Web designers are no strangers to the principles of usability on the Web – in fact, a good web designer should be the best practitioner of the ideas set forth by usability gurus like Jakob Nielsen. But what exactly are the principles that all designers should be using to inform their designs? Everyone knows about underlining links, making sure your hierarchies are in place, having your logo in the top left and so on. Why do these standards exist, though, and why do they remain such a constant? And once you adhere to these basic standards, how can a good designer make sure the particulars of their designs are user-friendly and optimized so the site gets the best results – whether those best results are sales, clicks, conversions or time on page.
According to the aforementioned Jakob Nielsen – who’s considered pretty much the last word on web usability – the term, as it applies to websites, is defined as follows:
- learn ability (how easily can users figure out what to do the first time); efficiency (how quickly can they get things done);
- memorability (once they’ve been away, can users remember how to do things once they return);
- errors (how many errors does a user commit and how sever are these errors);
- and satisfaction (how pleasant is the overall design and experience).
So what does all that mean, and how are designers supposed to make sure they follow those five principles in every site they design? It’s impractical to gather up 25 users, pay and feed them and make them test your site. Luckily, there are any number of methods and tools used to test a site’s usability. Here are four ways to make sure each site you design follows the Nielsen principles of usability and four tools to keep you honest.
A/B – Multvariate Testing
This is a great way to figure out what users want to see on a site after it’s already gone live. Is the CTA (call-to-action) more effective here or there? Does this photo attract too many clicks? Should a link go here or there? Google makes a great tool for determining the answers to such questions – Website Optimizer can be used in conjunction with Adwords or as a standalone product to run simple tests and track the results. It’ll provide you with good data, as long as you don’t overwhelm it with things to track; thus, it’s particularly useful on landing pages or e-commerce pages. Pick one or two key pieces of your site at a time and see what good this tool can do for you. Plus, collecting data gathered by A/B or multivariate testing is a great way to show clients the reasoning behind your work.
Is This Clickable?
And here’s the snippet to track clicks on an image:
What Are YOU Looking At?
Perhaps the most versatile (and recognizable) usability-testing tool in the designer’s arsenal is the heat map, which tracks and records for later viewing a visitor’s interactions with your site. A tool like ClickTale shows what element of your site draws a user’s eye first and where the user goes after that. Do they read along the top, or do they go straight to the CTA in the middle? Most users follow along where they’re reading with their mouse; if they do, the ClickTale will tell the story of their visit. It’s an amazingly insightful and effective way to make sure your site is designed in the most logical and user-friendly way possible.
This Is Only A Test
Finally (and despite what I said about four paragraphs ago), there’s really no substitute for observing how a user interacts with your site. Jakob Nielsen suggests that you might want to look into building a dedicated “testing lab”; however, if you’re a freelance designer, my guess is that such things are slightly out of your price range. Services like Silverback and UserTesting, though, might not be. Basically, these let you get around bringing people in to test your site by letting you submit your site to them, whereupon they find the users to test it. You can watch the results via Quicktime or another video platform – and the best thing is that not only can you watch the results of a users interactions (like with a heat map), but you can also watch the users themselves as they interact with your site. That’s invaluable data for any designer.
Each of the tools mentioned above, in their own way, address the principles of usability. Moreover, if used properly together, they can help a good design refine his or her design process, making it easier to get more things done, book more jobs and make more money. After all, if you don’t have to send every site out for multiple rounds of testing, your clients are going to get their sites faster and be more pleased with the results. Testing, whatever the method, allows you as a designer to follow the guidelines that ensure your design is effective and easy to use. No site is perfect the first time around, so understanding how users interact with the sites you design will leave you, your client and the site’s users happy.
Images used in this article are courtesy of Shutterstock.