By Kim Komando
Let's start with this scenario: You need to buy something and you decide to do some advance research online.
You try one company's Web site. It's plain, but it lists pricing information, the models it services, and its contact information. Then you try another company's site. It makes you sit through a three-minute Flash presentation before letting you explore the site. (There's a "skip this intro" button at the top right, but the button is camouflaged.) And, instead of getting pricing information, you have to fill out a form and wait for a salesperson to call.
You're probably going to call the first company, right?
As you might infer by our second example, a Web site's elegance is simply not going to win over users. If your site is not easily navigable and doesn't contain relevant and up-to-date information, you're driving customers away.
That's where Web site "usability" comes into play. According to Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group, an internationally recognized expert in this area, "Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use."
Here are six things you need to do to make your Web site "usable."
1. Help your customers find their way. How easy is it to get around your Web site? When customers look at the home page, do they see a clearly marked navigation system? Or do they have to roam around clicking things until something happens?
Think hard about whether you really need to be a navigation trailblazer. If your navigation system is radically different than others, you'll confuse your users. A simple drop-down or tabbed menu using words is fine. It may not look as cool or trendy, but your users will be able to find what they need.
Let's consider a small bookstore's Web site as an example.
Imagine using pictures of books on the left-hand side of the page. When you mouse over the picture, the book opens and tells you the genre. It's clever but impractical.
Your customers don't want to remember that the third book down is the home-improvement section and the sixth book takes you to romance novels. And they don't want to wait three seconds for the book to open to find where that link will lead.
2. Say what you mean, and say it clearly. It's so easy to get caught up in marketing lingo and buzzwords. But they may well confuse the customer. If you are selling a product or offering a service, state it clearly.
There are countless Web sites filled with warm and fuzzy slogans that never get to the point. What exactly does "providing solutions to problems" mean? What are the problems? How are they solved?
And a user shouldn't have to click on the About Us page (you do have one, right?) to figure out what your business does. That information should be on your home page.
3. Keep it simple. A splash page — which is a special landing page for product offers, sale items or special features, often with lots of graphics and color — may be a great way for Web designers to show their talent. But for many customers, it can be an annoyance. I say, dump it. But if you must have a splash page, consider giving your customers a "Skip this" link (if you have the same basic information on another page).
Keep pictures, large text, flashing banners and the like to a minimum. Those types of gimmicks generally cheapen a site. They also make the Web pages take longer to download.
For example, I have reviewed many products from one particular company (that shall remain nameless). The products offered are of high quality, but the company's Web site is a flashing, gaudy mess. It makes the company look like it's peddling junk.
Your Web site doesn't have to be barebones. But it shouldn't be obnoxious, either.
4. Provide information, not marketing-speak. Think about why people visit your Web site. They go there to get information or to buy a product. Make it as easy as possible to find the information they want — not just what you want to provide. I personally dislike lots of advertising puffery and grinning people. Please, just tell me what you do.
One sure irritant is pricing secrecy. Don't make a customer fill out a form to find out how much something will cost. You'd be annoyed if you walked into a grocery store and had to fill out a form to get the price of milk.
Obviously, if you sell insurance, you can't publish a price list. But you can set up a page that calculates several variables and provides free ballpark quotes. Customers want instant information. Give it to them.
It's also important to update your site regularly. It does you no good if the contact information for sales is for someone who left the company months ago. Unfortunately, many companies throw up a Web site and then forget about it.
5. Test your site — again and again. There is one simple way to attain good usability. Testing, testing and more testing. But you have to test with the right people.
Your customers and readers are the best people to test a site. They are the ones who use your site.
Unless your core audience is Web designers and tech-savvy users, avoid using these people as your guinea pigs. What's obvious to them could leave the true users scratching their heads.
If possible, be in the same room as the tester(s). And test individually. That way you can observe and write notes as questions and problems arise. Don't answer questions. If something isn't obvious to users, you'll have to tweak the design.
It may sound like testing takes a ton of time and money, but it doesn't. For a small site, it should take about 20 minutes or so per user. Four or five users is a good sample to get sufficient feedback. After testing, changes should only take a day or two. You can always offer a free product or service — or perhaps a gift certificate to a restaurant — for the tester's time.
6. Be a usability advocate; it can pay off. Having a Web site with strong usability could boost your bottom line.
The Nielsen Norman Group (www.nngroup.com) conducted a study on the return on investment of 42 redesigned Web sites. Owners of those sites spent an average of 10% of their Web budget on usability. After redesigning the sites, site usability increased by 135%, the sales-conversion rate increased 100% and traffic increased 150%, according to the study.
Yes, it's easy to see why you need usability. But I will be the first to tell you that it's also difficult to attain over time, especially if you have a Web site that changes, grows and evolves. This is something that I struggle with on my own site. I am continually updating it based on user feedback.
Web usability does take time, money and attention. But it pays off in the long run.
Kim Komando writes about workplace technology and security issues. She's the host of the nation's largest talk-radio show about computers and the Internet, and writes a syndicated column for more than 100 Gannett newspapers and for USA Today. Find Kim's show on the radio station nearest you, and send an e-mail to subscribe to her free weekly e-mail newsletter.