Web Site Usability

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WEB SITE USABILITY

Because online customers place a premium on speed and convenience, Web site usability is an absolute must for the e-commerce entrepreneur. No matter how well thought-out your Web design, no matter how savvy your marketing scheme, no matter how sophisticated your technologies, and no matter how useful your products and services, if your customers find your Web site cumbersome, slow, or too advanced for their equipment, you won't manage to grow a successful e-commerce enterprise. Customers in the fast-paced, high-expectation Internet economy are notoriously fickle, and won't show much loyalty to a company that doesn't take care to implement a usable Web site.

A brief usability checklist would ask the following questions:

  • Is the site user-friendly, with a logical order and page layout that allows for easy navigation?
  • Do all the links work as expected? Do all the pages on the Web site load quickly and without errors?
  • Is the customer able to find everything she is looking for?
  • Are the advanced tools, including shopping carts and registration and order forms, functioning smoothly?
  • In general, then, does the site do what you intend?And can your customers figure it out instantly? You must approach usability from the standpoints of page design, site design, and content design, and ensure that each of these most fully exemplifies and complements what you are trying to communicate and the Web experience you want to provide.

Studies find that Web users will wait an average of eight seconds for a Web page to load before giving up and heading for another site. In addition, customers tend to remember which sites they found problematic and unusable, and can be unforgiving; those companies lacking usable Web sites thus run the risk of losing interested online customers forever. Forrester Research found that 27 percent of all Web transactions were abandoned before the purchase was completed, usually because of cumbersome ordering processes or technical problems. BizRate.com, meanwhile, reported that 75 percent of the respondents to their survey abandoned their online shopping carts before completing a purchase.

MAKING YOUR SITE USABLE

Knowledge of your customer base and their technical capabilities is the first requirement in designing a usable Web site. It's crucial to keep in mind that your customers' capabilities, not those of your firm, should drive your design. It does no good to implement sophisticated design if your customers can't use it easily. Therefore, your site design must be implemented with the lowest-end users in mind; it must take into consideration customers who have the oldest browsers, slowest Internet connections, and so on. So, for instance, while designers may wish to showcase complex interactive graphics, low-end users with limited connectivity speeds may find that such graphics take an impossibly long time to load, and abandon the site altogether. You must therefore consider a cost-benefit analysis, and decide whether the more sophisticated design is worth the potential business lost.

One of the simplest steps your firm can take to improve the usability of your site is to provide a forum on your site for users to supply their feedback about their experience on your site, and then use those suggestions to further tailor the site to your customers' needs. This carries the dual benefit of streamlining your site's overall usability while also potentially improving your relations with your customers by seeking out their input and incorporating customer suggestions into your firm's operations.

Usability also encompasses how the information on your site is organized, and how easy it is for the user to navigate through your site and find what he or she is looking for. The information architecture of your site, then, is a key component of your site's usability. When a user visits your site, for example, you should make it possible for them to find exactly what they're looking for in as few clicks as possible, preferably without ever having to backtrack in their browsing. Your home page should be easily digestible, and the steps the user needs to take towards his or her final destination should be immediately obvious.

Before you take your site live, it's advisable to do usability testing. Your designers should test your company's site on both Macintosh computers and PCs, as well as successive generations of the major Web browsers, as slight variations in configurations and readings between the systems and software can cause pages to look and function differently, and you must be sure that on each computer your message appears as you intend.

In the testing stage, it is best to view the site as objectively as possible. More accurately, it should be viewed from the perspective of a customer, possibly meaning bringing in a focus group of outside users to wade through the site, monitoring their progress and digesting their feedback. This group of test users should be a cross-section of your customer base, and individual profiles of those users and their progress in the testing phase should be carefully documented so that, in the final design phase before taking the site live, you are able to accommodate as many potential customers and users as possible.

FURTHER READING

Fichter, Darlene. "Designing Usable Sites: A State of Mind." Online, January 2001.

Nielsen, Jakob. Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity. Indianapolis: New Riders, 2000.

Raskin, Jef. "The Humane Touch: Bad Design Can Be Costly." Forbes, May 28, 2001.

White, Martin. "Information Architecture and Usability." Econtent, April 2002, 46.

Zillner, Tom. "Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity." Information Technology and Libraries, September 2001, 159.

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Web Site Usability

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