How usable is your web site?

I got to thinking about the notion of usability in web site design after three independent events this week. First was a call from one of my neighbors new to the Web. He was in a panic when his search for something yielded over 2000 hits: how was he going to find anything? Then a recent article in the usually excellent Web Review by Keith Instone caught my attention. Keith tracked several users by sitting behind them as they navigated about the Internet Travel Network's site. Each user is given a series of tasks such as buying a ticket and finding out information such as the name of the Lexington airport. Finally, I had spent some time with Microsoft's Expedia buying tickets for the summer family travels.

Up until this week, I was very high on Expedia. I liked it the most out of all the travel sites that I have used to purchase tickets. For example, Expedia uses email intelligently to send not only quick purchase confirmations, but updates about changes to my itinerary and also travellers' advisories based on my destination country. But that all changed this week as I tried to book tickets for the family vacation. I had to make two lengthy phone calls to complete my purchase.

First was the call to American Airlines directly to track down the cheapest fare. One portion of the trip was going from New York to Los Angeles, a route that has zillions of possible carriers and flights. The choices overwhelmed Expedia's fare algorithms and only by calling American did I find that by taking a noon flight I could save about $100 per ticket. I have found that if call in off-hours and am patient and polite, the phone reservation agents will spend the time to help you out, whether it is to find the best fare or best route. Then was spending over an hour on hold with Expedia customer service when I didn't get email confirmation of my ticket purchase due to some glitch. And I won't get into details about not being able to access the site due to "network problems" nor how slow it is over a 28.8 modem.

In Keith's article, not one of his testers got the lowest fare by the way. But I digress. This essay isn't about booking travel via the Internet, but figuring out how usable your site is. Here are some things to consider.

  1. Does your site have contact information that is accurate and complete? Many web sites lack the basic contact info such as postal address, phone and fax, and email on their home page. If you can't track them down outside of cyberspace, do they really want your business? Not to flog Expedia, but only until you get to the ticketing screen do you see the phone number to call them. Don't hide this stuff under five levels deep in a back corner. Be proud of the fact that you are easy to find.
  2. How hard is mundane factual information to come by? If you have every tried to track down the current version of a product, its price, or what operating systems it runs on, you know it can be a frustrating experience. You would think things like this would be fairly easy to find, but I can't even tell you how many sites completely lack these basics. And how many press releases (whether they are printed or electronic) lack this stuff as well? Make someone who isn't the webmaster responsible for keeping track of this information and keeping it up to date too.
  3. Searching. There are two parts to better searching. First, as my neighbor found out, is making things easier to find from the various search engines. This is more art than science, and I have periods where I am good at typing in the right keywords and periods where either nothing turns up or else thousands of irrelevant articles appear. I don't know why this is the case.
    Second is to improve searching on your site itself, assuming that people have arrived at your front door. This I can talk about: How good is the search function, and how many screens does it take you to get to it? Are there any instructions on how to enter multiple keywords (whether you separate them with commas or spaces, surround terms with quotes or whatnot) nearby the big search button? Can you restrict it to particular areas of the site (such as the press area, or by date of the document)? I don't always want to search the full site. For example, Microsoft has a huge site but a fairly good search tool to find something of interest, especially if you already know the title of the document you are looking for.
  4. Breadcrumbing. Can you get back out of the site the way you came by using the browser navigation features (history or back buttons)? Sometimes, you want to move from one section of a site to another without having to go back to the home page. If you don't have any navigation icons on your particular page, then you should be able to use your browser to move around. Maybe, maybe not.
    I used to think that it was important to put navigation buttons and frames around each page on a site. Now I am not so sure. But the layout and design of your site should be fairly obvious to someone no matter where inside they land. You might want to check your logs and see the most frequent starting spots and then examine those pages to see if users can figure out where to go.
  5. Good tables of contents and indices. What separates a good reference book from a bad one is good indexing, and being able to find something quickly. How many of us have read the entire encyclopedia? But reading individual articles is another story. Web site designers need to realize that not everyone is going to start at the front door and proceed in an orderly fashion through the site. Most of us want to get in, grab a few pages (probably print them out) and get on with our lives. Keep the number of screens and sub-screens for contents and site organization down to the bare minimum. And put links to both the TOC and an index on your front page, so that others can quickly find them.

    Now all of these things should be common sense, but it is amazing how many sites lack most if not all of the elements. A good place to read more about usability is Alertbox, written by Jakob Nielsen of SunSoft.

    And if you want me to do a usability scan of your site, drop me a note and I'll be happy to put together a proposal.

    Book promotions dep't

    Looking for a good e-commerce book? Let me recommend "Understanding Electronic Commerce" by Dave Kosiur. It is a basic but solid introduction to the issues, including payments, security, catalogs and other things you'll need to know to get your web storefront established. Kosiur writes well and takes the time to explain some very difficult concepts. Go to and buy this book now!

    David Strom
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