Improving the usability of your website

March 27, 2008

Photo of Jon-Eric SteinbomerEveryone knows usability is important, but not everyone knows exactly how to go about determining if their software/web/hardware product is indeed usable. As a professional usability consultant, I would (ahem) advise that you seek the aid of an experienced usability consultant to help.

This isn’t always a practical option for lots of reasons though, so what I’d like to offer are some pointers and practical things to keep in mind when you’re developing a website or any other interactive product.

Know thy user

Above all else, always try to keep this mantra in mind when designing or developing — you are not your user. What’s obvious and simple to you may not be for the people who will be actually using your product.

By the way, you do know who you’re designing for, right? Do you know something about their skill level, geographical location, wants and needs as they relate to your product? If the answer is no, I’d suggest doing some research and asking some questions to find out.

Use established interaction standards to your benefit

If you have a choice between inventing a new, cooler way to sort tables and using the more well-known method of clicking on the column header, use the latter. Chances are that people will be familiar with this paradigm and less likely to become confused.

Now for a caveat — don’t let adherence to standards stifle your creativity and innovation. It might be the safer road, but it’s not always the best choice, so think of it like any other rule of law — sometimes it’s best to break the rules, just do so wisely!

Subscribe to usability-related RSS feeds

This is a great way to keep on top of what’s being discussed in the usability, interaction design and user experience realms. It’s also an easy way to learn and internalize what’s working and not working for others.

Some of my favorites:

Sanity-checking your design is not usability testing

Don’t get me wrong, grabbing someone next to you and asking “does this make sense to you?” is often a good idea. But just don’t let this turn into “yeah, I showed it to some people and they thought it worked okay.”

There are many reasons why this type of information-gathering could lead to bunk conclusions, but primarily it comes down to the first axiom I discussed — the person in the next cube, down the hall, etc. is most likely not your target user. If they’re a software developer like you are, and they think it’s easy to use, your user may beg to differ.

More usability guidelines

These pointers are just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re interested in learning more, there’s a lot out there but I’d suggest starting with (and referring to often) this site. It contains a ton of good info for those just starting to think about usability and seasoned professionals alike.

Again, these are just some quick pointers and guidelines. There’s a lot more to the multi-faceted study and practice of usability and user experience, but hopefully this can get you started in the right direction!

about the author

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