Website Usability refers to how easy it is for your website's visitors to find the way around your website to buy your products or access your important information.
So as a first step, your website must be easy to navigate and be designed in a way that makes it easy for your visitors to find whatever they are looking for.
Usability is an important concept that you must take on board as your visitors will leave your site if it takes them more than one or two clicks to get the information they want or need.
So what are some of the key usability principles you should employ in designing a user friendly website?
A site search feature helps visitors quickly locate the information they want. Make the search box prominent and be sure that it searches all of your site - and only your site. We've seen far too many website's that include a "Search the Web" search box on their home page. The result of this folly? Visitors hardly get to your site before your web search function sends them to another site, perhaps a competitors!
The navigation system should be in the same place on every single page of your website. Visitors will get confused and frustrated if navigation links appear and disappear unpredictably. Consider using something like 'Server Side Includes' for your main navigation system to make certain the navigation bar always stays consistent throughout your website.
Always include a home page link inside your main navigation system.
Another accepted practice is to add a home page link to your site logo, which should also appear on every page. Most sites include their logo somewhere at the top of every page - generally in the top, left-hand corner. Visitors expect this logo to be a link to your site's home page. They'll often go there before looking for the home link in the main navigation system.
Don't make your visitors guess where a link is going to take them. Visitors should be able to anticipate a link's destination by reading the text in the link (or on the navigation bar).
If there's any question about a link's destination, clarify the issue with a TITLE attribute that explains exactly where the link goes.
Use CSS to emphasize text links. Some designers dislike underlined text links inside page content - even though visitors usually expect to be able to click on underlined text. If you decide to remove this important visual navigation clue, style your links with CSS to replace underlining with another, consistent visual technique like a background colour, different font, or a unique text colour that indicates a hyperlink.
Keep page layout consistent. Use a website template to enforce a uniform page structure. Visitors should be able to predict the location of important page elements after visiting just one page in your site.
You may attract visitors with an eye-catching design, but content is what keeps them at the site and encourages them to return. Content is also the best way to boost your site in the search engine rankings.
4 Always keep search engines in mind when you write content, but remember that your ultimate audience are all human visitors.
Place your most important content high on the page. Think of a newspaper: the top story is always prominently displayed above the fold. Check your page display at a number of different screen resolutions to make sure that your most important content is visible when the home page loads.
Make your page content easy to view. You'll spend hours - maybe days - writing your page content and it's really annoying to think that visitors may read less than half of it. Format your content so that it's easy to view. Emphasize important points (or product characteristics) with a combination of header tags, bold type, colour, lists and attractive images.
Create a good tag line and use it on every page. A good tag line clearly and concisely explains your "value proposition" or what makes your site stand out from competing sites. It should be memorable and reinforce your brand in one quick phrase.
Be careful with background images and colours because they can obscure the text content on the page. Make sure you have a good reason to deviate from the successful dark text on a light background model. Visitors can't buy your products if they can't clearly read the content.
Each image shown on your site should have a descriptive ALT attribute and TITLE attribute associated with it - particularly images that are also links to other pages. That way, your site visitors can quickly jump to the page they're interested in without having to wait for the entire page to load.
Keep colours and typefaces consistent. Visitors should never click on an internal link in your site and wonder if they've left your website. Choose your colours and fonts carefully and use them consistently throughout the site.
Add a text-based site map. Large or complex sites should always have a text-based site map in addition to text links. Every page should contain a text link to the site map. Lost visitors will use it to find their way, while the search engine spiders will have reliable access to all your sites pages.
Forms are critical to the success of ecommerce sites. Without forms, you can't have a shopping cart. But any site usually needs at least one form to allow for user feedback. A form helps you hide from email spiders and also helps you control how user feedback is formatted and sent.
Keep feedback forms short and clearly note which information is required to successfully submit the form. Take care to design accessible forms that all visitors can use.
Present complete contact information including your business phone number and postal address.
Visitors will probably prefer to contact you using email or a form, but they will generally feel more comfortable with a site that allows other contact methods as well, such as the telephone or a fax.
To see how to create an accessible contact page see our article - How To Create A Basic Contact Form.
Always get your designer to add a print style sheet so that all your pages are correctly formatted for printing. This would involve sticking with a good text style for printing and removing unnecessary images or styles (to see the effect of a print style sheet click Print Preview in your browser).
Create a useful custom error page that helps visitors if they should click on a broken internal link or type a URL incorrectly. The custom error page should reflect the site's overall colour, type and layout structure as much as possible and provide useful links to help visitors find what they're looking for. To see how to create this special page read our article - Create a custom 404 File Not Found Page.
Usability testing helps you replicate the experience of the average website user and correct problems before online visitors find them. It also gives you valuable answers to other questions:
Usability testing is the best way to test how well your site search, site map, forms, shopping carts and custom error pages function. They should all work together to guide a visitor through the site and help him get where he's going. Frustrated visitors aren't likely to return.
A site that conforms to user expectations makes visitors more comfortable and more inclined to visit again. They will also recommend the site to their friends.
Good usability is critical to your website's overall success.
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