Website Usability

I have already written a great deal about print document usability here, and for the most part the guidelines I suggested there also apply to reading on the web. People still read top to bottom, left to right (at least in nations using Roman or Cyrillic alphabets). However, there are some special considerations for electronic publications that quite frankly would have baffled Herr Gutenberg.

Accounting for User Impatience
This is perhaps the biggest challenge any website designer will face when organizing content. The internet provides the world with light-speed access to all sorts of information. When they get to your website, if they haven’t used Google to go directly to the content they want, they will still expect finding information to be very easy. This need for instant gratification creates a certain tension for the designer: on the one hand, you want a clean, uncluttered interface; on the other hand, you want the information people are most likely to seek on your home page, or at most one click away. When I was attending grad school (back in the Dark Ages, 1999-2002), the rule of thumb was that if a user needed to use more than three clicks on your site to find something, you’d lost them. It might be down to two clicks at MOST now.

User impatience is harder to placate when you’re a large organization or you have a lot of content you want to share. And there will be times when Google isn’t effective: for instance, when a potential customer, partner, or employee wants to know what your company does or how it’s organized. This is where “intuitive” labeling of menus, directories, and folders becomes extremely important. Over the years, several conventions have become standardized:

  • About Us: This is where you would put corporate information—anything from your mission statement to your organization chart to your auditors or stock symbol on the New York Stock Exchange.
  • Products/Services: This section (or these sections) should be pretty straightforward—this is where you talk about the things your organization provides. My blog is mainly geared toward for-profit businesses, but this is where nonprofit organizations would talk about Issues or Activities.
  • Business Units: Large organizations that have been around a long time can have redundant or less-than-intuitive business units/organizations due to internal politics or reorganizations. For example, one of my previous employers was a medium-sized defense contractor with multiple engineering specialties. The problem, of course, is that engineering functions tend to overlap (design, development, test, and evaluation) and customers could easily become confused. While your customers don’t necessarily care which organization is providing their DDT&E, your managers do, and they want to make certain that their particular organization is properly recognized for their contributions to the whole. What you can end up with—and it happened to me—is a web site with a matrixed or two-tier organizational structure. While people looking for particular products should be able to find specific items, people who are looking to work with specific business units (“I want to talk to John Smith in Huntsville, not Joe Blow in Virginia; I was referred to Smith at the technical conference I went to!”) should be able to find them, too. Your website should be able to accommodate both search types.
  • News: This is where you would put news stories about your company’s products as well as press releases that your organization develops. It’s usually helpful to have a window with your latest news on the home page as well. The News section is where people go for your archives or older stories.

Ensuring Engagement
What do you want users to do when they visit your website? This sounds like a no-duh question, but it isn’t. Here are some of the things your users might do:

  • Research your products/services
  • Request more information about your products/services
  • Purchase products/services

Each of these activities is comparatively more complicated and requires more intensive web work. Posting pictures, paragraphs, and prices is relatively easy. You could even add a simple email address for anyone having additional questions. However, if you have a high-powered marketing person, s/he might want more than just the customer’s email address when receiving a query—such information helps with understanding who your customers are, where they’re coming from, how they found you, and what other products/services they might be able to sell them. The easy way to solve this from a web perspective is to provide an email address or phone number for your marketing department so that they can collect that information. More likely, though, you’d be looking at a web form of some kind—a short questionnaire that “feeds the beast” with marketing data.

Purchasing products and services could be handled multiple ways as well:

  • Post a contact phone number, street address, etc. so orders can be taken over the phone or on site.
  • Post an online form that includes fields for collecting customer information and links to PayPal or other existing secure credit card service
  • Create a secure online form that includes its own credit card-charging functionality 

Online forms also enable companies to handle standard customer service inquiries without the need to post individual or departmental emails online (emails posted on websites can get sampled by spy-bot programs and targeted for junk emails/spam).

The bottom line about posting online content is that you should provide enough information for your customers or users to take the actions you would like them to take. How sophisticated you want to get usually will be determined by your budget as well as the size and skill of your web design team.

Proper Tags and Links / Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is becoming a hot topic in web marketing circles. I’m not enough of a genius to answer any and all questions about what SEO is or does, so I’ll refer you to the linked Wikipedia article. However, the trick with your website home page or individual articles is to research and use the search engine terms you want people to use to locate your company. It can be tempting to use every possible tag or key word to help bring more visitors to your site; however, it is better to make sure you’re bringing in users who are really interested in what you have to offer.

Intuitive Graphics and Interfaces
This is outside of my range of expertise, for the most part, but I have helped SERVIR and other organizations design or redesign their user interfaces by participating in user trials. User testing is crucial because it’s better to work out the bugs in-house than to have your website go live and receive dozens or hundreds of complaints.

