It’s often easy to get carried away with criticizing what’s wrong with a website, because what’s wrong manifests itself in our personal user experience of that site. In order to understand good usability you have to train yourself to recognize it. When you’re at a great site, you usually don’t think “wow this is a really good user experience”, you just enjoy the site. When it’s a bad experience however you usually end up getting frustrated. Both these types experiences are valuable learning tools.
How do you know when a site has done things right? Well the obvious ones are that it looks professional and is nicely designed, but these are both subjective, especially when it comes to design. What I think looks great, you might think looks like garbage. I can tell you how many times I’ve sent mock-ups for friends to critique only to find out that half of them love it and half don’t. This is why the look of the site should take a back seat to usability, but you also have to remember that good design can lead to good usability.
How many times have you been on a website, it looks great, its got what you want, but you are still left there scratching your head and clicking away trying to figure out where something is. This may be as simple as how do I comment on this post, or how do I add this to my shopping cart, or it could be more serious, like why is this form not excepting my postal code! A site should never annoy it’s users, I cringe when I see a form that says enter your postal code and then explains what format it should be in. People know what format their postal code should be in, don’t explain it to them.
Take for example my postal code, M8V 3X6. I should be able to type this as M8V-3X6, M8V 3X6, M8V3X6 or m8v3x6. The regular expression validation is simple for this, and there is really no excuse to allow only one of the mentioned formats, yet I see this all the time. Same goes for telephone numbers. If you have a format you prefer you should convert the data into your preferred format. Strip out the spaces and hyphens or add them, but don’t make the user do it.
Get a different perspective
I would love to be a fly on the wall (I was going to try and be witty and say a fly on the web until I realized the obvious implications) watching a users frustration in some of these scenarios and recording how many lost sales or even return visits this might cause. I’m sure it’s quite high. The problem is, sometimes it’s hard to notice bad usability on a website until you run across it. It’s even harder to notice it on your own site.
As designers and developers, while we build our sites we become so engrossed in the process that it becomes hard to notice the user experience at all. We are so intimately involved that we develop a blindness to it. You probably type in the exact page you want while working, or rapidly click through to your destination. Your user isn’t intimately involved in your site, and you have to try to pull yourself back, put yourself in the shoes of a new user, get a different perspective.
Obviously the best thing to do is to get other people to try out your site. For the same reasons it’s probably good to have testers who were not involved in the development of the site, it’s probably equally important to have regular users play around with the site for usability. Testing is usually taken pretty serious in larger companies, but I doubt usability ranks as high. What about small companies or private individuals that don’t have these resources at all? This is where paying attention to your own surfing habits can help.
Recognizing a good user experience
Obviously we can learn what not to do by a bad user experience, but I think it’s equally important to recognize a great user experience. Try to take note the next time you order something online or use a complicated website not only what annoys you, but also what is good about the experience. It’s so easy to throw your arms up in the air and say “This site sucks”, but when you are on a fantastic site it’s very easy to overlook that fact. Why is the site fantastic? Why do you like it? Why is it so easy to use? Take mental notes, and keep these idea’s for your own work.
Learn from excellence and apply it to your own sites
When you see a site doing something that you feel is working, ask yourself if your site is doing the same? The answer may be no. You might have that eureka moment when you realize that you have a really convoluted sign up form, or your navigation is hard to use. This may only be triggered by seeing it done better elsewhere, but the key is to recognize this.
A place where I have found a consistently bad user experience is restaurant websites and online ordering systems. When someone comes to a restaurant site, there is only a handful of things they probably want. A menu, a phone number, or an ordering system. Most of this should be simple, but an online food ordering system can be a pretty complex experience. You need to be able to navigate the site easily, add and remove items, and even customize order toppings and side dishes. I have seen one restaurant ordering system that literally looked like an excel spreadsheet of form fields, now that’s appetizing.
Now we know we don’t like the site at all, but could we do better? Maybe we visit a site that is similar with a much better user experience but fail to notice it. What’s bad is if we fail to notice that our own site has a bad user experience. Because you are so intimately involved with it, it seems easy to you. This is where a great site will help you enormously.
I rarely order from online ordering sites because of the hoops I have to jump through, but one exception is a popular rotisserie chicken restaurant we have in Ontario called Swiss Chalet. This site is incredibly satisfying to use. Now if I were designing my own restaurant ordering system I would have something to compare it too. I can see why things are not working on other sites, because this site has done it right. We are more likely to notice and remember a bad user experience, but the sites you do like are the ones you keep going back too.
Putting it all together
You have to be careful not to get carried away. You don’t want to end up ripping off someones site, and just because you like a site doesn’t mean you can’t do better. Take a lot of idea’s from as many sites as possible, this will diversify your site. You can see this happening all over the web. There is a natural progression of people innovating and adding new idea’s which soon become standard practice on whatever particular demographic you are looking at.
There are also countless online resources on usability, things that are no-brainers and standard practices. Things like underlined text should always be a link, or a link should be readable out of context to the surrounding text (see my article called “Click Here!”). Accessibility and SEO also all benefit from good usability. Always pay attention to what annoys you and what works, because while you browse the web, you are a perfect usability tester and can gain a wealth of knowledge.