Not just a pretty website

PR Consultant John Warren discusses the usability of websites.

You paid a designer to build you a new website, and it looks great: it works well on mobile devices, has some big banner images, a video promoting your latest product on your home page, a feed of your latest Twitter activity, and all the information your customers told you they wanted.

But what if, despite this, your website was actually harming your business?

While it’s good to keep your aesthetics fresh and your content sharp, you’ll cause lasting damage by ignoring the most important thing about your website – its usability.

Here are five simple usability principles websites often forget.

It should be obvious what the website is for. Any visitor to your website should be able to work out what your business is within milliseconds of arriving. This may sound obvious, but how do we know what you do and why we should stay?

If visitors need to apply effort to understand what you do, you’re off to a bad start. Usability expert, Steve Krug, sums this up nicely in his book ‘Don’t Make Me Think’: “Making every page or screen self-evident is like having good lighting in a store: it just makes everything seem better.”

Don’t listen to your users. We always encourage our clients to make sure their website developments are based on insight gained through research with real users. Nothing gives you a better understanding of how your website performs like testing.

The key here is not just to listen to what your users tell you, but to watch what they do. It’s only by actually watching them try to perform key tasks and observing what they find easy and where they get stuck, that you’ll really be able to tell if they can successfully find what they’re looking for.

Your website will be changing all the time as new content is added, or structures and layouts are tweaked. We recommend regular testing to identify obvious problems and help you prioritise future developments.

Navigation, navigation, navigation. Helping your visitors to find their way around a website without requiring any effort should be your primary goal. When it comes to conversations about hierarchy of content (which bits are most important) and how to organise them, make sure your decisions are made based on what you know about the needs of users, not what your own team thinks.

There are plenty of free survey tools out there – find out what most people are looking for and make that the easiest thing to find (you can check if your designs are successful through testing).

Make sure you design your site for all types of users too. Some people always head for the search bar, while others prefer to browse for what they’re looking for. Your search function should be easy to find and available from anywhere on your site.

Website users also always like to know where they are, and to be able to bail out at any time and head back to the home page, so help orientate your users with a breadcrumb trail and an easily visible home button.

Use fewer words, and make them better. When it comes to website content, less is most definitely more. Being faced with a lengthy product description of any kind is highly off putting and likely to send your users heading for the hills.

Content writing is a skill, so make sure anything you write for your website is checked for usefulness, consistent tone of voice, and relevance before being published.

Check your analytics to see how long users spend on product pages. If a page has 1,000 words but visitors only stay for three seconds, you can be pretty sure your copy could be better.

Avoid dark patterns. A dark pattern is a deliberate use of a tool, technique or design that tricks a user into doing something they don’t want to on a website, usually to generate income.

There are lots of examples of these: the invisible ‘unsubscribe’ box; forced continuity (making users subscribe to a free trial then charging them when the trial period ends without notification); or unintended sign up to a newsletter.

None of us like to feel conned into spending money, and while they may generate additional revenue in the short term, in the long run dark patterns will always harm your business.

As well as putting yourself up for being shamed on social media (#darkpatterns), you’re leaving yourself open to competition from a less shady operator willing to attract custom through good user experiences and ethical design.