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Is Your Web Site Usable?

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                   SoHo NEWS & TIPS
Helping You Make the Most of Your Small Office/Home Office


Do you have a 'usable' website? Find out how to make your 
site easy to use so that you attract customers rather than 
drive them away!


P.S. You can discuss this issue or any other topic in the 
new SoHo News & Tips forum. Check it out here...

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Is Your Web Site 'Usable'?
By Kim Komando

Let's start with this scenario: You need to buy 
something and you decide to do some advance 
research online.

You try one company's Web site. It's plain, but it 
lists pricing information, the models it services, 
and its contact information. Then you try another
company's site. It makes you sit through a three-
minute Flash presentation before letting you 
explore the site. (There's a "skip this intro" 
button at the top right, but the button is 
camouflaged.) And, instead of getting pricing
information, you have to fill out a form and wait 
for a salesperson to call.

You're probably going to call the first company, 

As you might infer by our second example, a Web 
site's elegance is simply not going to win over 
users. If your site is not easily navigable and 
doesn't contain relevant and up-to-date 
information, you're driving customers away.

That's where Web site "usability" comes into play. 
According to Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman 
Group, an internationally recognized expert in 
this area, "Usability is a quality attribute that 
assesses how easy user interfaces are to use."

Here are six things you need to do to make your 
Web site "usable."

1. Help your customers find their way. How easy is 
it to get around your Web site? When customers 
look at the home page, do they see a clearly 
marked navigation system? Or do they have to roam 
around clicking things until something happens?

Think hard about whether you really need to be a 
navigation trailblazer. If your navigation system 
is radically different than others, you'll confuse 
your users. A simple drop-down or tabbed menu 
using words is fine. It may not look as cool or 
trendy, but your users will be able to find what 
they need.

Let's consider a small bookstore's Web site as an 

Imagine using pictures of books on the left-hand 
side of the page. When you mouse over the picture, 
the book opens and tells you the genre. It's clever 
but impractical.

Your customers don't want to remember that the 
third book down is the home-improvement section 
and the sixth book takes you to romance novels. 
And they don't want to wait three seconds for the 
book to open to find where that link will lead.

2. Say what you mean, and say it clearly. It's so 
easy to get caught up in marketing lingo and buzz-
words. But they may well confuse the customer. If 
you are selling a product or offering a service, 
state it clearly.

There are countless Web sites filled with warm and 
fuzzy slogans that never get to the point. What 
exactly does "providing solutions to problems" 
mean? What are the problems? How are they solved?

And a user shouldn't have to click on the About Us 
page (you do have one, right?) to figure out what 
your business does. That information should be on 
your home page.

3. Keep it simple. A splash page — which is a 
special landing page for product offers, sale 
items or special features, often with lots of 
graphics and color — may be a great way for Web 
designers to show their talent. But for many 
customers, it can be an annoyance. I say, dump it. 
But if you must have a splash page, consider 
giving your customers a "Skip this" link (if you 
have the same basic information on another page).

Keep pictures, large text, flashing banners and 
the like to a minimum. Those types of gimmicks 
generally cheapen a site. They also make the Web 
pages take longer to download.

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For example, I have reviewed many products from 
one particular company (that shall remain nameless).
The products offered are of high quality, but the
company's Web site is a flashing, gaudy mess. It 
makes the company look like it's peddling junk.

Your Web site doesn't have to be barebones. But it 
shouldn't be obnoxious, either.

4. Provide information, not marketing-speak. Think 
about why people visit your Web site. They go 
there to get information or to buy a product. Make 
it as easy as possible to find the information 
they want — not just what you want to provide. I 
personally dislike lots of advertising puffery and 
grinning people. Please, just tell me what you do.

One sure irritant is pricing secrecy. Don't make a 
customer fill out a form to find out how much 
something will cost. You'd be annoyed if you walked 
into a grocery store and had to fill out a form to 
get the price of milk.

Obviously, if you sell insurance, you can't 
publish a price list. But you can set up a page 
that calculates several variables and provides 
free ballpark quotes. Customers want instant 
information. Give it to them.

It's also important to update your site regularly. 
It does you no good if the contact information for 
sales is for someone who left the company months 
ago. Unfortunately, many companies throw up a Web 
site and then forget about it. 

5. Test your site — again and again. There is one 
simple way to attain good usability. Testing, test-
ing and more testing. But you have to test with 
the right people.

Your customers and readers are the best people to 
test a site. They are the ones who use your site.

Unless your core audience is Web designers and 
tech-savvy users, avoid using these people as your 
guinea pigs. What's obvious to them could leave 
the true users scratching their heads.

If possible, be in the same room as the tester(s). 
And test individually. That way you can observe 
and write notes as questions and problems arise. 
Don't answer questions. If something isn't obvious 
to users, you'll have to tweak the design.

It may sound like testing takes a ton of time and 
money, but it doesn't. For a small site, it should 
take about 20 minutes or so per user. Four or five 
users is a good sample to get sufficient feedback.
After testing, changes should only take a day or 
two. You can always offer a free product or service
— or perhaps a gift certificate to a restaurant — 
for the tester's time.

6. Be a usability advocate; it can pay off. Having 
a Web site with strong usability could boost your 
bottom line.

The Nielsen Norman Group (www.nngroup.com) 
conducted a study on the return on investment of 
42 redesigned Web sites. Owners of those sites 
spent an average of 10% of their Web budget on 
usability. After redesigning the sites, site 
usability increased by 135%, the sales-conversion 
rate increased 100% and traffic increased 150%, 
according to the study.

Yes, it's easy to see why you need usability. But 
I will be the first to tell you that it's also 
difficult to attain over time, especially if you 
have a Web site that changes, grows and evolves. 
This is something that I struggle with on my own 
site. I am continually updating it based on user 

Web usability does take time, money and attention. 
But it pays off in the long run.


One way to hold on to your competitive edge is to protect 
your trade secrets -- confidential information that gives 
you a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Examples of 
trade secrets include customer lists, survey methods, 
marketing strategies, and manufacturing techniques. To 
protect your trade secrets under the law, you need to take 
steps to keep the information confidential. This includes 
marking documents "Confidential," using passwords to protect 
computer information, using nondisclosure and/or noncompete 
agreements, and limiting access to employees with a reason-
able need to know the trade secrets.

So what did you think about this issue? Drop me a line and let 
me know at mailto:mandi@gophercentral.com 

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