At Orchid Box we like to keep in the loop with the very cream of cutting edge web developers to maintain involvement with the latest technological developments across the web, whether it be in SEO, web design or ecommerce amongst many other facets. A recent drink shared with the web usability guru Steve Krug got us thinking about usability and the standard web user, and what we can do to optimise sites to meet the needs of the customer alongside the requirements of the search engines.

A website's layout is as important, if not more so, than the layout of a shop.

Think about it - as a shopkeeper you have to think carefully about where you are going to put your goods.  Just as it’s useless in a shop to have an inaccessible aisle that can only be reached via a back door behind the counter, it’s pointless filling pages with good content if they are unnavigable for the normal web user. It is also important to make sure your products are clearly labelled and carefully positioned – you might want your best deals to be somewhere prominent and obvious with a nice big price tag, your items might be carefully placed so related items are nearby, or some offers might be near the checkout to target everyone as they leave. It’s exactly the same with your ecommerce site: your web usability should be carefully thought about to target specific users and promote certain deals or articles.

Web usability is often an afterthought for website developers, possibly too concerned with their SEO or content to think about layout and the navigation of their site. We would recommend anyone interested in this, if they haven’t already, to check out Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability”.

So what are the main things to think about with web usability design? Here\'s just a few top tips from Orchid Box:

Web Design Usability – Look!

A normal web user is very likely to judge a book by its cover. Scrap that, not just normal web users - we’ve all done it, and probably still do. A site with a clear layout and an original look should attract a user’s spring-loaded attention span and grab them to stay on your pages but if its full of boring text or uses a standard and uninteresting format they’ll be on their way.

If the keywords a user is looking for are nice and clear in the basic layout of your homepage the user is also more likely to stick; they’ve found what they want so there’s no reason to leave. After all, the web world possibly the most indiscriminant democracy in the world – if site and its web design are good, it doesn’t matter who made it and when.

Other aspects are also surprisingly vital. Colour schemes for one: look around the web and have a look at the colours in use on sites. Sites targeting more the female population will generally have softer colours like pale blues and pinks, shops will often have attention-grabbing colours like oranges and greens whilst more user-driven sites will generally be more solid colours like reds and blues. Take a look at the colours on the Mothercare site - as a shop they've targeted a dark and solid blue as their banner, with basket links a very clear red:

mothercare's dark blue colour scheme

 

Whereas a company like Wikipedia, being more of an informative site, have chosen a softer and much elss in-your-face white and grey set-up:

 

wikipedia's grey and white colours excude intelligence

 

You'd probably be surprised that as much thought goes into website colour schemes as it does in painting your bedroom!

 

Web Usability Design – Don't Ban the Banner

One of the tried and tested systems in basic web usability design is the banner. It doesn’t take too much browsing to find a site with a nice standard navigation banner at the top – the Mothercare site is a prime example:

 mothercare banner

 

You can see with this site it’s very easy for the user to find what they want with the clear and concise keywords in the banner. Other sites might try something different, maybe a sidebar or similar, but the top banner gives sites an excellent framework for their web design and a uniform structure to work all the other pages around. Some sites go for the double bar – click through to a heading and you’ll be given a new series of choices below the old banner. This is great for usability as it puts all the options on a plate for the typically web user. Essentially, some form of uniform navigation toolbar in a prominent position is a near-must for any site.

 

Web Usability Design – Navigation

For web usability, nothing beats navigation for importance, whether your an ecommerce site, one that relies on advertising to make money or indeed a non-profit site. An easy navigation to get around the site, helped by a banner or similar, is absolutely essential when it comes to web usability design.

First and foremost, don’t hide things! A link might be obvious to you, but a standard web user might struggle to find a “register” button or the “add to checkout” option which could cost you a return. Web users have some amount of patience but not that much. How many times have you been to a site and failed to find the login or register button?

You’d be surprised how widespread this problem is. Steve Krug has a great way of putting this, referencing his “reservoir of goodwill”. That is to say, most users have a certain amount of loyalty to the site they are on and will persevere for a while to find what they want if they think the site to be valid. Unfortunately, bad navigation and unclear links will quickly drain the reservoir and once it runs out they’ll be off quicker than a banker to the Bahamas.

Give the user what they want too - you can tempt further sales in ecommerce with an accurate “related items” list, indeed with other sites a “related articles” or “find out more” link will invite further clicks. Think about Amazon's "Users who bought this also bought..." section, it is a great means for targeting a specific audience for a product. Reviews are also great – the effect of a positive review towards a sale is often invaluable in securing the return, but a negative one can help too as the user moves on to a more suitable product and feels more trust in the site.

 

Web usability design - Testing

 

Try things out! Google analytics will enable you to track and record any traffic changes that come with adapting the site so test and test again. Obviously you have to give the site amendments chance to build up a reliable set of results, but once you have a few hundred independent users’ numbers you can usually tell if something is working or not. It’s well worth doing – moving one article or shop item to the prominent part of the page might replace a lesser performing one or one link might not be doing so well now it’s been there a bit and users are bored of seeing it. New content will keep your returning users back and give the site a fresh feel – indeed it often makes it feel like a new site!

Web Usability Design - Design, Navigation, Testing - Putting it all Together

So there’s just a few things to think about in optimising your website’s usability and design – it’s important to be adaptable and both proactive and reactive in creating your pages. A fresh and inviting looking website is brilliant, but it needs to be backed up by easy and clear navigation. By testing things out you’ll soon root out a good foundation – but as with all optimisation, there’s always things that can be improved!