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Do you think your web site is easy to use?

Av Richard Whitehand, September 2004

Many web site designers say that their own web site design is easy to use and few, if any, would say the opposite. Many web sites cause trouble for users, so why is there a mismatch between the views of those responsible for a site and the actual end users?

“I think our web site is easy to use!”
- Does that mean it has good usability?

The only situation in which this is certain to be true is when you are the only user! Assuming that you are not the only user of your own web site then the question is how other users experience your site...

Users tend to experience a web site in a very different way to those who have designed it. There are two main reasons behind this:

  1. The users haven’t designed it. They therefore don’t necessarily understand why it is organised the way it is, or why it works in a particular manner.
  2. The users are trying to use the web site ‘for real’. Unfortunately its not often that as a designer you use your own web site in the way actual users do.

Unfortunately the chances are that even if you think your own web site is easy to use, it isn’t.

Good usability means that the intended users:

  • Can achieve their goals (e.g. find the information they are looking for, or order a product they want).
  • Can use the site efficiently (e.g. that it is quick for them to finding the information they are looking for).
  • Are satisfied/happy with the site and the way it works.

(For more information and a definition of usability, see our "Usability - What is it?!” " page).

“Our web site has won prizes!”
- Does that mean it has good usability?

Unfortunately this is no guarantee either. There are all sorts of prizes and awards for web site design, branding, innovation, best use of ‘flash’, best use of a content management tool, etc, etc. Infact there are awards for most things – Google lists some in their "site awards directory".

Indeed, there are plenty of web sites that have won design awards where it is unlikely that the majority of the intended users have any chance of being able to use them!!

Bild av förstaprispokal There are also prizes or web site rankings where usability (or ‘user-friendliness’) is included as one of several factors. However, such prizes are often awarded based on the judgement of an expert panel. Even in the minority of cases where expert judges include some form of usability specialist, it is still the judgement of an expert and not the actual experience of end users.

Judging the usability of a web site requires first spending time on understanding the intended users and how they use the web site, before it is even possible to start evaluating it. If an expert is to judge 100 different web sites then simple mathematics dictates that the time available for one site will usually only be sufficient for a very superficial judgement.

Good usability is a characteristic that isn’t noticed and thus is difficult to judge just based on looking at a site. Bad usability, on the other hand, is noticed in use – web sites that are difficult to work out how to use, cause user frustration, lost sales, unnecessary helpdesk calls, etc.

“Our web site has lots of users!”
- Does that mean it has good usability?

Having lots of users is naturally a good sign. However, there are plenty of web sites where users are motivated to use the web site even if they might otherwise not do so. For example, most travel firms offer a discount to those people who can work out how to order trips through their web site. We know that many people still resort to telephone booking. In the case of public authorities (e.g. the tax authority) there aren’t any alternative or competitor sites that can be used instead.

As there is no such thing as perfect usability, then the question is even if your web site has a lot of users, how many more successful and satisfied users would you have if it had better usability?

How can you be sure that your web site has good usability?

Good usability is achieved through:

  1. Understanding your users and their needs – Are their different target groups for your web site? What are their characteristics? Why might they visit your site? What would they want to do?
  2. Designing for use – What structure and organisation suits your users? In what order do they expect to do things? How do they need information presented? What layout will be clearest for them?
  3. Testing with real users – How do your users actually interact with your site? Remember – usability isn’t about asking a group of users what they think. It isn’t the result of a user survey or winning a prize. Its about whether individual users are actually able to interact successfully with your site.

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