Common Web Site Usability Mistakes

When you built your first web site, didn’t you just want to promote it everywhere with big bold letters saying, “HEY EVERYONE! COME HERE AND LOOK AT MY WEBSITE! ISN’T IT GREAT?” Or, when you submit your web site to forums for web site reviews, what do you typically ask for? You may write, “Tell me what you think of my web site” or “Which color do you like better, blue or red?” or “Did I optimize for search engines properly?”

The worst mistake you will make as a web site owner is to ask someone to “look” at your web site. It’s like the dreaded, “Do I look fat?” question. There’s never a safe answer. For starters, someone may look slim standing up, but resemble the Buddha when sitting on a couch. You need to assign tasks to get honest answers to these tough questions.

To understand if your web site is meeting its usability requirements, ask people to take it for a spin and try it out—and more specifically, to see if they can answer the following questions:

What is the purpose of the site?

The Five Second Test tool is one way to explore immediate impressions and experiment by asking, “Tell me what the site is about”, to see if the site’s purpose is communicated clearly. It can’t warn if your shopping cart is broken. It doesn’t alert you if your sales lead form was invasive and turned away potential customers.

When car shopping, good sales people begin by explaining a car’s features and describe updates from previous models. They’ll walk around the car with you and demonstrate how to pack the back with groceries and squeeze in fishing poles. You won’t buy it at this point, however. For now, the sales person is spinning you a tale to help you imagine yourself inside that gorgeous expensive hunk of machine.

Sales people don’t approach you with “Do you think this car would look better in orange?”

What need does it fulfill for me?

Another area of concern that web site owners have is conversions. They’ll ask for feedback by writing, “My sales are down! Can you look at my homepage and tell me what I’m doing wrong?” Sometimes they’ll write, “We just redesigned our entire web site and our data tells us people are still leaving from the homepage. Help!”

If you’ve ever sold a home, you know that real estate agents will tell you to clean up the yard, paint the walls, empty it out so it looks roomy and place flowers around. If all we had to do was to make a house look pretty to sell it, we wouldn’t need real estate agents to show our homes. They’d sell themselves. Web sites with fresh paint on the homepage but no repairs to the information architecture, persuasive content, functionality and user experience can’t be expected to perform miracles.

A good real estate agent will bring potential buyers to a house and encourage them to turn on the water faucets, open closets, and help them visualize 50 people in the family room at Uncle Frank’s birthday party. What if you move in, get arthritis and can’t manage stairs anymore? The value proposition is not just about features and price. It’s about what benefit someone will get by purchasing your service, buying your products or experiencing your online tools. In addition, try to help visitors plan ahead and make logical choices rather than purposely pushing them into a revenue stream that will only benefit you in the long run. Why? Word of mouth marketing, the “long tail”, customer satisfaction and brand management.

Is it responsive to my emotions?

When you wrote up requirements for your online business, did you remember to include emotion? Most likely, it never crossed your mind. Do you watch how people use web sites when they’re in a hurry? Upset? Worried? Stressed? Tired? Hungry?

Google launched SearchWiki. Regardless of what you may think about it, what motivated them are their users. Their data shows that searchers want better ways to search, organize, save their research and quickly find favorite web sites. With user feedback, Google can create user personas to help developers understand how searchers use Google when they’ve just been informed of bad news. How do stress and exhaustion affect search behavior?

Consideration for your web site visitors’ emotional state may be vital for your web site. While testing a web site recently for a young adult rehabilitation center, I was pleased to find their content was written in a warm, caring way. The colors were soothing pastels. The pictures showed happy clients. Unfortunately, their content was all about the center and types of therapy. It was long winded, requiring time to read and digest. What wasn’t addressed with bullet point details on the homepage was proof of their claims to calm fears and concerns over ethics. Were there case studies or testimonials? Could a parent talk to other parents who sent a child there?

What if the site visitor is a father at the end of his rope? He’s tired, busy, a widower and shaking with emotion as he scrolls, clicks and reads. Was the site designed for an upset Dad? If not, what could be done to create a better user experience for him? For this site visitor, the site of a healthy looking child beaming into the camera while holding a farm animal might be an emotional hook. Someone available to speak with him “now” may persuade him to call because his feelings are raw at that moment.

Consider an insurance quote site with low conversions. It contains all the bells and whistles, content, easy navigation, and basically the same claims that every other insurance quote company places on their web site. Even if this site should present a reasonable competitive business value proposition, their form may not be converting. Why? In many cases, there is no information about how long the quote process will take. How many pages is the form? How much information is expected from the applicant? Is the follow up response by email or phone call? Is there a choice? Do they show competitive data and choices?

The biggest mistake is to believe that web site appearance matters the most. How it looks is only one part of the process. How it performs is another. What it can give back to site visitors and how effectively it conveys that information will matter even more.

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This article was originally written by Kim Berg and published by Search Engine Land, November 28, 2008

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