Web Usability

What Is Usability Anyway?

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Usability is one of those things you don’t think about until something goes wrong, a technical failing or a non-intuitive structure. Like this: At my office on the second floor, there’s a couple of doors leading into the parking garage with the big, square handles that are meant to be pulled. If you grab them and pull, you’re thwarted with a clack and a door that won’t budge. So you push, and the door swings politely open. It’s SO annoying. Here’s some other examples that miss the mark:

Splash pages: These are pages with little or no content that stand between the user and the actual website like an interim commercial. They are usually some sort of brand exposition, often animated—ultimately resented. Web users are an infamously impatient audience and every extra click they have to make is a mark against you. Here’s a technical term worth knowing: “Bounce Rates.” These are events tracked by Google Analytics, that let you know the percentage of website visitors that vacate your website once they’ve arrived—like a ricochet. Websites with splash pages have 25% higher bounce rates than average—ouch. Why do it?

Music & Sound: In the playful and naive days of the early internet, bells and whistles were just another way to say, “Hooray!” In today’s market, people are already streaming their own music, or surreptitiously doing some personal browsing while on the job. Your little sound event is a panic-invoking intrusion. Don’t do it. It will make people dive for the mute button, then hate you.

Flash Animation: There once was a golden age when we could use flash animation. It was a temporary nirvana: we could control how elements on a website loaded, start certain events while other events were preparing to play and control the canvas like it was our own personal playground. That age came to a unexpected and smoldering end. It wasn’t our fault. In some ways, we “Flash Experts” were the greatest victims.

The technical explaination is that Macromedia Flash (now Adobe Flash) directly capitalizes a device’s CPU to create video effects instead of using the video processor. It’s a problem for iPhone and iPad. Your battery starts to drain like someone had blasted a shotgun hole into a hot air balloon. Apple told Google to stop being an idiot. Google told Apple where they could stick it. Apple disabled Flash on all their devices. Web designers everywhere were left in the lurch. Since then, we’ve learned new ways to animate websites. They’re almost as good, and at least they work with mobile devices. Even so, you can still find myriad websites with flash elements on them. Try to visit them on an iPhone or iPad, and you’ll just get a missing plugin icon, or placeholder image. It’s no fun, and a modern usability failure.

Redundancy is your friend. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. That’s as cliche as it is gross, but there actually IS more than one way to navigate a website. Some people jump straight to a search feature to shortcut their way to the information desired. Other people have no idea what they want, and prefer to watch a slideshow then click on anything that’s appealing. Some are very logical; they like to understand the overall architecture of a website and navigate their way through categories and subcategories. There is no right way or wrong way to use a website. As designers, our job is to make sure the site is usable for every type of user, and the fewer cats harmed, the better.

It’s a balancing act. There are many goals in web design that work across purposes. For example, high minded design can conflict with search engine optimization. Minimal, uncluttered negative space looks great. Many clients would be ecstatic with a homepage with little more than a world-class photograph and a tasty logo treatment—I get it. But to please Google, your homepage needs to be saturated with keyword rich text, images, links, alt tags and meta tags. It’s like oil and water.

Accessibility is another issue. Older and more naive demographics want oversize, high contrast text and conventional layouts. The international market would like your site to be available in multiple languages. The visually impaired community require a deeper level of accessibility programming to support audio browsing. Content management systems want every page to be built out of modular pieces. All of these concerns impact both budgets and designs.

Weigh all the objectives and look for the sweet spot somewhere in the middle. Decide how fashion forward you can be or how accessible you have to be. As a basic rule of thumb, the younger and more tech-savvy your audience, the more liberties you can take. The broader target demographics are, the more legible, standardized, reverse compatible and overt your target result becomes.

By all means, execute breathtaking feats of internet gymnastics: cross handstands, arabesques, scissor kicks and all… You’ll still need to meet the balance beam where it’s at, and stay on it. When nobody falls off—that’s usability. When you stick the landing, that’s good marketing.