Web Usability Tips - Old School!

Today, even though bandwidths are bigger and media is cool a lot of developers will benefit from considering some of the great old school web usability guidelines for page design, web content structure, site design and site structure.

Page design


1) Aim for page loads of less than five to six seconds. The most popular sites load twice as fast. Web users rank slow download as their greatest annoyance.


2) Keep your page download sizes to 32KB or less. That includes unique graphics. Research indicates that pages under 32KB have a bail-out rate of 7% to 10% and over 40KB, 25% to 30%.

3) Make your page sizes consistent. If some are small/fast and others large/slow, your visitors will lose confidence in the site. They won't know what to expect and they want to be in control.

4) If you use graphics, make them small but decipherable. Try to re-use the same graphics from page to page. Once downloaded into the visitor's browser, they won't need to be downloaded for subsequent use.

5) Be aware of screen real estate. The visitor's browser and operating system consume a significant percentage of the available screen area, so make effective use of what's available. Pages should be dense though easily scanable. The page is for your visitor's benefit. The visitor wants information and isn't interested in your artwork. Keep your links visible at the top of the screen.

6) Respect the variety of browsers (and versions), hardware platforms, and bandwidth your visitors live with. Many of your visitors will be consumers logging on from home. They may use Opera, Macs, WebTV, 800x600 monitors or 56Kb lines.

7) Avoid using frames. It's tempting to provide scrollable regions on your pages but ultimately frames confuse visitors, search engines, and the bookmarking process.

8) Apply Occum's razor to your Web pages. If the page works without an item, leave it off. (Occum suggested that all things being equal, the simplest hypothesis wins.)


9) Leave out advertising. It takes up space. It isn't why your visitor showed up. It won't make you any money.

10) Don't try to hold your visitor captive on your site. It's not polite and won't work anyway. When you include outgoing links (and you should, you're part of a larger community) make sure you make it clear where they go--and that it's off your site.


Content design


1) Be succinct. Write your page copy then reduce the number of words by 50%. Focus on what's really important to your visitors. People read via computer monitors at least 25% more slowly than paper.


2) Create visual clarity. Use headlines, bolded words (but not underlined), bulleted lists, tables, and other visual structures to make it easy for the visitor to quickly understand the key points of a page.


3) Expose agency personality. You don't need to write in a dry, academic, or gray business-speak manner. On the other hand, don't be too cute.


4) Edit your copy. Spell check. Grammar check. Fact check. Have multiple people proof your copy before posting it. Have a professional writer clean and tighten your copy. Errors on your site reduce credibility.


5) Use plain language that your audience can understand. Your Web site visitors are not insurance experts. They may not understand technical insurance language. Use metaphors sparingly. People may misinterpret them.


6) Make it easy for your visitors to get to what they care about. Avoid trying to include too many subjects on one page. Provide a conceptual and linking structure so that visitors can get to the content they're seeking without wading through volumes of what is to them irrelevant text.


7) Write meaningful page titles. Remember that visitors may enter your site other than through your home page. Search engines may list a page from your site only by its title. Page titles are used in browser history lists, so make them meaningful and unique page to page.


8) Foster legibility. Use sans serif fonts (like Ariel) for body text. They're easier to read than serif fonts (like Times Roman) on computer monitors. Avoid font and background colors with inadequate contrast (white and black provide the highest contrast). Remember that a substantial part of the population is red-green colorblind.


9) Focus on scanability. Visitors scan sites more than they read them. Scan each of your pages. Is it quickly obvious what they cover?


10) Use multi-media sparingly. If it isn't critical to getting your point across, skip it. Most of the population is connected to the Internet via dial-up modems, not broadband.


Site design


1) All pages in your site should clearly and consistently indicate whose site it is and what it's for. A natural approach is to use the same logo in the same location on all pages. It's useful to include a pithy slogan or catch phrase that encapsulates what you're about as an agency.


2) The home page should include a directory of the site's most important sections. About 20% of users are link-dominant and like to browse their way through sites. Make the link descriptions clear and to the point.


3) About half of all Web users are search-dominant and find their way through Web sites primarily by doing searches. Therefore every page on your Web site should provide a site search capability.


4) Home pages are good places

to make announcements about changes, new products and services, press coverage, and so on. You may want to devote a particular part of the home page to "news" and refresh it at least monthly.


5) Avoid splashy home page screens, especially those that display the virtuosity of your Web master but, because they supply so little information, are really nothing more than a door that visitors must open to find out whether you have what they want.


6) When viewing each page on your site, your visitors want to know:


a. Where am I? - so provide your site name, general section, and page name on each page


b. Where have I been? - ideally, show the path they took to get there


c. Where can I go? - pages below this one but also how to get back to the home page and related pages on this same level


7) Design your site around a structure or skeleton that makes sense to your visitors and their concerns. It should represent how they view your business from their needs point of view rather than how you view your business. A site without a good architecture invites chaos and creates frustrated visitors.


8) Make use of Web conventions. Unlike software in Windows, where Microsoft has established de facto standards, Web conventions develop, evolve and disappear in a free-flowing marketplace of ideas. Users have become conditioned to some common patterns of site design and navigation. Make use of the most common and best. Don't try to be creative--unless you've got an awfully good reason.


9) In the software world the application controls the user. In the Web world, the users are in charge and will certainly do what to you makes no sense whatever. They'll click the first link that looks promising. They may not read your carefully edited text. So make it easy for them to retreat and start again without needing to bumble down the same pathways. Look at each page from the point of view of someone who got there by mistake. Studies show that users are almost always on the wrong page.


10) Don't provide links to unfinished parts of your site, providing an "under construction" message when the visitor gets there. The visitor doesn't want to know about what you intend to do sometime in the future. They're in your site right now. They want to know what you have right now and how to find it.