Website Usability Introduction and Resources

Anyone who builds websites today has a lot to keep in mind: balancing function and beauty and keeping up on the latest developments in technology, all while keeping in mind the demands of your boss or client is no easy task!

It's no wonder that usability is often a last-minute item on the checklist, or something that's forgotten altogether. After all, it is one of those things that, when done properly, is never noticed at all.

But usability is a crucial factor to keep in mind when designing and coding websites. After all, it doesn't matter how beautiful or well-coded your website is if it frustrates your users!

Fortunately, it is a hot research topic and our understanding of how people behave on the web — and why — grows every day.

Brushing up on it will make you better at your job, and save you plenty of time and effort in the long run. Here's why it's important, plus plenty of resources for you to up your game.

What Is Usability?

Just as you might guess from the term, website usability is a measurement of how easy websites are to use.

If your website is easy to use, does what it's supposed to, free of errors, and efficient and satisfying to use, then it has great usability.

But if your users...

  • have trouble figuring out how to navigate your site or use certain features;
  • have to click many times or jump through hoops to accomplish a task;
  • have to re-learn how to use your site every time they return;
  • make the same mistakes over and over;
  • are frustrated or made to feel stupid by your website

...then it has bad usability!

It is not as simple and intuitive as it seems. Sometimes features that seem obvious and foolproof to a web designer or developer will baffle users, or cause them to behave in ways you wouldn't expect.

It's easy to blame the user for not "getting it," but in reality the problem often lies in the website's usability.

What Is UX?

UX stands for "user experience." It is closely related to usability, but it isn't the same thing. While usability is concerned with people being able to accomplish tasks easily on a website, user experience is concerned with people feeling good about what they do at and get from a website. Usability is an important part of UX design. See Usability vs User Experience for more details.

What Is Accessibility

One key part of usability is to design for accessibility. That means designing for users who rely on assistive technologies. Not all of a website's users will visit the site in the way the designer intended them to. Some visitors are blind or deaf. Others have difficulty using pointing devices. When designing for usability, accessibility must be kept in mind.

History of Web Usability

The history of web design is marked by two major periods.

The first period began in the early 1990s with the release of the graphical web browser and peaked with the explosion in popularity of flash-based website designs. This first period was characterized by web designs driven by a desire to push the boundaries of what was technically possible on the web. Unfortunately, the focus on technical expertise removed the website user as the primary object around which websites were designed.

Beginning around the year 2000 the tide began to turn, and website users began to move back toward center stage in the web design process. Today, user experience, or UX, is at the heart of modern design thinking, and designing for usability takes precedence over all other facets of the design process.

Why Is Usability Important?

Today we're used to instant gratification thanks to fast technology and the web. You can look anything up at the click of your mouse or the tap of a smartphone. We're not used to being patient and taking time to understand how a website works — we just want it to work, period! And if it doesn't, we'll navigate to another website that does.

You can have the most beautifully designed website or the cleanest code on the web, but if users are getting frustrated by it, it won't matter, because they won't use it.

While it may seem like common sense to make your website easy to use, the principles of usability aren't as obvious as you might think.

As a designer or coder, you're much more tech-savvy than the average internet user. Your behavior when navigating the web is going to be different than your average user. It can sometimes be very difficult to anticipate how the average person is going to behave on your site.

And then there are factors like the device they're using. Usability is also very different depending on whether someone is navigating via desktop, tablet, or phone. What works well with a keyboard and mouse might be incredibly frustrating on a smartphone. You've probably experienced this yourself.

You might think that if you're using a well-designed CMS, you don't have to worry about usability because it's built in for you. But that's not true — you still need to keep it in mind. That's like thinking that since WordPress is good for SEO you don't have to do anything to rank high in search engines. The foundation is there, but you still need to understand the principles and put in the effort.

That's why it's important to learn the basics of usability, and how to apply it to your websites so that your users can stay happy. Here's how!

The Process of Making a User Interface Usable

Many different guidelines have been created by designers to define the standard by which usability is measured. For example, the primary functionality of a site should be implied by design and not depend upon text to explain it. In order to test for implied functionality, some designers make the text unreadable (eg, "Pharetra cras odio tortor...") and then give users specific tasks to complete.

Another standard applied to web and smartphone application design is the "Two-Tap Rule." It was coined by Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! It's very simple:

Once you're in the app, is it two taps to do anything you want to do? If no, time to redesign the app.

The "Two-Tap Rule" is obviously based on tablet and phone systerms. But the goal is more general: to make digital products as easy to use and efficient as possible. Regardless of the specific guidelines applied, designing for usability means taking a user-centered approach to website design.

According to the user experience research firm MeasuringU, there are three key principles that drive a user-centered design process:

  • Place the focus on users and tasks early in the design process. Users need to provide feedback directly to the design team as early in the process as possible.
  • Design in an iterative way. Good designers don't bank on getting a design perfect the first time. They plan on going back to the drawing board a few times during the design process to make significant changes based on user feedback.
  • Base design choices on empirical measurements. Don't make design decisions based on informal user feedback. Develop specific metrics to measure usability and let that information inform design decisions.

Resources for Learning About Website Usability

There are a lot of resources on usability. We've collected the best.

Articles

These articles are perfect for beginners who want to learn the basics of making your websites easy to use:

Books

For professional web designers and developers, these books dive deeper into the principles and practical applications of usability on the web.

  • Prioritizing Web Usability (2006) by Loranger and Nielsen: this book uses decades of web usability research conducted by Nielsen Norman Group to identify the most important and enduring guidelines for making better websites.
  • Don't Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (2014) by Steve Krug: full of fundamental principles and practical tips for a user-centered approach to web design, this book is one of the most popular books on the subject of web usability.
  • 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People (2011) by Susan Weinschenk: written by a behavioral scientist with a PhD in psychology, this book applies psychology to the design of communication and online interactions. Essential reading for web designers concerned about usability.
  • The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web (2010) by Jesse James Garrett: this book will help web designers to think more strategically about their designs, and be able to explain their choices to bosses and clients. A great introduction to usability for the web.
  • Mobile Usability (2012) by Nielsen and Budiu: This book covers the basics of creating a great user experience on mobile devices. While the examples may be a bit outdated, the principles remain the same.
  • The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition (2013) by Don Norman: while not about website usability, this book is a fascinating overview of the principles of usability as related to psychology and our everyday lives.

Blogs

Usability is a hot topic of research, so it's important to keep up with the latest developments:

Forums

If you get stuck and need to ask for help, check out these forums and Q&A sites for expert advice.

Tools

You can read all the info about usability in the world, but nothing beats seeing how real users behave on your website. Use these tools to find out.

  • UsabilityTools: watch real video playbacks of people interacting with your website design to make sure it works as intended.
  • IntuitionHQ: get live users to test out your site and ask them questions to pinpoint any issues.
  • OptimalSort: use this card sorting software to learn the best way to organize and present your content.
  • Usability Hub: a variety of remote user testing tools to find out how real live people use your website.
  • Notable: get feedback during the design process to make sure your design is user-centered from the beginning.

Make Usability a Priority!

Keeping up on all the latest technology and trends in web design and development is no easy task, but usability should be at the top of your list. The best results come when design and coding are approached with the user in mind first, not with it as an afterthought. By investing time and effort in learning about usability, you'll find that the quality of your work as a whole will improve.


Further Reading and Resources

We have more guides, tutorials, and infographics related to coding and website development:

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