Why You Need to Notice Usability (and How It Can Make the World a Better Place)

By Wednesday September 22nd, 2010

Usability is a key concept in web development. The term is self-explanatory in some ways, but it’s important to know exactly what it means in the web context and also in the larger context of the actual, physical world.

Usability is a key concept in web development. The term is self-explanatory in some ways, but it’s important to know exactly what it means in the web context and also in the larger context of the actual, physical world.

I remember a time when we had to convince potential clients that they would benefit from a website. It wasn’t, “You need a good website,” “…a cool website,” or even “…a website with advanced functionality.” We had to convince business owners that they needed a website in the first place.

Now, half a decade later, things are different. The thought of a business without a website is laughable. That’s great for us in two ways. First, we don’t have to spend time convincing people to buy a website initially. Second, we can focus on more important aspects to sell a website. One aspect specifically is usability.

At Brolik, we love usability. We’re very focused on the user experience. Personally, I think about it all the time. Beyond how it applies to laying out websites, I think about day to day usability in everything I do. I’m often frustrated by bad usability. Until you really focus on it, you might not think too much about how you use things. You might not think about the limitations imposed on you or the possibilities available to streamline a process. (If you live in Philadelphia, maybe you’ve heard a little commotion about the new solar compactor trash cans and their must-touch-to-open handles… or how people in New York thought the trash cans were mailboxes and deposited their mail… bad usability.) Once you do pay attention to it, though, you’ll understand the beauty in a user-friendly, easy-to-use, easy-to-figure-out product or process. You may know exactly what I’m talking about if you’ve switched from using a PC to a Mac.

On a website, features like proper labeling and instructions, bread crumb trails, descriptive menu options, popup “tooltip” hints, etc. are small usability details. Proper hierarchy, white space around elements on a page, and spatially-grouped related items are all larger scale examples of good usability. I won’t even get into text-for-web usability, although it’s one of the more important usability areas in my opinion. Here’s some further reading. It takes practice, user testing, and a lot of web surfing experience to really master website usability, but it only takes common sense to notice it.

Start to pay attention to websites as you surf, search, and purchase products online. (Ecommerce, in fact, is one area that so many large sites fall short on when it comes to usability.) If you’re interested in more information, sign up for Jakob Nielson’s Alert Box usability emails. They’re super specific (Did you know that users only read the first 2 words, about 11 characters, of each link and headline on the web?), but they’re informative, and they get you thinking about the content you’re consuming on a daily basis.

You can’t do much about the usability of other websites, but you can certainly control it on your own site. You can even control the usability of the documents and emails you write. As you write your next email, try double spacing after paragraphs and starting each paragraph with a bold one or two word “title.” Or try numbering a large list of points you want to get across. You might be surprised at how those simple changes affect the responses you get.

Bonus: Mobile Websites
Another great example of usability? Mobile versions of websites. With navigation and graphics built for smaller screens and touch “gestures,” mobile websites are an excellent example of good usability. Who wants to squint at a shrunken down full-featured website when they’re probably looking for specific information quickly while they’re on the go. Try out some of your favorite websites on your smartphone, and you’ll get an idea of who’s paying attention to making your life easier and who’s behind the times.

Links from this article…

Philadelphia Trash Can Complaints http://www.phillydesignblog.com/2009/05/big-belly/
New York Trash Can Complaints http://www.celsias.com/article/solar-powered-trash-cans-get-mixed-reviews/
Bread Crumb Trails (defined) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breadcrumb_(navigation)
Writing for the Web http://www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/
Jakob Nielsen’s AlertBox http://www.useit.com/alertbox/
Nano Content http://www.useit.com/alertbox/nanocontent.html

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About the Author

Drew Thomas is the CTO and co-founder of Brolik. He oversees Brolik's technology projects, including Leverage, Brolik’s proprietary technology platform. Drew spends most of his free time on side projects and prefers to blend work and life into a balanced, enjoyable experience. He lives in Austin, TX.
Twitter: @drewbrolik
LinkedIn: Drew Thomas
Google+: Drew Thomas