“Usability” As an Indicator of Website Success

Image from amazon.com
Image from amazon.com

Steve Krug discusses an interesting profession in his book Don’t Make Me Think: “usability consultant.”

A fairly rare career path, usability consultants are hired by web developers to proof a website for its presentation, accessibility, utility, and overall experience. The consultants then devise ways to improve the website for the goals of users. Krug explains that since everyone is a user, anyone can point out the issues with the layout of a website. But sometimes, people can forget about the goals of the user when they think through the side of a web developer.

Krug’s most important rules are the following:

1.  “Don’t make me think!” This means that buttons should be easily recognizable and headings are in logical places.

This placement is particularly important for apps, which are used most of the time on a small smartphone screen. One of my most-used apps is for my bank, USAA.

The USAA smartphone app
The USAA smartphone app

All of the screens for this app are very self-explanatory, complete with icons next to each action. Even if this app were not in English, I could still probably understand and successfully do everything that I need to do.

2.  Plan for scanning rather than reading. Use plenty of headings, keep paragraphs short, incorporate bulleted lists, and highlight key terms.

These tips are particularly important for blog writing, which strives to reach as many interested readers as possible. One of the blogs that I follow, Dynamic Ecology, is particularly good at arranging text with scanning in mind.

3.  Omit words. Krug says that websites are more effective when they get rid of “happy talk,” or promotional writing, and keep instructions short.

Sites where a specific task needs to be carried out by the user, such as doing taxes, must especially abide by these rules. Turbo Tax ensures that instructions are clearly presented, as seen below.

Instructions on the Turbo Tax website
Instructions on the Turbo Tax website

4.  If a preexisting convention is logical and effective, then don’t try to come up with a new convention unless it will work better.

A common trend that I have seen on a lot of brand sites is slide pictures that stretch across the width of the screen. While this design was probably at one point new, web developers found it effective for highlight products to the user. Most websites I visit incorporate this feature somehow, such as for the Nike website below.

Slide picture on Nike.com
Slide picture on Nike.com

5.  Be aware of visual hierarchies. Order or emphasize things by prominence, group what is related logically, and “nest” to show categories. Also, be aware of organization – avoid clutter, too many bright colors, a variety of font sizes, pop-ups, and anything else that would overwhelm the user.

What is overwhelming to one user may not be another, but my pet peeve is too many pictures. I appreciate the design of the website more when pictures are balanced with text. In a screenshot of the New York Times home page below, articles are organized by importance and picture size adjusts accordingly. Relevant text also wraps around block. The Today Show website, on the other hand, is nothing but pictures of article content – and the pictures selected do not flow well together despite their identical sizes.

Today Show home page - all pictures of articles
Today Show home page
The New York Times home page - pictures organized by article importance
The New York Times home page
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