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The Importance of Web Usability

Part 2

Blind, unlabeled navigation icons you have to mouse-over to get a clue, as opposed to navigation bars/buttons with symbols can be very annoying. What are these mystery icons?

First we should define the term "icons". They are the small pictorial symbols used on computer menus, windows, and screens. They represent certain capabilities of the system and can be animated to bring forth these capabilities for use by the user. It is a synomyn for any small visual symbol. A good example is the "trash can/bin" on the desktop.

Icons are used to help the user work smarter, quicker and with ease of use. It also saves space. A well designed icon says much in the area of a few pixels. We also, by human nature, recall visually encoded concepts better than verbally encoded concepts. They are more memorable.

Icons can even make a site "global". In that I mean, few words are common to very many languages, but many visual symbols are, such as the "no smoking" icon of the picture of the lit cigarette with a red slash through it.

The use of color is also important, and we must observe cultural conventions when designing icons. Red signifies stop in many cultures (including the United States). It prohibits action. Don't use red as a color on a button or link that you want people to click. It will confuse them. "Should I stop or should I go ahead and click?"

Metaphors on the other hand, are useful ways to help people navigate on your website. A metaphor's definition is "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them".

Putting some other techniques to work, you'll have a site with a user experience that provides a substantial lead and competitive advantage over a majority of your competitors:

Make Buyers Feel Comfortable
Some users are still afraid of shopping online. You have to reduce their risk if you want them to spend money.

Get Users to the Goods
If users can't find the products you're selling, then, they won't be able to buy them.

Make It Easy to Complete a Purchase
Once users start the buying process, make it easy for them to complete it.

Build Buyer Loyalty
It's cheaper and easier to have customers return than it is to find new ones.

Maximizing speed so your site loads quickly
Your customers’ time is important. Making speedy access is an important consideration.

Make UI design predictable and consistent
Surprises are not welcome on the Web. Inconsistency leads to confusion. It may bore you to see all of the pages in a section of your site look the same, but your users will appreciate it. Keep the size, shape, and position of important elements constant through out a site or section. If your buttons appear on more than one page, make sure they function the same way everywhere

The direction of text flow is another natural restraint.
Roman letter text is read in a definite and documented pattern from top left to right center to lower left to lower right. In text and image layout, take advantage of your culture's natural conventions.

There is one happy conclusion from the fact that most websites are bad and that users spend most of their time and money at the 10% good ones:

It is relatively easy to succeed on the Web because most of your competitors are clueless. In the physical world, it is difficult for large companies to give good customer service since most of their staff is unqualified. In contrast, on the Web, good service is a small matter of programming and can scale to ever more customers and product selection.

The importance of web usability may be complex, but it's also well worth the effort. Remember that you're helping people to accomplish goals — whether those are finding information, purchasing a book, talking with friends, or learning a new language. If you can build a website that supports your users, you will ultimately reap the benefits in terms of sales, hits, user loyalty, or whatever your personal definition of success may be.

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Recommended Readings:

Designing Web Usability
by Jakob Nielsen

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Tawnya Sutherland, Copyright © 2003
This article may be freely reprinted in your ezine, e-book and/or on your web site so long as it provides a link back to the Mediamage Business Solution’s website. Email for permission guidelines.


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