a person, not the search engines, so don't make the page a pete and repeat of your keywords to the point were it's not read friendly to a human being.

7. Keep colors and typefaces consistent.

Now, the reason for this, is you don't want the party to think, when they hit a link, that they are no longer on your site. You can play with colors and backgrounds and even fonts a bit, section by section, provided, the mainline layout itself, is consistent and your navigation goes right along with them as they surf your site, so you keep a visual consistency with the main components of your navigation style. For personal sites there is a lot more lee way with this, but even there, the navigation has to be consistently placed.

8. Get feedback:

Give your viewer a clear and simple way to advise you of problems, as there will be some, no matter how hard you work on the layout. Your viewers are your best and foremost "in real life", usability testers. As they, not YOU, are the end user, they are the ones who have to be able to "use" the site, so their feedback is priceless.

A simple form or email link with a notice of " problems ? please tell us". It comes back to a very old ad line that said. " if you are satisfied with our service, tell others, if you are not ... tell us ".

Note: Just as a word to the wise, by and large, asking for a phone # or address on the feedback form, unless there is very good reason for it, is the kiss of death to even getting feedback from your viewer. Your feedback form is not the place to get demographics on your customers or build your contact list.

Most people, who will take the time to tell you about something, do not want to feel they are going to wind up on a calling list, or suddenly start getting more junk in their land mail box,  just for taking a moment to do YOU a favor.  Respond via email and respond ONLY to their concerns, do NOT put them on a general mailing list for your newsletter for example, unless they request it.

9. Error recovery:

No matter how good the layout, there are bound to be errors on the part of the user. They will find themselves in a section they did not want or need. Make it easy for them to recover from that, the simplest way is to be certain there is a Home link on every page, so if all else fails, they can go back to the beginning.

Note: Custom error pages
As noted, errors happen, you move pages, you add and delete pages and you may not always catch every single link that led to those pages, so you can get the dreaded "page not found" error message. Customize this page, most hosts will permit you do to that, to where if, for any reason your viewer has attempted a link that no longer has a page attached, the error page will give them a means to return to your site. It's also a good idea to put a notice on that page, with an email link to please advise you of the error.

More soon

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