“Search Engine Optimisation” is the process of optimising website readability for search scripts whilst “Usability” is the same process for real people, and is based on historical research into ALL aspects of human interaction with websites. The Internet has been around long enough for us to measure why one company succeeds and another fails in the same space.
These studies were largely driven by online retail which had the most to gain from an understanding of the new medium and they quickly learnt that online behaviour is vastly different from its real world equivalent (see my tutorial on ecommerce design). The new guidelines that were learnt can be applied to non-retail websites as well since the overwhelming goal is the same – to make a website more appealing and helpful to the reader.
Probably the best example of change can be seen in how designers deal with site navigation. A typical website used to be designed around the “About Us – Products – Services – Contact Us” navigation model, and whilst those may seem logical content categories, they make absolutely no sense to someone visiting the website. To challenge them with the task of discerning an unknown sorting criteria as to whether they are seeking a “Product” or a “Service” (and to place “About Us” before “Products”) sends a very clear message that the focus of the website is not on customer service – effectively saying “This is ME, these are MY products, this is what I offer, and this is MY website”.
Site readers have been discovered to be incredibly intolerant – they want what THEY want, and they want the shortest route from their entry page to that information. If you can satisfy that need then they will start asking further questions like “Who are these guys?”
Creating “a positive user experience” is about more than simply adjusting links to display recognisable names; it’s about understanding your audience, providing them with clear pathways to what they seek, answering their concerns as they arise, giving them a feeling of understanding, familiarity and expectation – and therefore ‘control’ – and building up their trust of your website (and by extension… trust of your business).
As with most things, the easiest option is usually the wrong one. Taking a pile of products or articles and throwing them together into logical categories and then adding a giant logo and the company’s history might be the quickest way to build a website, but it won’t win you any favours with your customers. On the Internet your website is probably open in a browser window right next to your oppositions, so anything that you can do to “win over” readers becomes vital to your online survival.
Modern usability needs to be incorporated during the initial design phases by starting with a flow analysis – planning just how a site reader can get from one point in the website to another – to ensure that no matter which page a reader lands on as a result of search, that access to similar page material and main categories are available. Research of user behaviour should identify common bottlenecks (areas where users become disorientated or need reassurance) and a professional design will utilise these spots to provide solutions that build trust.
Design consistency also plays a big role in giving readers a sense of expectation. Links to other site pages, external websites, and PDF files should be visually different so that the reader knows in advance what to expect. Links should NEVER say “click here” because both readers and search engines have no idea what the link is to – instead change the link to cover an explanation of the target e.g. “Learn more about our book binding” as opposed to “We do book binding (click here)”. Whenever a reader interacts with your website and the resulting action is unexpected you will lose trust because you have proven their expectation wrong – you have removed ‘control’ from them.