Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Usability

December 2007

By Mike Gould

I'm a web developer and part of my job entails trying to stay up to date on all the baggage that the web hauls around with it: what works in which browsers, how big a monitor to program for, and all the rest of the schemes, memes, and reams of data that impinge on our browsing experience.

So I read a lot of books about the web, graphics, and how people find what they are looking for at the other end of the wire. Lately, I have been working on a site geared to over-fifty boomers who like active recreation: skiing, camping, snowboarding, etc. (URL below). Since this is a site geared for older people, I've been studying usability issues. The following is a brief condensation of things to consider when thinking about your own company's web site.

Finding and Being Found
Website usability is a broad umbrella that encompasses how easy your site is for people to find things in, read, and understand. It covers the over-all look and feel of your site: navigation, legibility, web standards, and how the site meets the needs of its intended users. A big issue is making your site friendly to those with disabilities, and given the enormous numbers of older surfers out there with vision problems, this is a biggie.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is also a big part of this; if people can't find you in Google, you won't be very usable to them. If you think making things easier for those who are visually impaired doesn't apply to your site, remember that Google's search-and-index program (a spider called "Googlebot") can't see pictures and videos, and is thus the most important blind surfer out there. If you haven't tweaked your site for SEO, do so ASAP.

Making a site more friendly to the vision-impaired user is not very difficult. Older users=bigger text. The trick is to make your text size adjustable, so users can set their browsers to enlarge things. The problem is that Internet Explorer doesn't support this very well (or anything else for that matter, but that's another topic), so other means are necessary. Brief tech note to webmasters out there: specify your text in relative terms, not pixels. Instructions for doing this are all over the net, especially at A List Apart (URL below). It is also possible to put buttons on your site enabling users to enlarge or shrink font sizes themselves. This is something I am working on now for the recreation site.

How To Be Useful
Jakob Nielsen is regarded as the guru of usability. I've been reading about him for years, and finally decided it was time to read some of his books (listed below). He is somewhat unique in that his findings are based on extensive user testing of sites. He brings in test subjects, and has them do common web tasks while he uses an invisible laser system to see where there eyes are resting on the pages being tested. Thus he can track what users look at and more importantly, what they ignore when they visit a site.

Among the things Nielsen advises:

Most importantly, remember that visitors spend most of their time on other company's sites. That means they have a very good idea of what a site is supposed to look like and how it should work. A logo in the upper left corner (clickable as a home button on inner pages), clearly laid out navigation, links that go where they say they are going - these are all things users expect and you violate these norms at your peril. If you have a site devoted to the arts, you can be avant-garde and unique. If you have a business site, you need to be very careful how you challenge users' expectations.

Avoid anything on your site that looks like an ad, if it is not an ad. Users are by now completely adept at filtering out online advertising, and if you have a feature on your site in big letters surrounded by a box, it looks like an ad and users will ignore it. If your site has ads, try putting them in their own space, such as in a right-hand column.

Pop-ups are now universally loathed and have a negative over-all impact on users. This should be a no-brainer: if companies can make a living selling pop-up blockers, you shouldn't have pop-ups on your site.

You have a very limited time to impress a first-time visitor to your site. You need a punchy paragraph at the top of your home page ("above the fold") that tells the user what your site contains: what you are selling, promoting, or providing information about. And be aware that very few users will bother to scroll down beyond the first page of information, especially on a home page. If you have important information below the fold, it has a good chance of being ignored.

About half the users on the web have broadband. That means that half of your potential customers are using modems and the download speed of your homepage is still an issue. There are a lot of well-off people living in the countryside who have less than speedy Internet access.

Writing for the web is not like writing for print. You need to be adept at stating your message in as few well-picked words as possible. Start with the most important idea of your page, then expand upon it so that people who only scan web pages (i.e., most people) will get your main point in the first sentence.

Above all, test your site with as many people using as many different computers and browsers as possible. Things you take for granted may not be known to your users.

Recommended Reading:
Designing Web Usability - Jakob Nielsen
Prioritizing Web Usability - Jakob Nielsen
Homepage Usability - Jakob Nielsen
Don't Make Me Think - Steve Krug
Search engine Visibility - Shari Thurow

Boomer recreation site: http://www.fiftysense.net

Advice for web designers: http://www.alistapart.com/

About Googlebot: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Googlebot/

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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