User Friendliness: Ensuring Usability

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When designing a Web site, it is more important to consider your users than your clients. Firms have a really good idea of what they want, but the reason they pay for the design instead of building it themselves is because you are the expert.

 

Web site usability is a term that is thrown around in the Web design industry. Click-depth, horizontal and vertical navigation, color schemes, flash content and countless other jargonous phrases have ensured that the possibilities for a Web site are limitless, and the quest for solid, user-friendly Web sites just that—a quest.

 

“Web site usability is grounded in approach rather than technology, so there are no technologies that will magically improve usability on the Web,” said Eric Walter, principal of Gorilla Polymedia.

 

Web design, more than any other computer-related industry, is based more on the creativity and cleverness of the artist than the tools they use to build their works.

 

“When we sat down to plan out and design our site, we wanted to go with something simple that would get the job done and look good,” said Chip Kellam, owner and CEO of Gamebattles Inc., an online videogame news and competition Web site. “We made sure to use the same dimensions and layout for everything like the logos, menus and ad spaces”

 

Gamebattles.com offers a simple, two-column arrangement for its content and a rotating flash menu for its featured articles and gaming services. Gamebattles.com also changes its color scheme based on which specific channel the user is viewing. Subtle yet important details such as these, as well as the reduction of ad space on the Web site, ensure that everything looks great and performs well at the same time.

 

Web sites for various services have made great strides in design, function and usability and lead the design industry in innovation.

 

Netflix.com, for example, impresses many users with some of the simplest yet most convenient features on its Web site. “Netflix has taken a potentially complicated process and made it extremely easy to use. The addition of adding a layer that displays product details on a rollover saves the user a click to view more information on the release,” Walter added. Of all the prominent movie and videogame Web sites on the Internet, Netflix.com is one of the only ones that features this type of rollover preview.

 

Internet giant Google has also earned high marks with different Web designers as an innovator. Google’s near-seamless implementation of Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript + XML) methodology in Gmail and Google Maps has served as an example of what Ajax can do now and hints at the possibilities of the future.

 

“Ajax, while definitely the technology-du-jour, does have some uses that can improve Web site usability if used correctly. Google has emerged as a role model for succinctly addressing the needs of their users,” Walter said. “Of course, one could argue that most sites don’t have the singular purpose that Google does and thus Google’s focused usability is tough to replicate for most Web sites.”

 

Kohler earns an honorable mention from the guys at Gorilla Polymedia for its Web site as well. “Kohler’s main kitchen and bath Web site manages to translate the high-design of their products into a Web-friendly design sensibility that appeals to all their customers.” The site has aesthetic attention to detail combined with its ultimate ease of use.

 

One Web site that generated mixed opinions is ESPN.com, which recently underwent a redesign on its front page. “The new page is too busy and the ads are almost oppressive,” said Sameer Gopal, college student and avid visitor to ESPN.com.

 

“The ESPN Web site, in my opinion, is too cluttered with information and ads. There are too many articles and video clips that are thrown at their users on the home page. Even after you get into a particular article the Web site offers too many ads and other snip-its,” Walter said. Users may be turned off by the bombardment of sports information as there are 211 links to stories, broadcast snippets and ad sponsors on the front page.”

 

To its credit, however, ESPN is an industry leader in sports coverage in the U.S. The rotating pages on the first column of the front page provide quick links to specific coverage.

 

There are no set rules for ensuring usability in Web design. A search of Amazon.com for “Web Usability” proves that point by providing 29 hits. Without an adequate guide and few standard opinions across the Internet, Web design is an art of both ingenuity and trial-and-error.

 

–Patrick Evans, patricke@certmag.com

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