Does Usability Really Matter?

One of the “buzz” words that those of us who are into web design often throw around is this whole idea of Web Usability.  Simply put, web usability is an approach to web site development that makes it easy for the end user.  It means that it is easy to use a web site.

Seems simple enough right?  Who wouldn’t want a web site to be easy to use?  Who would ever dream of making a web site hard to use?  Well the answer is a lot of people.  I’ll give just one example – my home town city – Fort Wayne.

Recently, Fort Wayne started a new recycling initiative – One Cart Recycling.  The program, true to its name, provides just one recycling cart.  No more sorting of products.  Simply put all recyclables into the same container.  Sounds like a great idea, right?  The problem is that you have to sign up for this service.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a sign-up.  The problem is that the city forgot to ask the developer about usability.

Here’s what I get when I try to sign-up:

City Of Fort Wayne Web Site Requiring Download

Can you tell what’s wrong here?  Apparently Fort Wayne really wants me to sign up.  But, only if I have the correct plug-in installed, only if I am running the correct operating system, only if I am not handicapped in certain ways, etc.

I received this message because I have a Apple computer.  And, as a result, don’t have silverlight installed.  And, this tells the 10% or so of people who browse with an Apple computer that you don’t care about them.  But, this is just the start.  Silverlight is estimated to be installed on about 50% – 55% of all computers.  So the city is telling the other 50% that they don’t want them to sign up.  And, this doesn’t even include iPhone or Android users.  Those also wouldn’t be able to sign up.  And, typically (thought not always) silverlight is very difficult for those with disabilities (i.e. vision problems).  So, the city is saying that it has this great One Cart Recycling program that it wants all the residents to sign up for, but not those who use Apples, iPhones, or Android phones, nor the 50% who don’t have silverlight installed, nor those with certain disabilities.

You see, this is the critical part of web usability.  And, it is something any good developer should care about.  To simply sign up for something, I should NEVER force you to download a plug-in, change your browser, switch computers or do anything except just sign-up.  Forcing people to do something extra tells them that you really aren’t that concerned about them.  It says that you would rather make them jump through hoops than get your product.  It says that you clearly didn’t have “ME” in mind when you thought about this.

So, what should you do?  Well, here are a few simple steps to take when developing a site:

  • Ask The RIGHT Questions – if you are hiring a developer / designer ask questions like: Will this site work on ALL browsers?  Which browsers will you test it on?  Will it work on both Apple and PC computers and will you test it on both?  Will this work on a mobile phone?  Are any plugins (downloads) needed to make this site work?  If so, what can we do to avoid them?  Will this site be accessible to handicapped people (i.e the blind who might use a screen reader or color blind people who struggle with certain colors)?  Do you follow MODERN web standards – which ones (you might not know what all the modern standards are, but asking your designer to list them will force them to tell the truth)?
  • Care About The RIGHT Things – no one would ever deny that the “look” of a site is unimportant.  Of course it matters.  But, other things matter just as much (and sometimes more).  Studies continue to show that people will tolerate a well layed-out site, with clear navigation that is NOT visually compelling.  However, a visually compelling site that is slow to load or hard to navigate will not be tolerated.  Granted people will visit it ONCE because it is cool.  But the cool factor wears off very quickly.  After that, they are left with a confusing, hard to navigate, slow to load site.  While I would never encourage you not to care about the look of a site, I would encourage you to care about more than just the look.  Care about the speed of the load.  Care about the simplicity of finding what you want (how many clicks does it take to get to your answer?).  Care about providing answers.  Care about meeting your customer’s need.
  • Think Like the RIGHT Person –  usually site owners think like the owners of the companies.  That makes sense – they are the owners.  But the owners perspective doesn’t matter nearly as much as the customers perspective.  So, while those in your business might know what TERM X means, the customer who visits your site for the first time probably doesn’t know what it means.  Also, what is it like for someone with a small monitor on a really old computer to visit your site?  Does it still work, does it take a long time to load?  Have you tried browsing your site from a coffee shop, from home, from other places?  All this helps you to see what your customers see.  Good websites work for the new person, for the uninitiated.   I shouldn’t have to think to use your site!
  • Look at the RIGHT information – Do you know how many people visit your site?  Which page is the most visited?  Which page is the least visited?  How often a person comes to your site and leaves without clicking on anything?  The average amount of time someone spends on your site?  How they arrived at your site – by a search engine or by typing in your URL?  All this is the right information to look at .  And, all of it is available for free, right now.  If your site isn’t giving you this kind of information, then you aren’t looking at the right information.

The list could go on and on.  Web Usability is really a big deal.  Books (lots of books) have been written on the subject!

For now, maybe we can all learn a few things NOT to do from my home city!

What do you think?  Do you have examples of bad usability?  Do you have other suggestions?  Let me know.  Leave a comment below!