Usability is common sense. Good design is common sense. After all, there is no point building a site that is unusable, or a site that isn’t designed well.
Typically, talk of usability orients around function i.e. ensuring websites are easier to use by streamlining content and making navigation clearer. The problem, like with any set of functional guidelines, is that usability is about much more than functional interaction.
Both usability and design are about communication.
The Steps You Need To Take Before You Think About Form & Function
Form and function are important.
But before form and function comes purpose. The purpose of a website is to attract and retain interested visitors. The purpose of a commercial website is to sell.
No matter how well designed, or how usable a website might be, if it doesn’t address a need, then great usability and great design will not help. The web is littered with examples of beautiful form and function that serve no purpose.
Let’s say we’ve identified a market niche. We’ve found a need in the market that isn’t met elsewhere, or we can meet that need better than competitors. Let’s look at five ways to ensure we communicate our message effectively on the web, even before we start to execute.
1. Focus On The User
Do you know who your buyers are? What they want? Where they live? How old they are? If they have credit cards or not? Are they well-off, or poor? Educated?
Usability often talks about creating personas – a characterization of different types of users. This can be a useful exercise in identifying your market, as it gets you thinking from the users point of view.
However, personas they have their limits. People aren’t cartoon characters and will act differently in different situations, so what we’re really looking for is a commonality most of your users share.
What is your core message to your typical user? Write it down. In bold. Weigh every decision you make against that core message.
Almost everything you do should enhance communication with your common user. Your terminology, graphics, pitch and approach should be in sync with your typical users. Communication, and trustworthiness, is enhanced if all aspects of your site are consistent in terms of approach.
2. It’s Not About You
A visitor does not have to be on your site. A visitor is one click away from leaving your site. A visitor has made almost no time investment in getting to your site.There are plenty of other sites.
They have all the control. If you do not meet the visitors needs, they are gone.
Makes you wonder why so many sites spend so much time talking about themselves, huh? No doubt you’ve seen such sites, where the first thing you hit is a mission statement, followed by a summary of how great the company is.
No one cares.
Do you understand what your typical visitor wants to achieve on your site? Can the visitor find what they need quickly and easily? Does you page affirm to the visitor their needs are met and they are in the right place?
3. Storyboard It
Hollywood uses storyboards to graphically show what happens now, and what happens next.
A plan for a website can be laid out in similar fashion. Map out, on sheets of paper, the steps a visitor must take in order to reach conversion. Are there too many steps? Are there any steps that are unnecessary, or divert the visitors attention? Note down at each step the internal dialogue a visitor might be having. What questions do they have in their mind? Are you “answering” them?
Relegate diversions, the equivalent of sub-plots if we’re to extend the movie metaphor, to areas on the site the user can access only if they want to – about us, mission statement, contact details, etc.
You can use flow-charts as well, of course.
4. Your Copy Is Central
Even a site based entirely around a video presentation uses copy i.e. the script.
The words you use help persuade a visitor to take action. They can just as easily put a visitor off, so must be chosen with care.
Use short sentences and paragraphs. People will not start reading a lot of dense copy unless they have an existing, positive relationship with you. Pay careful attention to the hook i.e the headline and first paragraph. Talk about the visitors needs and wants. Use the active voice. Use simple sentence constructions – verb + object. Proof read very carefully.
The copy should proceed logically from one concept to another, leading a visitor towards taking an action of some kind i.e. clicking a button, filling out a form, bookmarking, or reaching for the phone. Make sure you know what the desired action is, and – conceptually – write “backwards” from there.
5. Now Read Up On Usability & Design 🙂
Only once your user-centric concept is nailed, storyboarded, and written should you build.
A great concept can be ruined by poor execution, particularly when it comes to design and usability. A lot has been written on both topics, but the 80/20 rules applies: Keep design simple and functional. Remove anything unnecessary. Be sparing with the use of graphics, navigation options and distractions from your central message. Orient around your core message. In terms of non-core pages, people need to be able to get to your contact page easily.
Here’s a set of great design and usability resources that cover the essentials:
- Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design
- Ten Principles Of Effective Web Design
- How To Create Website Wireframes
- The Disgustingly Simple Rule for Web Writing That’s Often Hard to Swallow
- The 4P Approach: A Persuasive Writing Structure That Works
- Sample Chapter From “Don’t Make Me Think” (we’re not pimping it, honest 🙂