1. How would you define usability?
For the end user, usability is the ability to successfully, comfortably
and confidently learn or complete a task. For the web site designer or application
developer, it’s the mechanics of designing and building a web site or Internet-based
application so that it can be understood and easy to accomplish any task.
However, I’ve yet to see any agreement in the usability profession
on exactly what usability is. At Cre8asiteforums, John Rhodes of WebWord
started a funny thread called “What
is usability in one word?”
2. How would you explain usability to a client with little background?
I use analogies to describe usability design because it’s misunderstood,
or put into a small, conveniently forgotten corner. Too often it’s
tossed into the “future enhancements” pile, along with user
feedback suggestions and quality assurance test findings.
Here’s one. If you’ve ever been stranded out of town, and worse, don’t
know where you are or how to get help, this is what being on poorly designed
web site feels like. It’s a frustrating experience. If that web visitor
is a desired customer, not meeting their needs has the potential for lost
Another analogy is a trip to a store. There’s always someone watching
you while you’re shopping. The better stores will have sales people walking
around and when they see you struggle over something they’ll ask, “Is
there something I can help you with?” Web design has to accomplish
this same thing, within the design itself. The skills involved in designing
a usable, functional, persuasive web site are remarkably varied and surprisingly
specialized. The Human Factors field is fascinating as are findings on how
people use and interact with web pages.
More often than not, usability help is sought once traffic logs show
there’s trouble with traffic patterns and sales.
3. What are the primary hallmarks of a site that considers usability?
The primary hallmark of a usable web site is that it meets its primary
goal and every element, link, page, image, ad, and form can be traced back
to and meets the requirements of that original goal.
If it is “sell jewelry online” the objective is to sell your
own products. This means no banner ads to other web sites from your shopping
cart. It means a non-invasive sales lead form that’s quick to fill-out.
The design should engage the visitor and convince them to become a customer.
If the object is project management software, its functions should permit
project management. Not only that, it should be easy to learn how to
use, easy to purchase, easy to download a free trial and intuitive. The
should include ways to persuade someone to use it or buy it.
It sounds so simple, but you’d be amazed at the number of sites or web
applications that have a completely different primary goal. Some of these
include “Make our investors happy.” This will dictate everything
from content placement to the order of navigation links. Other common lead
objectives are “Get as much personal information as possible up front
and then sell them something,” “Meet the CEO’s drop-dead deadline,
even with 35 mission-critical defects,” and “The marketing department
stakeholders insist that their stuff go above the page fold on every page.”
These are things end users notice. When you play them for invisible,
dead or stupid, you’ll pay the price, eventually.
4. What are the primary benefits of creating a “usable” web
Conversions and customer/visitor satisfaction.
Web sites are co-dependent on the visitors who search for them and
then stop by. Web sites can’t do anything you didn’t design them to
Therefore, if you don’t tell someone what your site is about, and
why you do something better than the other 145, 000 sites in search
you can’t expect your visitor to respond the way you’d like.
It’s not a beauty contest. Once I had a favorite web site that I showed
people as an example of logical navigation for a complicated type
of online selling product. I later heard from the owner that there was
homepage abandonment rate. Visitors left without ever ordering anything.
I was shocked.
The site was pleasant to look at, and easy to learn, but upon trying
to place an order myself, I quickly discovered why nobody was taking
this step. The search function was faulty. It wasn’t clear what
their value proposition
was, or what service they were offering (despite the product images.)
What they sold online is something that customers might feel is
risky to ship,
but the site didn’t convey to their prospective customers the lengths
they would go to make sure their product arrived in tip-top shape.
were nervous. They weren’t confident. They also weren’t going to
pay top dollar without some major convincing, and the site wasn’t
The difference between any web site and a usable one, is one that
does what you intend it to do, for the people you are targeting.
5. How does this help your clients?
The majority of my clients are interested in two things – search
engines and what happens after somebody finds their web page. This is why
I partner with companies that offer SEO/SEM or web design firms with that
specialty included. Their clients are realizing that high rank is not the
final plateau, or in many cases, the SEO instructs their client about the
value of adding usability testing.
