Keeping your users happy
People won't use your Website if they can't easily find what they're looking for. In fact, they should be able to tell what a company does by merely viewing its homepage. If you want users to learn about your company and what it does, return to your site, buy products or services, and register, you must satisfy them. Web surfers have grown to expect instant information gratification, so you have to grab them fast and treat them right, or they'll leave and maybe not return.
There are many facets to Web usability, and this article will skim the points we've found to be the most overlooked and most valuable.
Why visitors leave
Luckily, using a Website isn't brain surgery. You're a Web user, too, so think about what frustrates you about other sites. You've probably left sites for some of the following reasons:
- The page takes forever to download
- You're asked to register the first time you visit
- The homepage is so busy that you have a hard time deciding what to click on
- The navigation is confusing and has ambiguous naming conventions
- The links and graphics aren't obviously clickable
- The graphics or text links are broken
- There's too much text
What you can do
First, realize that your visitor's modem speed is out of your control. What you can control is your end of the connection. Get the fastest available server and ask a performance expert to review your system architecture to optimize the response times. Here are some pointers that can help your site's download speed.
Images. Are they optimized efficiently? As a rule, you should size an image as small as possible without hurting the quality, and specify the width and height in pixels in your HTML. We try to not let the total image size exceed 80 KB per page.
Tables. If you have an intricate table structure such as a table nested within another table nested within yet another table, you're requiring longer downloads. A good rule of thumb is to separate as many tables as possible and to specify the width and height attributes for the table columns.
Stylesheets. Font-specific HTML isn't necessary on every page (unless you want to overwrite the stylesheet for a specific purpose).
Flash and audio files. If they don't add much to your site, leave them out.
Speedy URLs. Include the final slash when linking to a directory. It doesn't make a huge difference in download time, but it does avoid a redirect, which would slow down the server.
Don't ask visitors to register too soon
Most users don't want to fill out a form the first time they visit your site. They want to sniff around and see if you have anything of value to them and, if you do, they might give you their email address so you can send them information. The consumer needs to trust your site before committing to it.
Most Websites' content competes for prominence on the homepage, making it difficult to know where to enter the site. You must figure out the path you want your visitors to take and design around that. The hard part is making sure the visual hierarchy points your users to where you need them to go. A designer's assistance is essential here. The last thing you want is for people to get lost and leave the site.
The navigation is the backbone of a site. Here are a few tips.
- Have the logo link back to the homepage
- Have a search available on all pages
- Add alt text to all images
- Allow the sitemap link to be visible, above the fold, on every page
- Title all your pages, and make the titles short
- Order your information logically
- Add link titles
You need to ensure that your users can easily figure out how to get to their destination. One mistake many novice Web designers make is naming the homepage's and interior pages' navigation inconsistently. If a button on your homepage is called About Us, don't call it Company Information on the interior. Using consistent buttons may seem logical, but many clients can't see the problem presented by labeling navigation buttons differently.
That is where usability testing becomes extremely valuable. It provides undeniable, unbiased proof that inconsistencies frustrate users. (We'll explain the how-to's of usability testing in December's column.) We also encourage developers to make navigation order consistent from homepage to all interior pages. It's not a good idea to place the support button last on the homepage and first on some interior pages, and leave it off other pages.
Always find and fix quality issues such as missing graphics or broken links, and be sure to run a spell check on your documents. Keep in mind cross-browser issues: things happen in Netscape that don't happen in IE. You also have to be aware of the upgrade and address resolution differences.
Graphic elements shouldn't only exist for aesthetic purposes but also for functional and informational purposes. Plan to edit and revise several times before publishing.
Use stylesheets to ensure that errors and production time are significantly reduced. Font changes are made in a separate .css file, and the change propagates out to all files referring to that stylesheet.
At our company, copy written for brochures and print material later goes online. We usually ask the writer to repurpose the copy for the Web, or we hire a copywriter who specializes in transforming normal text into Web copy. Visitors will not sift through a big blob of gray text; at best, they will scan it. Getting writers to condense their text is a constant battle, but we believe copy needs to be concise and above the fold.
We learned everything we wanted to know about usability in the cereal aisle.
Real estate has value. Most children's cereals reside on the bottom shelf. That placement allows children to easily grab the Coco Puffs, Fruit Loops, and Lucky Charms. The manufacturers who are willing to pay the most for shelf space get the middle shelf that falls at most adults' eye level. The cheap cereals get their own spot at the end.
Accessories. Cereal bars, oatmeal, grits, and other general breakfast foods are located on the same aisle. The exception is milk, which is located in the refrigerated section of the store.
Grouping. Cereal is usually grouped by the manufacturer.
Consistency. Twenty-five different Kellogg's cereals may be located in any given aisle, but they maintain their brand identity. The logo is always the same and located in the same position on each box.
Consistency with variety. Wheaties cereal is not only a great example of how to maintain a look and feel but also how to change it enough to keep it interesting. The box often features different athletes, but the logo and the cereal bowl pictured remain the same.
Incentives. Adults and children are motivated to buy when there's a physical incentive (such as a prize or coupon inside the cereal).
Effective cross-communication. Have you ever heard the tag line "Kid tested, Mother approved"? It's for Kix brand cereal. The package aims at two different audiences. The fun graphics communicate to the child, and the practical nutritional information talks to the parent.
Keep it fresh
People like Websites to be fresh, but not too fresh. Once your visitors have learned where things are, they will disapprove if you change things around. You might consider changing small spaces on your site to keep it fresh. We recommend allotting a space for features on the homepage. Featured products, press releases, or job postings can change on a daily or weekly basis. If you cookie your visitors, you can serve them different features each time they return to your site.
Web usability can be broken down into four objectives and goals (adapted from Jeffrey Rubin's Handbook of Usability Testing):
Is it useful? A site is useful if its design allows users to achieve their goals, whether it's shopping for the first Harry Potter book or comparing two cars to see which one has the better features.
Is it effective? How quickly did you find the Harry Potter book? Did you run into any errors while trying to accomplish the car comparison? Did the site give you additional helpful information?
Is it learnable? Can a new user come to your site and, within a few minutes, learn the navigation? How much effort is needed to acquire competence on the site?
What's your gut reaction? Will users like it and perceive it to be helpful?
Hopefully, those tips will help you improve your Website. December's column will discuss both informal and formal usability testing and how it can make your site more usable.