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Top Ten Don'ts of Usable Web Design

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What makes a website unusable? Could it be the fact that the text is yellow on a white background? Or maybe the fact that you have no idea where you are? Maybe it is because you jumped out of your seat when that unexpected music clip blared from your speakers. Whatever the reasons, you want your website to be usable and to create no difficulties for the user.

Follow these ten simple steps to make that happen. Do not become one of the many unusable websites cast out the instant the user lands on your homepage!

1. Do not make anyone think.

Coined from Don't Make Me Think (external link), by Steve Krug, this literately means - do not make anyone think. When a visitor comes to your website everything should come completely natural to them. This is the key foundation of web usability itself. All of the following steps revolve around eliminating any extraneous thoughts of the user.

Four common questions by visitors that you should seek to eliminate are:

  • What website is this?
  • Where do I go to find ____?
  • Where am I?
  • What does this do?

When a visitor can reach their destination on your website with little or no thought process they are more apt to become a return visitor. A user decides their impression of a website in very little time; on average under five seconds. Therefore, usability is critical. You do not want your visitor to feel confused, or that will only contribute to them abandoning your website for another.

Your attention to user thought process is vital. You must go the full nine yards, and not do a half arsed job.

2. Do not make your website inconsistent.

Consistency is one of the most abused factors on the Internet. It is of the utmost importance that your website is one-hundred percent consistent with everything around it. This does not only include spreading consistency throughout your entire website, but making it consistent with other websites as well.

All of the pages on your website should have some form of uniformity in the navigation and appearance. When visitors are browsing the various pages of your website the layout should maintain consistency, preferably it should remain identical. Changes, such as color variations, are risky waters and should be avoided if possible.

Varying your navigational structure from page to page is about the worst thing you can do on your website. Visitors rely immensely on your website's navigation, and continually changing the navigation as they browse your website is bound to cause confusion. If your website contains vast amounts of information, then hierarchical navigation is the solution. Hierarchical navigation allows you to introduce new navigational sections for a specific area of your website effectively with less of a usability risk.

Many designers dislike "reinventing the wheel." Reinventing the wheel is not bad, but rather provides an otherwise-unobtainable usability benefit. Users expect certain things to be in certain places. For example, users expect the logo to be placed towards the top of a web page, rather than in some other remote location. It is important when designing a website to maintain some form of similarity to the traditional expectations of users. When users find that everything is exactly where they expected it to be they will have no difficulties in effectively using your website.

Another important aspect of consistency is providing consistent language. Try not to use multiple terms to refer to one thing. Users will often become confused if they are not already familiar with the jargon for your particular topic area.

Remember, consistency is critical.

3. Do not use complex navigation.

As mentioned above, navigation is a vital aspect of your website. Visitors rely unimaginably on your navigation to direct them through the various pages that make up your website. Many websites fail to use understandable navigation. Instead, they use complex drop-down menus with text that is barely visible to the human eye.

Complex navigation evolves from the lack of focus on usable navigation. If you find that you need complex navigation for your website try looking at alternative solutions. Continuous hierarchical drop-down menus are difficult to use, and often have issues across browsers. Instead, try menus that expand and collapse based on the current section.

Tabbed navigation is the most usable form of navigation for users. The idea of tabs is already in most of the users' minds, and they will understand it immediately. One mistake of many websites is that they use tab-like navigation, but fail miserably in one area - they do not make the current section's tab stick out from the others. Doing so is the key factor with tabs, giving it the tab like feel.

4. Do not make it hard for your visitors to give you money.

One of the common mistakes of ecommerce websites is making it painful for customers to actually try and pay for something that they want to purchase. The process of making a payment for a good or service that you offer should be painless. There is no need to have the customer's mother's maiden name or even their middle name, but apparently some websites disagree.

Have you ever come across a website that requires tons of information just to make a simple purchase? A customer should only be required to give their billing and shipping information, nothing else. Shopping online is suppose to be easier, and we do not fill out pages of information to make a purchase at the supermarket. Why should anyone have to on the Internet either?

One of the many faults of ecommerce usability is requiring customers to register an account before making a purchase. This is just unnecessary work for the customer, and potentially could drive them away. The only time that a user should be required to register an account is if they are purchasing a service of some kind that necessitates the need for a permanent account.

The purchasing process should be quick, easy, and effective. Do not require any information that you do not absolutely need. Does it not just seem senseless to make it hard for your visitors to give you money?

5. Do not make forms difficult to use.

Forms are the basic method to receive user input on the Internet. Any form that your visitors are going to be using should have optimized usability. Most changes that improve form usability involve improving the markup. A few basic improvements that you can make are:

  • Use labels to denote the information that an input field should contain. Make sure that the label is assigned to the proper form field's id, which marks their relationship with one another.
  • Make your labels and form fields align with each other, which eases the readability for the user. Do not use complex nested tables for setting up readable forms, because they take longer to load.
  • Refrain from using select fields if there are under five options. Instead, use radio buttons. This way the user can see all of their options and select their choice easier. If the choices are boolean, true or false, then use a check box.
  • Mark what information is required, such that the user does not feel obliged to fill out every field if they do not have to.

Another massive mistake of many websites is not saving form data if one of the fields does not pass its validation, such as a required field being left blank. For example, I head onto a website and sign up for an account. I fill out a few things and click "submit," thinking that the process must be over. I come to find out that I forgot to fill something out, but the program did not save any of my form data! This is a very ill practice and irritates visitors.

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