True Web Usability - Principles Over Laws | WebReference

True Web Usability - Principles Over Laws

True Web Usability - Principles Over Laws

By Jon Jackson

What is Usability? What makes a Web site usable? How can you prove that a Web site is usable? And how does usability affect me? These are all valid questions and I'll attempt to answer them here.

If a site is usable, it fits its purpose. This typically means that it's convenient to use. In some cases though, a Web site may be difficult to use. For example, it might not be appropriate for a site designed purely for artistic expression to be usable in all aspects. A site might also have sections which are purposely less usable than others for security reasons. It's good to be aware of exceptions such as these but they're not the focus of this article.

Now that the concept of usability is understood, let's be clear about one point: If a Web site is usable from your perspective, it doesn't mean that it's usable by others. It is common for designers of Web sites or interfaces to think that if they themselves find it easy to understand then so will everyone else. Herein lays the danger. Assuming good usability leads to complacency in the design process.

The solution to this problem is to employ a set of testing methods. Rest assured that you don't need to be an expert in order to undertake usability testing. You don't require a large budget or fancy equipment. Since this subject is beyond the scope of this article, I recommend reading Steve Krug's book on Web Usability. More information on his book is found at the end of this article.

Why Make a Web Site Usable?

Whether your site sells goods or is content based, usability is a key issue. Embrace it, and your visitors will feel comfortable and secure. Ignore it, and they will be faced with an unappealing obstacle course!

When it comes to browsing Web sites, users aren't renowned for sticking around when the going gets tough. After all, if they don't seem to be getting anywhere, a couple of clicks on the back button will return them to the 51,280 results that Google just provided! There are plenty of alternative places they can go if your site doesn't cut it.

In short, users who can't use your site will usually give up. Each time this happens, you lose a potential customer. So what can be done?

Use Conventions

This is one aspect where you shouldn't be afraid of going along with the crowd. Some typical Web conventions are outlined below. Most of these are based on underlying principles of good usability.

Take, for example, showing your logo or site name at the top of each page. This allows users to recognize what site they are actually on. This is a particularly important point considering that a lot of traffic can be gained through search engines that return pages deep within a site instead of the home page. A related convention is the use of the site logo to link back to the home page. This isn't essential but it can make your users feel more comfortable as it's a widely used technique.

Make Things Obvious

Another principle is to make things obvious. Don't confuse your users. Applications of this principle can be found in various aspects of site design.

Make clickable objects and links clearly identifiable. The text for links should also be descriptive. It helps the user when they have a rough idea as to what they will be confronted with before they click on an item. This means restricting the use of "Click Here" links.

If you have search boxes on your site, make it obvious as to what they are for and don't complicate search functions. An advanced search feature may be appropriate but for a basic search box embedded within a page, it would be wise to avoid any unnecessary radio buttons or dropdown lists which have the tendency of misleading or even confusing users. Amazon provides a fine example in this respect. Whether you type in an author's name, a book's title, or an ISBN, the search function does its job and returns the appropriate results. There's no need for the user to specify what field they are searching within (i.e. author, title, or ISBN). The modern system is more intuitive and easier to use.

Orientate Your Users

Users need to know where they are and where they've been. To tackle this area of Web site usability, a combination of techniques can be used.

First of all, links that change color when visited are invaluable. This can be combined with the Web convention of non-visited hyperlinks typically being blue and visited hyperlinks being purple. If you can stick to this, your users will know exactly where they stand. This may not always be appropriate though, and the aforementioned convention may be traded off against the style of the Web site, which can be an important factor itself.

Secondly, in a similar way that a map in a public park may have a "You Are Here" pointer, Web sites can offer various clues as to where the user currently is. One method that is commonly used is that of "bread crumbs". They appear in the format of "Home > Section > Sub-Section > Current Page" where each item in the string of "bread crumbs" (except the last one) is linked to its corresponding page.

Content Matters

Don't be quick to think that building a usable Web site has nothing to do with the content that appears on it. If the content is poorly written or structured, your users will experience difficulties.

All content should be readable. It's a good practice to break up a section of text into paragraphs and sections using informative subheadings, since many users simply scan the content of a page. Making content easy to scan lends towards good usability. Long articles or publications can be broken down into multiple pages.

Bringing It All Together

In this article, we've barely scratched the surface of usable design techniques. Some recommended reading is provided below. It's worthwhile investing the time and effort to read through a selection of the books available. Learning from other people's experience can save you a lot of time and effort in the long-run.

When you're browsing Web sites in the future, keep an eye out for little demonstrations of good and poor usability from your own perspective. This will help you with issues that may arise in your own projects.

Recommended Reading

Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity (2000) - Jakob Nielsen This is an in-depth book with a large number of examples and screenshots. It provides detailed insights into how usability can be improved using simple techniques. This book enables the reader to gain a solid understanding of usability and the associated concepts surrounding it.

Prioritizing Web Usability (2006) - Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger "Prioritizing Web Usability" Builds on Nielsen's first book (Designing Web Usability). It contains many updated examples of usability issues. As the Web has developed, so have the designs and uses of it. Some design flaws which were once prevalent have gone out of fashion, and new ones have arisen. "Prioritizing Web Usability" really gets to the heart of the issues regarding the prioritizing of usability in the development of Web sites.

Don't Make Me Think!: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (2005) - Steve Krug "Don't Make Me Think!" is more concise and easier to digest than Nielsen's books. This is ideal for those already with a background in Web design and for those with a basic familiarity with usability issues. It introduces ideas and techniques that can be employed to test usability within a tight budget. "Don't Make Me Think!" is a practical and easily accessible book. Usable indeed!

About the Author

Jon Jackson is a UK based web developer specialising in CSS, PHP and MySQL. He operates under the name of Acuras Web Development (


Created: June 2, 2003
Revised: August 23, 2006