We've all found ourselves on a Web site that's the online equivalent to a desert island. Either the confusing site navigation makes us feel shipwrecked, or the constant assault of pop–up windows and flashing images make us feel as though we're getting pelted by rain. Though Web sites that are difficult to use may have any number of underlying design or content flaws, the outcome is always the same: poor site usability.
Usability is not something you attach at the end the development line, like another coat of paint or a racing stripe. Usability is something you design into your site. It should be a documented, measurable requirement, just like efforts to ensure that your site is compatible with different browsers. Since each Web site is different, however, and since Web site owners have divergent ideas of what they want their site to achieve (a place to make online sales, to make offline contacts, to find prospects, or to distribute information to a group of experts or fellow hobbyists), the particular attributes that make sites usable vary.
Nevertheless, all good Web sites have certain things in common. By incorporating the following tips and conducting basic testing, you'll make dramatic improvements in your site's usability. It's worth the time and, if necessary, the investment. For every dollar spent on usability, after all, a business stands to realize a benefit of between $10 and $100.1
Every Web site that delivers a clear, pleasant user experience has the following characteristics.
For every dollar spent on usability, after all, a business stands to realize a benefit of between $10 and $100.1
Once you've gotten the above elements in place, you're ready to initiate usability testing. Before beginning, it's important to remember that there are three elements against which usability is gauged.
To test your site's usability, use the above three benchmarks as your guides. Then follow these three steps to develop a usability test:
Step 1: Identify the type of people you expect to be your primary users. To accurately test your site, you need to identify who your customers are and gather a small, representative group to test your Web site. Is your customer group familiar with computers and the Internet? Will your customers be familiar with the products or services available on your site, or will they be novices? Are they likely to fall into a particular age group, have a specific level of education, work in a specific job or industry?
Admittedly, locating ideal test subjects may not be easy. You might have to entice them with free food, money, gift certificates, or t–shirts.
Step 2: Identify the primary tasks users will be performing on your site. These tasks will be at the heart of what your Web site is about. The key tasks users perform on a typical e–commerce Web site are:
Usability testing is not rocket science, but it does require preparation and planning. Be sure to take advantage of the following resources to help you plan and conduct initial and ongoing usability testing:
The Usability Professionals Association. The resources section of this site contains links to usability testing methods, user interface design style guides, Web interface design style guides, and much more.
The Society for Technical Communication, Usability Specicial Interest Group. This site contains bibliographies, Web references, downloadable files, and other usability–related materials.
Usableweb.com. Contains links to a wide range of usability resources, as well as a Top Ten of usability books.
Amazon.com. Enter 'usability' in the Amazon.com search engine and you'll discover over 50 publications on the topic, many of which contain the latest self–help and do–it–yourself methods.
Consultants: There is an increasing number of usability consultants promoting their services, and, like all consultants, some are better than others. I suggest you contact the Usability Professionals Association for a listing of UPA consultants in your area.
About the author: Tom McCann is an Interactive Usability Manager for Staples.com.
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