This is why “landing pages” are so important. We used to worry
about the home page and put the brunt of responsibility on it. Nowadays,
we select inside pages that focus on a specific topic and we design it so
that it explains, in a few seconds, a benefit and persuades the person who
found it to consider other things contained within the web site. This could
be a related product, limited time special, client list, newsletter signup
and a link back to the homepage itself.
What web site owners don’t want is a lecture on what they’ve done wrong.
They do want an advocate who cares about their success and most of them
want to build web sites that bring them personal satisfaction in some
way. Could be money. Could be fame. Could be knowing they’re providing
something useful. It could be offering a service with fantastic customer
When something isn’t working to their liking, they want answers. Usability
testing, in any of its forms (and there’s many), uncovers issues that
lead to page abandonment, for example. A good usability analyst offers solutions
to fix them or in some cases, educates on possible considerations that could
be implemented by the site’s designers.
6. How does usability help their web site visitors?
Functional testing is critical, for starters. This is how I got my start,
as a Quality Assurance Usability User Interface Engineer for a software
development company. If a link is broken, that’s a defect preventing
an action by an end user. If a field doesn’t permit someone to fill
in their entire name, that’s a usability defect and a failure to
meet a business requirement (“to sell”). You can’t buy
something if you can’t fill in your credit card information completely
and accurately. If the back-end of the form is broken, there is no
I recently tried to buy something from a well-known cell phone company’s
web site. I couldn’t complete my transaction because the “add
to cart” button simply refreshed the screen. I couldn’t go forward
and it never acknowledged that I had added something to my cart. I’ll
have to drive to one of their stores to get the part I need. That’s
poor usability. The inconvenience will make me less likely to try and
order from them again, or recommend them to someone else.
My favorite aspects of usability are engagability, desirability and a
whole lot of other “ability” words that tie in to the human
and computer relationship itself. We have short attention spans, but when
it comes to price comparisons, people can be fanatical. Understanding how
they perform price checking is key to good design. Do they have several
windows open on the screen at once? Does your product link open a new window
and confuse them? If you offer a demo, do they need a plug-in? Is the font
size face teeny weenie? If so, there’s a good chance the site with
the larger font gets the sale.
Another biggie is courtesy. Online forms can be rude and obnoxious things.
Courtesy is as simple as not requiring a phone number for an email newsletter.
When you test for usability, you suddenly realize that sometimes the
needs of the end user are greatly misunderstood and not accommodated
7. Do you think webmasters consider usability when designing?
I hate to say no, but we’ve still got a ways to go. I have some clients
who gladly put me on a retainer basis so they can shoot me an email to say “Hey,
can you just check this page out to see if we’re on track?” I
admire these clients a lot and I can see how hard they try to make their
web site properties work well.
8. If not, why don’t they?
I don’t think new webmasters understand what user centered web design is
and therefore, they don’t consider it. It’s enough for them to learn other
skills first and get a feel for web design itself. It’s like considering
SEO. These are things they’ll get to, but which may not be done at
the first pass because they haven’t learned about it yet or the site
owner isn’t requesting it.
In some cases, webmasters are simply doing what they’re told by somebody
who has never built a web site and has no idea what any of the case
studies from the human factors industry have to teach them. Sadly, and
this is why
so many web sites end up in usability testing labs, the question about
who will use the web product isn’t considered before the build process
For example, a web site selling sunglasses may target a “Cool Dude” type
who has money to blow on high-end brand name sunglasses. To appeal to their
ego, and sense of coolness, the site’s visuals are harsh, radical,
and hint at violence. Things like surfing over a tidal wave, or riding one’s “Hog” with
the nearly naked woman on the back are images directed to the testosterone
citizens among us. Now, say an impressionable 13-year-old boy has a mother
who is looking for a birthday gift and he’s (daringly) referred her
to the sunglasses web site with the nearly naked girl on it. Say that Mom
sees the messages about war and hating anyone with red painted toenails.
The site may have displayed the sunglasses in all their glory and Mom is
willing to pay whatever price, but she’s so uncomfortable with the
web site that she can’t bear to stare at it any longer and she abandons
This may not seem like a big loss, but hey, she’s the one with the
credit card. It wasn’t selling to her. It may not be a brand she wants
to support. It wasn’t selling to the person who may have found it
for a search on “sunglasses” but doesn’t enjoy a dark,
brooding web site. In other words, if a high-end pricey product wants to
sell, the design must make the person with money to burn want to spend it
Steve Krug says, in his famous book, “Don’t Make Us Think”.
