Web usability: a guide to usability basics

By Trenton Moss

What is web usability?

Web usability is a key consideration for designing websites that make it easy for users to find what they're looking to achieve, quickly and efficiently. A usable, user-friendly website can reap huge benefits for your online business, for example:

  • Every £1 invested in improving your website's usability returns £10 to £100 (source: IBM)
  • A web usability redesign can increase sales/conversion rate by 100% (source: Jakob Nielson)

Why simple site navigation matters 

Easy and logical site navigation is a key part of website usability best practice. Users have become accustomed to particular navigation layouts, structures, and terminology, for example:

  • The organisation logo is in the top-left corner and links back to the homepage
  • The term ‘About us’ is used for organisation information
  • Navigation is in the same place on each page and adjacent to the content
  • Anything flashing or placed above the top logo is often an advertisement
  • The term ‘Shopping cart’ is used for items you might wish to purchase

These are just a few examples, but just think of some of the many additional conventions that are in place to enhance navigation and usability.

It's essential not to underestimate the importance of these conventions, because as the Internet matures we're getting more and more used to things being done a certain way. Break these conventions and you may be left with nothing but a website with poor usability and a handful of dissatisfied site visitors.

Site speed: pages must download quickly

Usability studies have shown that users won't wait for long page load times, especially where broadband access is reduced. Google found that 53% of mobile users will actually abandon a site that takes more than three seconds to load..

For these reasons, it's essential for optimal usability that your website downloads quickly.

To speed up the download time of your website we recommend you do three things:

  1. Use CSS and not tables to lay out your web page
  2. Use CSS and not images to create fancy navigation items
  3. Check-out this article about how to speed up the download time of your web pages

Information should be easy to retrieve

We read web pages in a different manner to the way we read printed matter. We generally don't read pages word-for-word. Instead, we scan web pages and certain items stand out:

  • Headings
  • Link text
  • Bold text
  • Bulleted lists

Did you notice that images were left out of that list? Contrary to the way in which we read printed matter, we see text before we see images on the Internet. For optimal website usability, don't place important information in images as it might go unnoticed.

Restrictions must not be placed on users

Don't prevent your users from navigating through the Internet in the way that they want to. For example:

  1. Every time a link is opened in a new window the back button is disabled. Approximately 60% of Web users employ the back button as their primary means of navigation (source: Usability Interface). If you do this then you're preventing 60% of your users from using their primary navigation. Now that can't be good for usability!
  2. Don't use frames to lay out your website. Frames can cause a number of usability problems, namely:
    1. Disabling the back button (see above)
    2. Bookmarking not possible
    3. Impossible to e-mail the link to someone else
    4. Problems with printing
    5. Users feel trapped if external links open in the same window
    6. Search engine optimisation issues

There are lots of other ways that websites can place restrictions on users, ultimately damaging their usability. Can you think of any more? Consider the last time a website really infuriated you. What annoying thing did it do to make you feel that way?