usability

Sometimes it's hard not to suck If you read Part 1 of the series, then you now should have a neat set of goals and wishes to think about. But before we go any further, let’s take a look at your site and see if there are any things which are actively preventing your site visitors from taking a promising relationship any further.

This is pretty much Usability in a nutshell.

To illustrate, I want to talk about my dog Alfie.

Usability lessons from pet sites

Alfie is a teenage dog now, about 8 months old. He is my first dog and so the past few months have been a flurry of training and problem-solving. And shopping: finding a vet, a dog groomer, dog training, more dog training, special types of harness, agility training, flea treatment. Obviously my first port of call was the internet.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the UK dog supplies world is pretty much stuck in a mid-1990s version of the internet. Most dog-related websites are absolutely horrible. My lovely vet’s website has had ‘Under Construction’ on it for the past 4 months. Many dog trainers don’t have a website at all. One (pretty successful) trainer near me does have a website: it’s done in tiny blue font on a bright yellow background. It has loads of spelling mistakes and none of the downloads work. It currently looks forward to the August bank holiday.

Don’t do this.

Usability doesn’t matter so much in the dog training world, because people find trainers through word of mouth, and dog trainers’ skills are all about their relationships with animals, rather than fancy marketing. So, a dodgy-looking website says very little about your skills as a trainer. (For now).

This is not true for the rest of the internet.

Here are the main things to check before we go any further. (And note: All of them sound really obvious as written here and yet we all have things on our sites which make life difficult for our readers – it can just be hard to spot them in our own work).

1.You get to the point quickly

Splash pages (those ones which auto-play a site introduction) are pretty much out of fashion, but I still see them from time to time and they are a killer. They are just about possible for high fashion/music websites done by leading edge web designers but for everyone else they are beyond horrible. Avoid.

2. Your text is readable by humans

Can a site visitor with ordinary vision and a short attention span read your website comfortably?

This is one of the biggest issues I see, especially on WordPress sites. Designers have become fond of using grey text without much contrast (often as part of default colour schemes), and it can make a site pretty hard to read.

Also:

  • The wrong font for the main text (body) can also give site visitors a headache. Yes, Century Gothic, I’m looking at you.
  • Handwriting fonts can be pretty when used for short headings, but if you use them for longer pieces of text, check that people can actually read them.
  • Avoid coloured fonts on clashing backgrounds, unless you know what you’re doing. Also scrolling text. Some people (like me) actually get migraine from moving sites.
  • You should break up long text into smaller chunks, so that impatient types can scan headings and understand the piece very quickly.

3. Visitors know where they are when they land on a page

In other words, you use various kinds of navigation to help people move around, and you make your signposting clear on every page. Before you remove the button that says ‘Homepage’, bear in mind that many people do not know about the convention that clicking on your logo or banner takes people to the home page.

  • Lots and lots of signposting (multiple menus, for example) can be overwhelming.
  • Hidden blogs are also popular these days, usually where people have renamed the blog to something fancy.

Captain Obvious is your friend.

4. Your links look like links

The classic advice was to use dark blue underlined text to show links; it’s possible to be more creative these days, but make sure that people do know where they can click on your pages through some sort of visual signal or colour change.

5. Your website looks acceptable in all major browsers

There are two parts to this depending on your perspective  a) make sure that your site operates outside Internet Explorer, and b) make sure that your site operates in common browsers of the day (including Internet Explorer).

There are some lovely features available to users of Opera and Chrome but do not forget the internet masses who just changed to Firefox last week and are feeling quite street.

(What’s a major browser? Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera – see this nice set of stats )

If you are using something like WordPress with a premium theme, this won’t usually be a problem. There are free site checkers which will submit your work to lots of browser versions, but you usually have to wait ages – it’s easier to just download the main ones and then view your site in each.

6. Everything works (video, PDFs, purchases)

This sounds obvious. None of us set out to create a site which doesn’t work, but for the most part (a) we create with a particular set of software tools and (b) we simply don’t see our own errors. So you can be the last to know if your site is breaking.   Get some friends or colleagues just to click around and report back any issues.

Remember that some people have Macs and some people have PCs. Yup.

7. Your transactions operate in a smooth, friendly, professional way

A lot of web instructions make the user feel as though they’ve wandered off-piste in an unfriendly dictatorship. Curt messages, bright red fonts, demands for bribes.

Be nice. Edit the standard wording, if need be, to reflect your own warmer, fluffier values.

8. Your spelling is good

Most people spot the honking great mistakes, it’s the subtleties which slip through. Too many and you start to look less than professional. Also, Be Consistent With Your Cases.

9. Your site appears up-to-date

Update, update, update.  The words ‘Copyright 2007’ are especially sad.