Still, as I noted earlier, there are some aspects of print usability that apply to electronic materials as well. For instance, Western readers still read left to right, top to bottom. Therefore, the most important links or information (e.g., your primary navigation bar or breaking news) should be at the top or left side of the screen because that is where users’ eyes will go first.

Web designers have used a variety of methods to help users more easily navigate their sites. These include file folder tabs (, links and drop-down menus (Walt Disney World Resort), and actual visual imagery (Lake Nona). It can be tempting—say, if you’re at a game site or other page that features creative content—to get too clever and make an elaborate video presentation or include some sort of game before they get to the site. My recommendation is to leave a “skip intro” link on the page—generally at the lower-right of the page—so people can get to the home page if they don’t have time for all the pretty graphics.

Accounting for Bandwidth Differences
Interfaces also bring up an interesting challenge. Generally, the smoother, more visually appealing the interface, the more bandwidth it takes up when accessing the page. This is not always a good idea, especially if you are working with international users who might or might not have the same high-speed web infrastructure that is available in the U.S., Europe, or other “wired” societies. The Lake Nona page mentioned above, for example, has a lower-bandwidth version of its site. The screen capture below is the high-bandwidth site, which includes a microscope graphic at the bottom of the page for seeing the various features of the community. (By the way, this is an example of having navigation at the bottom of the page, which contradicts the top-down theory of reading. However, because the main screen is relatively small and has few graphics, the bottom navigation works just fine.)

Lake Nona 1 High Bandwidth Image

Nevertheless, the microscope graphic consumes a lot of bandwidth, so while you’re waiting for the page to load, the interface offers you the option of using a lower-bandwidth version, seen below. The lower-bandwidth page has approximately the same content as the high-speed site, but lacks the microscope for dragging back and forth. Instead, you simply click on the icon you want.

Lake Nona 2 Low Bandwidth Image

Final Thoughts on Web Usability
Web design continues to evolve because the tools are improving and evolving as well. There are efforts to make things more standardized (as in the case of my recommended menu items above). There are also those who, used to three-dimensional video games, are trying to create a more real-world environment that you can “walk through.” The most well-known 3D world is SecondLife, which has so far failed as an advertising environment but been enduringly successful as an online community. Another great representation of how the web might work in coming years can be found in the “cyberpunk” movie Johnny Mnemonic, where the element of “depth” is added to the on-screen environment. I have a few friends who are very familiar with and active in 3D “shooter” games, so I expect some of the conventions from those environments will start to infiltrate e-commerce in the not-too-distant future as more people play them.

Regardless of how “far out” the graphical elements of future websites get, web designers and the content developers who support them will still need to provide users with familiar landmarks or conventions that enable them to get what they want. The point, after all, is to get your users to interact with your site in a way that makes you money or advances your cause. If the graphics or signposts prevent your users from conducting business with you, then you have more work to do. And regardless of what forms future interfaces take, they will need to communicate clearly, so professional communicators who understand usability will continue to be in demand.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in audience, documents, engineering, technical writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Website Usability

  1. Carole says:

    Great post – and hello from the snowy reaches of Upper Michigan! I’m taking a course with Karla Kitalong and she gave us your site. I would like to add the importance of visual appeal to web usability which you mentioned in your post “Usability and the Craft of Tech Comm”. Not only are users more demanding of less time/clicks on a site, but the site must be visually appealing. Poor color choice and bad graphics/images can lose a user equally as fast as having to click more than 3 times. If the site is just plain ugly, who would bother looking for information in the first place?

    • Thanks, Carole! I’m not a graphic designer, so I was going to leave the visuals to a different professional. Might make for a good future post, but I’ll need to get a little input from my artist friend. Salud!


  2. The writer, the reviser, the visualizer says:

    Hi. I’ve chosen you for the Versatile Blogger Award. I was chosen ( and, in turn, you are one of my chosen 15. Congratulations and keep up the great work on your blog!
    The rules of this nomination are as follows:
    1. Thank the award-giver and link back to them in your post.
    2. Share 7 things about yourself.
    3. Pass this award along to 15 others.
    4. Contact your chosen bloggers to let them know about the award.

  3. tricia says:

    You missed my biggest complaint in website usability–the ads. Lately there are a lot of javascript and dotnet ads that seem to take forever to load, and which stop me from being able to scroll or move through the page. I usually just bail on the website, news article, or whatever because I refuse to wait for their ad partners to load.

    Yahoo’s Shine ezine is one of the worst offenders.

    Thanks for an interesting article…a 30-year vet of the techwriting wars 😉

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