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Usability Matters Usability Matters

Rank: 3

Usability and Commercial Success:

An online clothing retailer spent millions on advertising, and achieved brand recognition amongst 13% of UK Web users (which is pretty high).

But ...

• The site only worked in high-end browsers with plug-ins.

• It was designed for fast connections -- and was slow even on a 56K modem.

• The whizzy multimedia was there purely for show and didn't add to the engagement.

• Browsing through the clothes was laborious.

• The brand name search facility led users to expect that they could buy any brand when in fact the range was more limited -- a drop-down would have been better.

The result? The number of hits was disappointingly lower than for many sites with lower brand recognition. In January this year the company announced job cuts and huge price reductions ... and the launch of a low-bandwidth version.

What's usability?

From confusing search engine results to obscure iconic navigation buttons, there are a million and one examples on the Web of, "Things That Users Don't Understand." These examples can have serious implications for the success of a Web site or even the business tied to it. Imagine you went to a department store where you kept getting lost, couldn't find what you were looking for, couldn't figure out where to pay, and couldn't find anyone to ask for help. Would you still want to shop there, or would you want to get the heck out of there and go somewhere else?

To create things that users understand, we in turn have to understand the users and how they think. Good "usability" is about designing things so that they make sense to the people who use them. The interaction that users have with an object or system should meet their needs and wants as elegantly as possible -- whether it's a Web site or a left-handed potato peeler. If it doesn't, they won't want to use it.

Of course, usability isn't the only consideration (having interesting content or good products is pretty important as well). Nonetheless, usability can make or break the success of your site.

Unfortunately, spending time and money doing usability work is sometimes a thankless task, because people don't tend to notice the implementation of usability concepts, only the lack of them.

For example (and I know this for a fact), one undisclosed large company has their bathroom hand towel dispensers hidden behind steel panels. They are so hard to find that someone has had to post an ugly sign on each one saying, "Please Note: Paper Towels Are Located In This Dispenser." It's still not clear, even if you read the sign, how you get the towels out though. Who knows how many important visitors have surreptitiously wiped their hands on their suits after washing? OK, so, superficially, bathroom accessories may not have much in common with the Web, but a surprising number of Web sites suffer from very similar usability problems.

On page two, we'll focus on how to make a good impression and how not to hide the hand towel dispensers.


Effective Writing for the Web
Building Your Web Cache Farm
Next: Usability Matters - Making a Good Impression

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