7 Tips To Improve Website Usability

26th January 2009 - 8 minutes read time

Website usability should be an essential part of your online strategy, but it is so easily overlooked or overshadowed by pretty design. Here is a quick list of 7 things that can cause your users to get frustrated and go elsewhere.

1. Search
Search is a very important part of any site, and if it doesn't work then your users will just get frustrated and go to another company. Website search usability comes in two parts, the search box itself and the results.

When creating a search box you need to have a single text box and a button labelled "Search". That is about as complicated as you need to go, although it is okay to have a drop down box of categories, as long as the default is "All Categories". When the user has done a search, the search box should contain what they searched for, so that they can refine their query if the need to.

The second part of search usability deals with the results. When a user has completed a search the results must be displayed in a clean and concise manner, using only the most relevant search results. No user wants to have to sift through hundreds of pages of results just to find what they are looking for. Also, the ideal search strategy shouldn't just be relevancy, the best search engines should combine relevancy of result with how many times a result was clicked on.

Of course, if your site only consists of a few pages then this probably doesn't count all that much, you should just make sure that your navigation is usable.

2. Links That Don't Change Colour When Visited
This is important because it tells the user where they have been and where they need to go. Without this there good chance that users will get lost on the site and visit pages that they have already visited.

The best way to change the visited styles is to use pseudo classes in your CSS stylesheet. If you want to set the visited link colour to blue then use the following code:

a:visited {color:blue;}

However, you must remember that pseudo classes must be specified in a specific order. This order is :link, :visited, :hover, :focus and :active. You can remember this with the mnemonic Lord Vader Hates Furry Animals.

3. Pop-up Windows
I haven't met a single person yet who actually likes pop-up windows, in fact most people will react very negatively to them. Pop-up windows are associated with dodgy and untrustworthy websites and so having one on a site will cause users to trust the site less. However, many modern browsers block these windows from appearing so doing this is pointless anyway.

If your site is using pop-up windows then I urge you to get rid of them. There are far better ways of presenting the information than throwing a pop-up window at the user.

There are one or two exceptions to this rule, for example, if you wanted to show a more detailed picture of a shopping cart item, but it is generally best to avoid them altogether.

4. Design Elements That Look Like Advertisements
Banner blindness or ad-blindness is a very common feature amongst internet users, especially after a little bit of experience. If an element looks like a banner advert then 99% of users will simply ignore it, even if it is there for their benefit.

Avoid making these sorts of design decisions. Adverts tend to be quite colourful and well laid out with large colourful buttons. Stick to simple designs that fit in with the look and feel of your site and that have simple text which avoids sales speak. Adverts also tend to have animations or cycle through some images so you should also try and make your site as static as possible.

5. Violating Web-Wide Conventions
Jakob’s Law of the Internet User states that users will spend most of their time on other web sites. This means that users will have certain expectations about how a site will look and how they can interact with it. If you try and create a site that looks different from everything else on the Internet then only a few users will stick around long enough to use it.

To avoid violating this rule you should create a webpage that looks like a webpage, this sounds obvious, but you need to avoid obscure interface elements and menus. Keep the phrase "mystery meat navigation" in your mind when creating a navigation system, users should know what is the menu and how to use it without taking a 5 week correspondence course.

This also includes how things work when users interact with them. You shouldn't change the way web page elements work when clicked on as users will get lost trying to fill in forms on your site.

6. Aggressive Adverts
This is kind of like a pop-up but will create an animated character or similar that will move over the screen and text you are trying to read. These adverts can come with some form of close button, but they don’t have to, and any close buttons they do have don’t have to look like normal close buttons. These adverts are very annoying (especially if they load on every page view) and can lead to your users simply moving away from the site in order to not see this again.

Don't use adverts like this, ever. I have seen some major sites use this sort of advert and it only makes me do one thing, click the back button and go elsewhere.

7. Dense, Unscannable, Vaporous Content and Empty Hype
Dense blocks of text are a major turn off for web users. Unless they *really* want to know what you are talking about they will look at it and simply go to a different page. If all pages are like this then users will get bored and move to a different site. To rectify this try adding some images, spaces and subheadings to the text to break it up a little. You could even rewrite the content to include some bullet points.

Finally, nobody wants to read pages and pages of text that doesn't say anything at all. If a site is filled with empty advertising phrases and endless hype about products that the site doesn't sell then users will quickly get bored and go elsewhere. This also causes problems from a search engine optimisation point of view as search engines are more likely to see this empty hype as spam. It is especially important to avoid empty text on the front page of the site, it needs to tell the users what the site is and does straight away, without trying to wow them with hype. If your site contains masses of empty text then a rewrite might be in order.

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