Building Usable Websites (Part 1)

The study and application of usability principles in software is a new dimension of the discipline known as human factors engineering. Human factors revolutionized the way people built products and processes in the last century, and unfortunately in the early days of the web, was a virtually forgotten discipline. Now, as Internet and software applications insinuate themselves into our lives, the human factors approach has taken on a new urgency and is back in the forefront; this time wearing the name “usability.”

Usability is all about how people interact with software driven systems and how to make those systems better suited to their all-too-human users. When you hear people describe a piece of software as “user-friendly” or “intuitive”, what they are really saying is that the software exhibits good usability.

Usable applications are not created by accident (well, not usually!), but are rather the by-product of an iterative process of trial and error based on experience and real world feedback from users. Site planners often think in terms of metaphors that can help people draw functional or visual similarities between existing familiar systems and the new interfaces. One of the most common of these interface metaphors is to compare the computer screen to the dashboard of a car. All the necessary information and controls should be right there to allow you to navigate to your goal. The dashboard metaphor is a useful one, but by no means the only one. The root of the interface we all think of as Windows (or Mac) is a desktop metaphor.

These metaphors are strong primarily because they are familiar to most people. This is typical of good business-oriented software systems: They should match systems in the rest of the physical world. If they follow familiar conventions, they will speak the users’ language and should behave in a manner which is consistent with the users’ expectations (an “intuitive system”).

More adventurous developers are pushing the envelope, giving users less obvious metaphors or completely fresh systems. While it is true that the boundaries are essentially artificial ones and that designers can and will continue to take us into new and innovative spaces, there is a point of diminishing returns. As with many other areas in the business world, there is a point at which the management needs to keep things focused on the end goal – that of providing a usable application that requires little or no training, does not impose a support burden, and helps users get the job done.

We have all experienced websites that are too clever for their own good, leaving you guessing what in the world you are supposed to click on to find what you want. These sites, at least from a business perspective, are wasted money.

The challenges faced are considerable. More than a few projects have launched without sufficient attention paid to the usability aspects of the projects. Once released to the users, companies may well find that clients struggle with aspects the management never dreamed were problematic. Sites may well under perform. Opportunities may be missed and complaints and support costs begin to rise.

While usability is admittedly not rocket science, the fact remains that it is both necessary and more difficult than most people would assume. Designers face a conundrum: How to make a system that is simple enough for first time users to navigate without training or support, yet powerful and sophisticated enough not to frustrate experienced users who may already be familiar with the system.

Unfortunately, business unit leaders and project managers rarely make the best sources of information on a project’s usability – they are just too close to the project to be objective. The best approach is to get the project in front of a group of users as early in the process as possible to watch how people who have never seen this new system respond to it. This user testing is usually done with a limited deployment of the site in a controlled environment or with simple reviews of prototypes. One-to-one testing is not uncommon, but by far the most frequent technique involves assembling a small group of typical users for a focus group. In my experience, these focus group sessions never fail to surprise. Things you never thought were issues surface as people look at the work with a fresh set of eyes and few preconceptions.

In Part 2, we’ll take a look at some of the basic principles that have emerged that can help you make your website or software application more usable.