Having a user-friendly website is as important as having a beautiful original website design. Sadly, in our pursuit of excellence it’s all too easy to forget about usability and focus instead on aesthetics and originality.
Yet it’s the right combination of beauty, uniqueness, AND a user-friendly design that keeps our clients coming back for more. That’s because a usable website draws and retains readers, making them much more likely to become customers.
Don’t fall into the trap of forgetting about the end user experience when you design a client website.
What makes a website user-friendly? In this post, I identify four keys that will make any website design more user-friendly. Keep these handy tips in mind to design a more usable site.
Key #1: Navigation
Navigation is one important key to usability. Some would say it’s the most important key. Users need to be able to find what they are looking for quickly and with a minimum of effort on their part.
Studies have shown that most website users are not willing to stick around and figure out a complex navigational scheme. If your menu structure isn’t user-friendly, you’ll lose the user.
Here are just a few navigation mistakes to watch out for:
- Hard to find navigation. The user shouldn’t have to hunt for a way to navigate through the site. Menu bars should be visible and their purpose should be obvious.
- Odd acronyms in the menu. Avoid abbreviations and acronyms unless the meaning is obvious. (Remember that what is obvious to you may not be obvious to the user.)
- Multiple layers of menus. How many sub-menus must the user go through before he or she can perform the task or find the information that they came for?
- No search box. Users are used to searching websites to find what they want. A website without a search box is less navigable.
If you need to learn more about user-friendly navigation, fortunately there are plenty of resources out there to help you learn more. For example, Toby Biddle shares some navigation bar insights based on A/B test studies in his recent DesignM.ag post, What Really Matters in Navigation Bar Usability?
Key #2: Readability
Readability is another key factor that makes a website user-friendly. A user should be able to grasp the information on the website quickly and with very little effort.
In fact, studies show that most readers don’t actually read the information on a website at all. They scan it. According to a recent study from the Nielsen Norman Group, the most information that a reader is likely to read is 28%.
That statistic means that even in a best-case scenario most readers won’t read two-thirds of a website.
So, to reach an audience, a website must be scannable. Here are some design factors that contribute website scannability:
- Color. For a website to be readable, there should be enough contrast between the color used for the text and the color used for the background. Words should be easily read. Jennifer Kyrnin includes a helpful contrast table in her About.com post, Contrasting Foreground and Background Colors, that illustrates the difference between readable and unreadable color combinations beautifully.
- Font. In general, the simpler a font is, the easier it is to read. Fonts designed to look like script or made up of special characters are less scannable. Most design experts agree that san serif fonts work best for online design and serif fonts are better for print design. Also, avoid using too many different fonts in the same design.
- Formatting. The text on a page should make full use of formatting techniques such as headlines, bulleted lists, and bolding to increase scannability. Long chunks of unbroken text are less likely to be read than small chunks of text.
But readability is not all there is.
Key #3: Load Time
How long does your site take to load?
If your site takes longer than ten seconds to load, most readers won’t stick around. Associated Press statistics show the average user’s attention span is decreasing, not increasing.
If you’ve forgotten to consider load time in your web design, you’ve forgotten a critical element of a user-friendly site.
Unfortunately, many websites are getting slower rather than faster. That’s especially true of retail sites, as Amy Gesenhues points out in her Marketing Land post, Top Retail Websites Not Getting Faster: Average Web Page Load Time Is 7.25 Seconds [Report].
What that means is that if you design a website that loads quickly, you’re probably giving your client an advantage over the competition. Who doesn’t want that for their clients?
We’re so tempted to spice things up with video, flash, and other multi-media that we forget than most web users are in a rush. A slow-loading home page video is probably not the best way to create a user-friendly website that draws readers in. So, stop and think about load time before you add another multi-media element.
Key #4: Mobile Friendly
Another important key to usability is how your website appears on mobile devices. A user-friendly website is a mobile-friendly website. Every new website should have a mobile version,
The fact is that mobile devices are not going away. In fact, for an increasing number of users, a mobile device such as a smart phone or tablet is the main way that they access the Internet.
So, to be user-friendly it only makes sense that a website needs to consider the needs of mobile users.
You’ve probably read a lot about responsive design lately. We’ve even covered it here on Vandelay Design blog in the post, How to Turn Any Site Into a Responsive Site. Mobile friendly website design can be accomplished through responsive or adaptive design.
Other Usability Resources
By now, you’re probably convinced that you should incorporate more usability features into your design. And you’re probably right. But you may be unsure about how to accomplish that goal.
One company that I worked for had a usability lab that brought focus groups in to test their screen design. The lab always fascinated me, but most designers are probably not going to have access to that type of resource.
You don’t necessarily need access to a usability lab to create usable design. There are plenty of other usability resources available to help you stay on top of what the user needs.
Here are a few helpful usability blog posts to check out:
- The Art of Designing User Driven Websites from John Seibert at Oneextrapixel. This post describes process of designing a usable website.
- 35+ Usability Resources for Web Designers from Steven Snell on DesignM.ag. This post has a huge list of tools that a designer can use to improve the usability of a website.
Here are some organizations and websites dedicated to usability:
- UXPA (Usability Professionals’ Association). This organization is for usability professionals and those whose work involves usability including web designers and developers.
- Usability.gov. I didn’t realize the government had a website on usability until I found this site, which is designed for web managers, designers, and usability specialists.
- STC Usability SIG. This is a subgroup of the Society for Technical Communication, but they do have some good information and resources.
- User Interface Engineering blog. The largest usability research organization has a very helpful blog on usability. They also offer virtual seminars.
And those are just a few of the many excellent online resources available.
What usability tips or resources would you add?
Share your answers in the comments.