To do that for end users, the web developers have to think a lot.
9. How about the larger corporate sites, (i.e. Fortune500 sites)? On
average, do larger corporations consider usability options in site design?
Yes. They have whole teams who get together and bring their various training
and skills to the table. I can see, from my work on corporate sites,
many either have their own in-house design team of professional designers,
they hire outside firms. In either case, I’ve seen two things happen;
a site that blows me away because they met so many usability-oriented criteria
and, those that come close, but don’t understand the part about persuasive
architecture or calls to action. These companies also have project managers
who know enough to ask about usability during the planning stages.
This said, I see too much evidence that they do not have Quality Assurance
Testing departments to test their designs and applications. That cell
phone company site I mentioned is an example of a corporate site with
10. Is there a place webmasters can learn about usability? (i.e.: school,
online training, etc.)
For books, the hot one now is “Call to Action” by Bryan Eisenberg
of Future Now, Inc.
11. Where would you recommend a webmaster or website marketer look for
online information on usability issues?
I keep two large sections for information on my UsabilityEffect.com
site. One is for Research
and the other is for general
user centered design sites.
These two spots are where I link to everyone whom I’ve found to be
There are also some sites and people whom I admire for what they teach
us about areas that fall under the usability umbrella, such as:
Matt Bailey for accessibility
Trenton Moss (http://www.alistapart.com/authors/trentonmoss/) and (http://www.webcredible.co.uk/)
12. Is there a usability forum for people to learn in?
I could swear we, at Cre8asiteForums,
were the first, but I have no proof of that. Usability is the first topic
we present there. High
Rankings Forums does now, likely influenced by Scottie Claiborne
who is a friend and peer in the field. John Rhodes’ WebWord
a forum, but has long been a leader for providing information. I’m
quite sure I ’m
13. What got you interested in usability as a site design issue?
Previously I specialized and freelanced in search engine optimization
on the side while I worked in web design for companies like Verticalnet
and Unisys in Pennsylvania. I became disappointed and frustrated in SEO
because though I could help web sites with rank and indexing, I couldn’t
help take the client to the next level, which is what happens after the
site is found. When search engines changed to include pay for inclusion
and pay for rank, I grew even more disillusioned.
At the same time I was feeling this way, Verticalnet plucked me from
their User Interface Design department and plopped me into their Quality
Assurance Testing department. I was as green as they come, I thought,
but I mentored there under their Human Factors person and it was she
me up about the usability field.
There was no usability input being done there then in QA, so I taught
myself and followed her around like a puppy. I quickly learned that user
interface testing methods were very different than software testing.
the discipline of software testing and requirements testing that give
me an edge in my work now. I still enjoy functional testing and have
ways to do it in virtual testing environment. User testing in labs is
expensive, so finding ways to get similar results, remotely, are some
of the newest
Finally, while I was doing all that, I freelanced also for two customer
satisfaction survey companies and later sub-contracted to one of them
when Verticalnet did its mass layoffs during the dot.com crash. From
I learned a lot about customer satisfaction and how important it is to
companies. Customer satisfaction is a vital element in usability.
14. Can you gauge the interest of the web design community in usability
Aside from fear??? A lot of them want to know more or wish they knew
more about it or think they know what usability is and it ends up that
understanding a small part of it. I don’t blame them. There are so many
titles given for employees in the field and every company has their own idea
of what that person is responsible for.
I think there’s interest and curiosity but to implement sound user centered
design practices entails eating case studies for breakfast and endlessly testing
new layouts and nifty things thought to aid in the user experience. Look at
how many versions of Amazon there are.
I do hear from web design companies who fear usability analysts because
afraid we’ll point out their mistakes. In my opinion, this isn’t
my intended role as a QA person. I’m there to insure that stakeholder
requirements are met and I’m an advocate for the end user. Programmers
and designers already know how to complete a task because they coded and mapped
it. Every writer needs an editor. It’s the same thing with web design.
15. Does design for people with disabilities fall under the
Yes! And “disability” is a loosely used term by the way.
