Tune Up Your Web Site for Usability

It used to be build, build, build, now it's fix, fix, fix

Everyone's talking about usability these days. That's probably because unusable applications and Web sites abound. How many times have you abandoned a site because you couldn't find what you needed? While that's common behavior on the Web, it's exactly what you don't want your customers, suppliers and business partners to do.

For the past few years, Web development at most companies has been all about build, build, build, and fast. Very little thought and effort have gone into creating usable Web applications. If your company has been one of those in the build mode, I suggest it's now time to fix, fix, fix. Making your applications more usable need not be a costly task. In times of tight budgets, usability improvements can effectively and efficiently deliver to the business.

Usability is directly related to an organization's success—the bottom line. In particular, that means customer retention and acquisition. Simply put, customers return to usable sites. New customers quickly acquaint themselves with and become loyal to usable sites. All the usability chatter these days is actually a very good thing, because usability is critical to the success of an application, a project—and even a company.

Defining Usability
With so many terms in information technology, we might start by defining what usability really means. How does it relate to the also-popular phrase "user experience"? Where does the term "user interface" fit into the equation?

For the sake of this article, I'm going to define the terms as follows: "Usability" is a measurement of how intuitive and easy an application is to use. "Perfect" usability would mean that a first-time user would instantly grasp and understand how to use every function available to them. It's important to understand that usability is inversely proportional to the complexity of the application. If you offer 1,000 features in 18 languages, a simple design likely won't apply.

An example of perhaps the most usable site on the Web is Google.com. How much easier could it possibly be to use? Google has achieved solid usability through intense specialization—something the rest of us can learn from. It's a site with a single, focused purpose. Yahoo used to get high marks for usability, and it's still good, but there's a limit to what you can do with over 250 links in roughly 15 large sections.

Defining "user experience" is a bit squishier than usability. It combines usability with other elements that affect a user's, well, experience. Aesthetics and perceived response time are a few examples. An application can be crafted to follow every usability guideline in the book and still provide a poor user experience. Finally, the user interface (UI) is the front-end that users actually see. From graphic elements to form boxes and hyperlinks, the UI is the functional expression of the Web application that will hopefully offer both good usability and a good user experience.

Industrial Design Beginnings
Years ago, the concept of usability was the foundation of the then-new Industrial Design practice. For the first time, people devoted real energy to making everything from coffee makers to automobiles easier to use. Some aspects of Industrial Design revolved around aesthetics, on the principle that users would pay more attention to something that was attractive. Industrial designers also focused on people's expectations of how something should work and laid the groundwork for what we now call ergonomics.

Industrial Design is still alive and well, of course, as evidenced by great product design from the likes of Braun and Apple. But there's less differentiation today, as even low-end competitors go to some pains to offer decent design.

Just as it took years for usability to appear in hardware design, it's taken a while for people to appreciate its importance in software. That's perfectly understandable—it's only natural that people first want a toaster that works and only later want one that's easy to use and looks great.

Likewise on the Web: The 1990s were largely about making the applications work at all. In the headlong rush to get online, back-end systems and basic functionality overshadowed ease of use and the overall user experience. But those days are gone. Today's users expect a friendly and positive user experience, and rightfully so. That means that usability has come out of the engineering shop and staked its turf throughout the organization.

No longer can a project leader just deliver an application that works; it has to work and offer a good user experience. People throughout the organization are taking a second look at usability, user experience and "the UI thing." Any project leader who works on a Web site absolutely needs to understand usability and how to achieve it. They also will need to understand why it's important—that comes in handy in defending the necessary expenditures and in maintaining a unified vision of the purpose of the application or site.

Selling Usability to Management
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to communicate the importance of usability to upper management. Especially in these times of leaner budgets and leaner staffs, management is often stuck in the "an app's an app" mentality. "We didn't spend 10 percent of our budget on usability back in the '80s," they might say. "Oh, and we need to trim the budget by 10 percent."

One very common mistake is to confuse usability with visual design. The goal is not to make a "pretty" application—that is, unless the pretty application makes users more efficient while reducing support costs.

And therein lies the secret to selling usability within your organization: A usable application costs less and generates more. What it generates depends on your organization and the purpose of your Web site: It may generate sales, pageviews, ad impressions or media coverage. No matter what an application's purpose is, good usability will make it achieve its goal more efficiently.

After you've sold the bean counters on usability and the expense that goes along with it, they'll probably want some kind of ROI (retun on investment) information to justify the expense. Well, that's not easy.

About the Author

Laura Wonnacott is VP of Business and Technology Development for Aguirre International, and a California State University system instructor.