5 Essentials of Website Usability

I'm busy. You're busy. We all know that drill. And if you're like me, you probably have a shortlist of things that annoy the heck out of you when they slow you down.

For me, that certainly includes the Web, which probably sounds crazy because I work for a company that sells Web services to small businesses. But I go absolutely nuts when I land on a Web site looking for something basic - like contact information or directions - and have to waste time hunting for it.

The Web is a beautiful thing in form and function, and we should always strive to keep it that way. It isn't necessary to make each and every Web page on a Web site a piece of art with breathtaking flash screens or animated icons floating about. Web pages should load fast and they should be immediately usable. The less you make navigation a puzzle that your visitors have to figure out before they can see what products or services you offer, the less you'll lose those prospects to another site that gives them what they want efficiently.

I could go on, but let me state five essentials of Web site usability that have become clear to me in my experience. If you make sure your Web pages do these five things, I'd be willing to put up with a few dancing icons. (But only a few.)

1. Put your contact information in a prominent location. You want to look like a legitimate business. This is a no-brainer, right? But I'm amazed at how often I have to hunt around on a Web site for a phone number, an e-mail address or a map for directions. Treat your Web site like an electronic version of the business card you give out when you want to make it easy for someone to remember you and get in touch. At the very least, your Web site should include:

  • Your phone number
  • Your e-mail address
  • Your street address
  • Your fax number

2. Restrain yourself on graphics. I like nicely designed Web sites as much as the next person, but not when a bunch of graphic elements interferes with my ability to find the information I want. Some Web sites are sort of a sensory assault - so much going on that it’s hard to focus. And all those graphics can contribute to slow-loading pages, which is where we started this whole discussion. Bottom line: If I can’t easily - and quickly - find what I want on your site, chances are I'm going to end up on one of your competitors’ sites.

The whole design issue is a tough one for people who don’t have a lot of Web experience, which is why at Microsoft Office Live (a StartupNation sponsor) we offer hundreds of pre-designed Web page templates our subscribers can choose from. All they have to do is add their content. Those more experienced might want to use a product like FrontPage, but we’re finding that very small businesses, in particular, like the idea of being able to get a Web site up quickly and easily - without advanced technical skills.

3. Keep your site visitor top-of-mind. That should be obvious, but some Web sites get caught up in celebrating the business behind it rather than their visitors, who have a specific purpose in coming to the site. If your visitors want to buy a pair of shoes, make it extremely clear that you’re there to sell them shoes. Don't make them read about your founder’s philosophy of shoe comfort when what they want is a size chart or a shopping cart.

4. Be sure your content is Web-friendly. Screen after screen of text doesn't work on the Web, unless you're some sort of research site. If you're trying to appeal to the general public, keep your copy brief and to the point. People tend to scan text on the Web, so boldface lead-ins and bulleted lists are excellent ways to present information that catches the eye.

5. Keep it simple. You want to be sure your visitors get the information they’re looking for, but you don’t want to completely overwhelm them. I've seen Web sites where the left-hand navigation is as long as my arm. Too many pages with too much information will bewilder and distract visitors. Start out modestly and only add depth when visitors and/or new products and services demand it.

I like to tell people about Microsoft Office Live for Small Business because it lets your Web site evolve as your business evolves. You can get a professional, basic site up quickly and then add as you go. We provide Web site traffic reports, and by analyzing visits to your site, you can see what’s working, what’s not, and make adjustments accordingly.

So that’s my five. I’m done. We all have things to do, places to go and Web sites to build.

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