I wear contacts and have eyesight problems even with corrective lenses,
so I can’t
stand small font sizes. I’m not disabled, but there are millions of folks
like me trying to buy candles and DVD’s on the web, and thousands of
web sites who aren’t aware of our existence. At Cre8asiteforums, we’ve
been lucky enough to have several people kindly teach us and provide resources.
One example is provided by “Webnauts”
in this amazing
Adrian, one of our Site Administrators is passionate about the topic as well
as CSS, as is our forums blog editor, Elizabeth (aka “ablereach”).
The more I learn on this topic, the more I understand how many people
being serviced properly on the Internet.
16. How different is the design process when usability is a factor in
site or document design?
In a perfect scenario, a usability specialist is included in all design
team meetings. They have valuable input from the get-go on information
and the needs and habits of target markets. They may have case study findings
dancing in their heads, ready to bolster a designer’s suggestion or adjust
a programmer’s method of coding a form. They can aid in documentation
of requirements and help gather valuable information for stakeholders, as well
User testing with real people during the wire frame and/or staging process
adds enormous value. It’s not done in situations where cost is an issue,
or time. It takes longer to build and test as you go. But, the advantages to
a process that includes usability along the way, is less defects at the end
and increased customer satisfaction on roll out.
17. Does usability make a difference to search engine spiders?
I’ve written several articles in the past about how easy it is to meet
the needs of both humans and search engines. Both of them are very interested
in understanding, quickly and efficiently, what a web page is about. Both want
to know how to get to the next page and both want to be able to find that link.
The spine of a web site, or information architecture as is the common term,
can be constructed to enhance the speed and understanding of a web site.
Unfortunately, over time, some of the things done by SEO’s to accommodate
search engine algorithms, such as alt tag descriptions behind images, were
exploited and used to spam the engines. Now, these techniques have less bearing
on engines, but still contain value to end users.
There are some search engine optimization techniques used to enhance
content that wreak havoc on end users who require screen readers. Matt
Bailey, of The
Karcher Group, illustrated this at the Search Engine Strategies Conference
in New York this year by letting everyone listen to an optimized page using
JAWS. The mechanical voice kept repeating keywords over and over again. It
was enough to chase off even the most patient of visitors.
There’s a section in Access Matters that I recommend checking out. It
shows a series of test case scenarios and lets you listen to how each one sounds
on three different screen readers. (http://www.access-matters.com/)
18. Should usability be a priority for SEO’s and SEMs?
No. This may surprise folks to hear me say this. The priority for SEO’s
is to get their client’s web pages into search engines and directories
and ranked well enough to be found by people. This is what they’re trained
to do and it can be very difficult for competitive or popular industries.
For SEM’s, the key word there is Marketing, and for them, I feel that
adding usability to their bag of goodies is very wise. These people have a
broader, more holistic view of search engine optimization that includes marketing
to engines and marketing to people. The latter is where a usability analysis
of a client’s web site comes in. Persuasive design adds value to the
work the SEM is performing for their client.
Look at it this way. Why would a company pay a handsome fee to get its site
placed in prime spots in search engines, only to watch their traffic enter
and promptly click off?
19. Should usability be regulated by W3C? (If it is, can/should standards
be forced through browser compliance?)
You won’t hear me talk about regulating much because the nature of the
Internet is that it’s a living, breathing entity that changes with every
atom of input by humans. Meaning, making one thing a requirement is going to
have an effect on something else and that something else is not going to stay
the same forever, so the requirement is going to be modified or even killed
That said, browser compliance is a sweet thing. You know how every designer
faces the “What browser do I design for?” issue. I think their
energy should be spent on “What target market(s) do I design for?” Build
for people. Browsers don’t buy cars on the web. Unfortunately, we can’t
build web sites just for people yet.
Standards compliant design is very helpful and I would never discourage
anyone from wanting to achieve this honorable goal. But the act of regulating
sounds too rigid for something as unpredictable as humans.
If I could add one more thought, it would be that those of us who work
on the Web, whether it be in design, programming, SEO, copywriting, search
whatever – we have this amazing opportunity to do really humane things
for and with one another. The first time I ever saw a chat area (was on AOL
in 1995), I was deeply struck at the gift we have here. By building web sites
that everyone can use, we’re generating an act of kindness and consideration.
We’re all getting to know each other in ways our ancestors never dreamed
possible. I still consider all of us as Pioneers.
Jim, thank you for asking these great questions.