Many sites on the Web are not very usable. Some common problems are:
- confusion because the site does not clearly explain what it is about
- long loading times due to overuse of large graphics, Java applets, ad banners, and other "flashy" elements
- inconvenience because sites require bizarre software to be installed
- difficult navigation because the navigation controls are hard to find or poorly labelled - or because there are far too many navigation links on the front page
- poor readability because of inappropriate design
- ugliness because of bad or inconsistent graphic design, when a simpler approach within the designer's capabilities would have worked better
- irrelevance because pages were designed considering only what a company wants, not what the users of its Web site want
- complexity because the page designer expects users to "learn" the site, rather than using standard conventions
- inacessibility because the site was not designed correctly and cannot be viewed by users with disabilities
Every page on the Web should ensure that users can understand its purpose. Even users not in the target audience should be able to figure out enough about the site to know whether it has content they are interested in or not.
This can usually be achieved by a few sentences on the front page, linked to a more detailed "about this site" section.
Many, many sites on the Web neglect this basic duty, which means that users' time is wasted as they look around the site trying to gain some sense of its purpose - which could have been simply summarised to them from the start.
Lots of Web sites are unnecessarily slow to use. Speed problems can be caused by a variety of issues, most of which are within the control of the site designer.
- Large graphics. Each page's total size should be kept small, as small as possible. This means avoiding large graphics wherever possible.
- Gratuitous technology. Unnecessary Java applets, Flash movies, MIDI files, and the like adorn far too many Web pages. This technology (apart from MIDI files) is useful in some situations, but it's inexcusable to waste a user's time just because you want a stupid "reflection in water" effect on your logo.
- Superfluous graphics. I'm sure you've all seen these: "send me email" animated GIFs, "Best viewed with Internet Explorer" buttons, "Under Construction" icons: these all increase download time, and are completely unnecessary.
- Abuse of tables. Tables are often used (usually inappropriately) to lay out pages. If the entire page is placed in a table, then some browsers will not display any of the page until the whole thing has loaded.
- Including too much on a page. If a page has more than 50 KB of text, then something is probably wrong (unless it's a special compilation of other pages designed for printing).
- Poor Internet connectivity. Some sites, especially on free services, may suffer from slow data transfer rates.
Sometimes sites require plug-ins. There are two general guidelines about this:
- Nobody will download a plug-in just to view your site, however wonderful you think the site is.
- RealAudio and Flash plug-ins are installed on a fair proportion of machines. Acrobat Reader is available on a smaller, but still significant, proportion. Other plug-ins are very rarely installed.
Even if you are only using one of the common plug-ins, there will probably still be a significant proportion of the audience that cannot see the site, so it is good practice to provide an alternative version of content. (You may also find that many people still prefer a non-Flash version, even with Flash installed.)
Some sites have navigational controls which:
- are not clear to new users, because they use an unnecessary metaphor
- are not clear because they rely on icons without explanatory text
- are misleading because the titles were poorly chosen
- are far too numerous, so that it is difficult to find the desired choice
To be usable, a site needs to include clear navigational facilities so that users can usually understand which link they will need to follow for a specific task.
In addition to choosing clear, comprehensible navigation links, it can can help to give clear descriptions of each option from the front page.
Sites are often difficult to read because:
- a small font was specified
- poor colours were chosen (e.g. white on black) - if, when using a site, you tend to highlight paragraphs of text with the mouse so that they are reversed out and you can read them, this indicates a problem in colour selection :)
- the "measure" (length of a line in words) is too long, so that text is too difficult to read
- a repeating background image or texture was used, making text difficult to read
Often pages are rather ugly, because the designer used techniques that they weren't competent in.
An important rule of life - "know the rules before you break them" - applies to graphic design too. (There are plenty of other relevant platitudes: "don't run before you can walk", etc.)
The important idea to understand is that pages do not have to include lots of graphics, complex colour schemes, or interesting layout in order to look good. A page can still look good even if it is very simple. The problems mostly occur when people attempt complex designs.
Sites often contain, or prioritise, information which isn't relevant to their users, because the designer (or their company) thought it important.
For example, recently one financial company, on signing a business deal with American Express, placed an abbreviated form of their press release on the front page of the site, so that people had to click through it before they could get to other information!
This was not at all helpful and might put users off. While such information might encourage people to buy from the company, it would be more appropriately placed in a "why should you buy from us" section, or similar - somewhere that people will go if they are looking for information on their purchasing decision.
The basic message is that, although a Web site probably is intended to fulfil objectives for the designer or the company, it must meet the user's requirements first and foremost. Web sites are about users, and if users are annoyed or put off by a site, it makes no difference whether the marketing department's message got through: they're gone.
Sometimes page designers, because they have spent days or weeks working on a site, forget that users will probably only spend a few minutes there. There's an important rule to bear in mind:
- Users should never have to learn how to use your site.
If you're tempted to put text on the front page, explaining how to use the site in some way (for example "click the frog icon to hop back up to the top of each page", "you can return to the homepage at any time by right-clicking on the fluffy bunny icon and then dancing around your computer three times widdershins", etc.) then your site is probably not usable enough.
Essentially, anybody with even a little experience using the Web should immediately be able to understand your site first time, without needing instructions or explanations. This means following Web standards; for example, the word "Home" will usually provide a link to the front page, and the text "back to top" makes far more sense to most Web users than a frog icon.
You may be tempted to do some things differently from most Web sites: sometimes this can be a good idea, but as usual, it's best avoided unless you really know what you're doing. Web users rely on the experience gained from visiting other sites in order to navigate your site.
(Note: the frog icon example does come from a genuine site, although I made up the fluffy bunny voodoo.)