These then are the basics of good usability, but they’re not enough by themselves. There are some highly successful sites which break these rules, because (like the dog trainers) the site owners do offer something unique and highly valued. But on the whole, these are a good place to start.  Fix the broken windows, then we can look at redecorating the living room.

In my next piece, we’ll go beyond basic usability, to look at your site visitors and how you can start to develop more meaningful, happy, profitable relationships with them.

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White mouse on a keyboardOver the last few weeks, I’ve been doing some test website audits as I develop my web clinic service.   Much of my professional work has been for large organisations who want to understand whether their users can successfully complete important transactions on the site.

In terms of the marketing funnel, a lot of this testing is focused near the narrowest part of the funnel, as prospects try to become customers. Poor usability comes with a high price:  it means no sales or disgruntled customers.

What does usability mean for business blogs?

Blog-based businesses typically use blogging to create an ongoing conversation with customers and prospective customers.  The business itself is usually (but not always) some kind of service, and the blog is key to engaging readers over time and drawing them into the business offer.

So in terms of the funnel, we’re looking at the wide mouth, not the narrow part.

I read a lot of blogs, and I can’t stop myself checking them out in terms of usability. As I go through, and work with my beta testers, I’m starting to notice certain patterns cropping up again and again.

Most blog-based businesses do get basic usability details right, thanks to the underlying platform they’re using.  However, their content and design can still stop prospects from ever turning into customers.

Here are my top five biz blog problems

(Note:  I’m not perfect. I do many of these things myself. It’s damned hard.  But I can see it VERY clearly in other people’s work, so let’s roll ;-) )

1. Mismatches between the blog and the core business

So, I land on your blog.  Let’s say it’s about gardening.  I want to get some garden ideas, so I poke around your site. And I become puzzled, because for every piece on planting a winter garden, there are at least three on your path to self-enlightenment, your advice on time management, and your thoughts on how to use Twitter effectively.

I’m confused.  You said you were all about gardening, but there’s precious little on gardening here.  Which leads us to problem number two.

2. Blogging about your personal business development journey

This is a delicate issue.  Some people do manage to fold their own journey quite successfully into a strong business that is heavily driven by their personality.  I see this quite a lot in the blogs of young seeker-types, and Gen Y mavericks.

Indeed, some of my favourite writers talk openly about their personal struggles (but note: I said favourite writers). Some hardcore business bloggers will occasionally write far more personal posts that get a huge response from loyal readers. It is doable.

It still feels like a risky strategy, though.    And it’s riskiest when what you write is constantly positioning you as a learner who is not that confident about their business.

And – why aren’t you writing for  the customers who want garden design ideas? Usually, because it feels easier to stay in the back room chatting to your colleagues than getting out to the front desk.

Get out there.

3. Other people’s stuff is far more prominent than your own

Take a look at your home page and half-close your eyes. What do you see?  If it’s a giant advert for a WordPress theme producer, or a load of affiliate buttons for the last 6 gurus you trained with, then open your eyes again and think carefully.

Where are you in relation to the stuff that you’re endorsing? Is your brand clear and strong, so that these things appear as wise recommendations from a trusted source? Or are they in danger of overwhelming your own presence?

I’m not saying don’t present these things, but you need to take care not to give away your own talents and powers by creating a look which (unconsciously) gives far greater weight to these elements than to you and your core business.

Which leads us to…

4. Not creating a strong enough online presence

There are various parts to this.  Sometimes, it’s a case of not writing enough, or using a design that doesn’t quite work for you.  Some popular blog designs can end up feeling very, very generic.

Your style might be OK, with no real problems, but it doesn’t set the world on fire.

Please-don’t-look-at-me blogs also tend to have very few visuals and hardly any photos of the business owner. (I fall into this camp.  My sidebars are shocking).

Take a look at your website as though you’ve never seen it before. Get a friend, or me, to take a look, and ask: would the casual visitor to this site really understand what I have to offer here?

You need to project yourself and your business.

5. Making poor use of past content

This is more minor, but it always bugs me.

Blogs are little rivers of content. The writer tends to be looking forward to the next piece.  The reader often wants to look back, and boy do some blogs make that hard.

If you have lovely content then for the love of little green apples, spend some time curating it properly.  Add categories. Tag it. Link it. Feature it. Make little lists.  Just add an archive, if nothing else.  But work that content.  Sweat your assets, as one of my bosses used to say.  (But don’t look like you’re  sweating).

Need inspiration? Havi Brooks of The Fluent Self is the queen of internal linking.

That’s my top five.

Caveat: Some brilliant blog businesses do break some of these rules.  But they don’t break all of them at once…

Thoughts? Additions?

(PS If you suspect your site is less than lovely, and you’d like some expert help, check out my web clinic service.  I am also launching a DIY mini-version soon, which will help you furtively check out your site in total privacy).

 

 

 

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