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Website Usability

"Cool" Often Leads to Unusable

A website that seems cool to one person can seem absolutely horrible to another. That's why anybody who says that a site is good or bad overall can be on pretty shaky ground. 

However, there are objective ways to determine whether a site is actually usable or not. 

We enjoy many of these "cool" technologies (when they're used correctly), and can implement them too when it makes sense. However, they just don't make sense for most websites. Like most people, when we surf the Web it's usually to find some information - not be entertained. (Hey, when we want to be visually entertained we usually turn on that old reliable standby, the TV.)

The following rules provide the foundation of a usable site. And to paraphrase that old saying about good design (that "form follows function"), a site has to be usable before it can truly be cool. 
 

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The 5 Rules of Website Usability

Rule #1 - Make it Quick

  • A website has only 8 seconds to capture visitors' attention before they bail and go to another site. 
  • Most pages should be displayed within 4 seconds. The longest most visitors will wait is 10 seconds.
  • The majority of visitors surf the Web with slow dial-up modems (the average connection speed is only 34kbps). 

Rule #2 - Keep it Simple

  • Limit the major navigation to between 6 and 8 choices. Studies show that's the maximum number of items people can keep in the short term memory (that's why local phone numbers are so much easier to remember than long distance numbers). 
  • Keep the navigation consistent. Don't force visitors to learn different navigation schemes in different parts of the site.
  • Don't use animation unless it's called for - it overwhelms the eye. (There are only 7 situations where animation is appropriate). It also takes longer to be displayed and "breaks" Search Engines. 

Rule #3 - Make it "Searchable"

  • Search Engines look for actual text. They pay almost no attention to graphics (even graphics that look like text) and programming code (like JavaScript, used for menus and other special effects). 
  • "Intro" or "Splash" screens block Search Engines, preventing them from reviewing the site (unless extra work is done to help out the Search Engine). 
  • Flash and frames block Search Engines too (again, unless extra work is done to help out the Search Engine). 

Rule #4 - It Works for Most People

  • Websites need to be compatible with the types of computers and Web browsers that most people use.   
  • Use simple, plain HTML whenever possible - it's the most compatible.  
  • "Special" features, such as Flash animation, client-side scripting (programming), etc. increase the chance that the site won't work for everybody. They also make it harder to update the site. 

Rule #5 - Keep it Current

  • The quickest way for a website to lose credibility is to contain obviously outdated information. Even small things like a copyright date of "2000" tip off visitors that the site isn't up to date. 
  • Make the site easy to update. That way it's more likely to actually be updated on time. 

What About Flash?

What's Wrong With Flash

  • Encourages the use of animation when it isn't appropriate or needed, which slows down the display of the Web page
  • Breaks "normal" navigation - the Back button doesn't work and clickable elements aren't intuitive. 
  • Breaks the ability of Search Engines to search and index the site (unless extra work is done to help out the Search Engine). 
  • Hard to bookmark.
  • Harder to update (compared to "normal" HTML). 
  • May have to download the Flash utility if it hasn't already been installed (or it's outdated). 
  • For a quick, insightful, and entertaining read, see what industry leader Vincent Flanders has to say in When Good Flash Goes Bad.

So Why's Flash So Popular?

  • Web designers like it! It's a new cool trend and it's fun to work with. 
  • For those times that animation is actually appropriate, Flash has advantages over many other animation technologies (e.g. uses vector graphics, streaming, and is widely supported).
  • It's good for online advertising. Advertisers like it because it's difficult to tell your Web browser to block it, and the animation dominates your eyes. 

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What About Frames?

A Web page that is divided into different "scrollable" areas (in addition to the scroll bars that normally appear on the very right and bottom edges of the Web browser) is using frames. 

When frames first came onto the scene back in 1996, Web designers rushed to implement them into their websites (similar to their enthusiasm for Flash these days). When the problems with frames were finally widely acknowledged, a lot of time and money was then spent to remove them. 

What's Wrong With Frames

  • Breaks the ability of Search Engines to search and index the site (unless extra work is done to help out the Search Engine). 
  • Hard to bookmark - what's in the Web browser's address line doesn't always match what's being displayed in the frames. 
  • Can make printing difficult. Many older browsers have a hard time printing framed Web pages correctly. 

So Are Frames Good for Anything?

About the only good use of frames is in "meta"-sites. 

Meta-sites are websites that embed other websites in themselves. An example is www.Ask.com, which is a natural-language Search Engine site. After you perform a search at www.Ask.com and then click on a website that was found, that "found" site is displayed in a frame that's embedded in the www.Ask.com site. 

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Other Benefits of Usable Sites

Besides being more useful to its visitors, a usable website is also usually:

  • Cheaper: Usable sites tend to be simpler, which means they're easier to build, as well as update later. 
  • More likely to be kept keep current: A site that's easy to update is also more likely to be kept up to date. 

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Don't Just Take Our Word for It

The general usability rules we listed above come from our many years of Web building experience. 

The specific details mentioned in these rules, however, come from an assortment of respected Web usability experts, whose studies confirm our anecdotal observations.   

To see for yourself that we aren't just making wild, unsubstantiated, or untrue claims about usability, go to our Web Usability References page!  

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