10 ways to enhance your site’s usability

23 April 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

Many websites have structure, layout and features which are largely unusable for less capable users, such as older people and people with disabilities. What surprises me the most is that, although older people are the fastest-growing segment of Internet users and supposedly have a lot of disposable income, the vast majority of companies struggle to gear up their websites for accommodating the needs and wants of heterogeneous users. There is a a twofold moral and financial incentive for creating simple and intuitive designs as industry studies show that well-designed products and services have the potential to improve customer satisfaction and this in turn allows companies which value good design to exhibit high growth.

So, to walk many website companies out of the dark with regard to web usability, I looked at the research of Jakob Nielsen, the leading web usability consultant, Usability.gov, as well as different usability writers, such as Bill Scott and Theresa Neil (”Designing Web Interfaces“), Jared Spool and colleagues (”Web Site Usability: A Designers’s Guide“) and Steve Krug (”Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability“), and collated a list of 10 most important ways of improving your website’s ease of use. These include:

  1. Place a link to the home page on every page in case a user gets lost.
  2. Provide a clear and complete ‘about us’ page and ‘contact’ page.
  3. Make your most important links visible and easy to read.
  4. Eliminate captcha systems or mandatory logins.
  5. Create multiple access points to important content like subscription options.
  6. Place your advertisements in places where they don’t interfere with the main content.
  7. Avoid cluttering your sidebar with unnecessary links or widgets.
  8. Provide targeted content and links in the post footers.
  9. Use a large, comfortable font and provide space between each paragraph.
  10. And last but not least… Once your site is designed, it is also advisable to ask one or more users (preferably with decreased capability) who have never seen your site before to browse it for 3 minutes as you stand over their shoulder and watch without interrupting their utterances. At the end of the 3 minutes ask your user(s) for feedback and diligently note all the comments. This little usability test will not only make you feel good about being more considerate about the needs of the more disadvantaged sections of the population, but it will also give you valuable feedback on the site’s selling potential from a prospective user and focus your attention on achieving your financial goals.

You need to remember that once a user gets to your site you are only a few clicks away from actually selling something or being left forever, so strategically it really makes sense to be more perceptive to users’ usability issues.

Cambridge’s own Dragon’s Den

22 April 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

Recently, I was one of the ‘dragons’ in a conceptual design competition organised by the Engineering Department at the University of Cambridge.  Among other judges were members of companies such as Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Siemens, James Dyson Foundation, PA Consulting Group, Mott MacDonald, and TTP. We were asked to judge the best and most innovative designs for a new product that can be used in the kitchen, bathroom or living room that accommodates the needs of older adults and enables independent use.

I have to admit that I was very impressed with the high level of maturity in thinking and the quality of analysis of user capability ranges, as well as marketing and engineering issues that some of the students exhibited and it seems even more impressive when I look at the fact that they were first year students. I have worked with many designers and consulted big companies on improving user experience in their designs and now in retrospect I can see that a lot of the experienced designers that I came across in my work had more trouble with considering the human component in their early conceptual designs than the students had with a simple assignment task. Maybe it has got something to do with youth… It was Jack Schmitt, a former NASA astronaut and the last of the Apollo astronauts to arrive and set foot on the Moon, who admitted that the Apollo programme achieved so much in so little time because of a combination of things, one of which was “extraordinarily motivated twenty-two-year-olds… [who] were just out of engineering school and highly imaginative – basically, they didn’t know how to fail, they hadn’t been around long enough to know what failure was like, so they didn’t worry about it” (Smith, 2005, p. 280). Or maybe with the fact that many organisational, technical, legislative, financial and time related compromises have to be made during the product’s progression from conceptual design through logical design to a physical form, all of which result in designers creating less for humans and more for product for product’s sake. But then again to objectively compare the performance of students with the performance of experienced designers with regard to the inclusion of the human component in their designs, we would have to observe how both groups went about product design from the preliminary conceptual stages through the stages of creating a logical model of a given product to the physical embodiment stages. However, in recent years academia has been paying a lot more emphasis to improved product-user interaction and different scientific methods that facilitate that interaction than in previous years when the experienced designers were educated and so the students have the advantage of having more information on user experience. Also, industry research carried out by Frost (1999) shows that for some time designers have been ignoring structured methods that would help them to improve their design processes, for the reasons such as:

  • the lack of availability of large quantities of data, which is often difficult and expensive to collect and when data is unavailable or incorrect the whole process of applying design methods seems redundant
  • not enough time nor inclination to research and use scientific design methods
  • designers and scientific writers do not share a common pattern of thinking and language and, as a result, design practitioners rarely refer for help to design science resources
  • the experiential knowledge of designers is often faster and more certain than the deployment of insightful but esoteric and abstract design science methods in situations where only an incremental change to a product form is required.

Although many designers are reluctant to employ design support methods in their work, the problem may not necessarily lie in their unwillingness to recognise the benefit of such methods but rather in the lack of visual, easy and quick to understand, implement and use methods that lead toward improvement in design practice to increase the chances of producing an accessible and usable product. So, there is still hope that one day designers will be given support methods that will fit their ways of thinking and working and more importantly that they will be happy to use such methods in their daily work.

  1. Smith, A. (2005) “Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth”. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
  2. Frost, R. B. (1999) “Why Does Industry Ignore Design Science?”. Journal of Engineering Design, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp. 301-304.