One of the main obstacles you’ll have is making sure your website is useful, but considering the enormous return on investment, it’s well worth the effort. Like many aspects of your website, usability is something that can always be improved. You’ll be able to build a loyal online consumer base that will keep using your services and promoting you if you have a solid understanding of usability.

How we use the web

You may think people will pour over your content, reading it word for word. You may think they will notice all the intricate details of the sites design; however this couldn’t be further from the truth. Web users generally skim over sites looking for the information they’ve come for. If they can’t find what they’re looking for right away, then they will either decide to leave or look for a link to another part of the site. The process they use for finding this link is known as satisficing, as soon as they find a link that might satisfy them they will click on it, even if they have to sacrifice getting the correct link first time. There is no penalty for choosing the wrong link, fast connections speeds mean no waiting for pages to load and it’s very easy to just click the back button.

What is usability

Usability is that art of making something easy and fun to use, it can apply to anything, from something as simple as a kettle to the controls for something as complex as a nuclear power station. The bottom line is:

If something isn’t usable we won’t use it. If we have to use it, we won’t enjoy using it.

When we design things we have a preconceived idea of how to make it as usable as possible. This comes from how we think things should work but sadly, this is generally wrong. Even knowing the common similarities in how people use things you will always be making assumptions. To ensure something is usable you need to test to make sure those assumptions were correct.

How does usability affect my business?

It is a sure fact that an unusable website will be unused. If your business relies on its website to generate profit or leads then an unusable website will lose you money. “Every £1 invested in improving the usability of your website returns £10 to £100,” claims IBM. Usability is not necessarily about gaining more customers; after all you’ve already spent money getting traffic to your site. Usability is more about making that hard earned traffic more likely to convert. Web usability Jakob Nielson states “A web usability redesign can increase the sales/conversion rate by 100%”.

If the massive return on investment doesn’t convince you usability is worthwhile, keeping your customers happy is surely a high priority. Imagine every user has a “reservoir of good will” this may start of close to full, however if your site isn’t usable or they can’t find the information they are looking for easily then this reservoir will slowly deplete. If you don’t top this up they will eventually leave, and leave with a bad impression of your company. You won’t get return visits, you won’t get recommendations and you won’t build a good customer base through your website.

How are websites tested for usability?

Traditionally usability testing involves spending a lot of money on a usability lab, recording equipment, a usability expert and a large sample of users to test. Testing like this is very accurate however the expense, time and effort means it is only done by large companies with massive budgets and only then is it done once, at the end of the project. By this time it is expensive to make changes and there is a lot resistance from the team that has to redo all their work.

A much better alternative for smaller businesses is to hold more informal testing sessions. With a lower cost and time commitment they can easily be done throughout the process. A smaller sample size is used – after all a test on 1 user will give you 100% more information than not doing a test at all. This percentage also decreases the more people you test as you will start to see similarities in the problems they have. All that is needed for such a test is a microphone, a computer with screen-capturing software and someone to guide the user through the process, assign tasks and ask questions.

Recently however, there are a lot of online services that can help you test your website. These may never replace face to face usability testing but are a cheap alternative that can offer good results.

  • Moderated user testing – This is when a test much like a face to face session however it is done using screen sharing software and VoIP software such as Skype.
  • Unmoderated user testing – This is when a user is given a link to a site and some tasks to complete. Their screen is recorded so you can view how they got on.
  • 5-Second tests – This is when a user sees a screen shot of a website for 5 seconds. This is the time it usually takes for someone to make a decision about a site. They are then prompted with questions about the site.
  • Click tests – This is where a user is shown a screenshot of the website and asked to click where they would click first. This is then recorded and shown on a “heat map”.
  • Multivariate testing – This is where a proportion of users are shown a different design or layout. If one variant shows a higher conversion rate then it may be that it is more usable.

When commissioning a website, usability is one of the most important considerations to take into account if you want your site to convert its raw traffic into customers. You need to be sure that the company you choose is passionate about usability. Will the site be tested for usability? If so, what methods will be used?