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Posted 19 Apr 2004

Web usability: The basics

, 19 Apr 2004
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The basics of web usability.

What is web usability & why is it important?

Web usability is about making your website in such a way that your site users can find what they're looking for quickly and efficiently. A usable website can reap huge benefits on to your website and your business.

  • Every £1 invested in making your website easy-to-use returns £10 to £100 (source: IBM)
  • A usability redesign can increase the sales/conversion rate by 100% (source: Jakob Nielson)

Your website has to be easy to navigate

Users have gradually become accustomed to particular layouts and phrases on the Internet, for example:

  • Organization logo is in the top-left corner and links back to the homepage.
  • The term 'About us' is used for organization information.
  • Navigation is in the same place on each page and adjacent to the content.
  • Anything flashing or placed above the top logo is often an advertisement.
  • The term 'Shopping cart' is used for items you might wish to purchase.

There are numerous other conventions like these - can you think of some more?

Don't underestimate the importance of these conventions - as the Internet matures, we're getting more and more used to things being a certain way. Break these conventions and you may be left with nothing but a handful of dissatisfied site visitors.

Pages must download quickly

Studies have shown that 8.6 seconds is the maximum time web users will wait for a page to download (source: Andrew B. King - Speed Up Your Site). As of mid-2003, just 17% of UK web users had broadband, so it's essential that your website downloads quickly on a dial-up modem.

To speed up the download time of your website, we recommend you do three things:

  1. Use CSS and not tables to lay out your web page
  2. Use CSS [Cascading StyleSheets] and not images to create fancy navigation items
  3. Read this article about how to speed up the download time of your web pages

Information should be easy to retrieve

We read web pages in a different manner to the way we read printed matter. We generally don't read pages word-for-word - instead we scan. When we scan web pages, certain items stand out:

  • Headings
  • Link text
  • Bold text
  • Bulleted lists

Did you notice that images were left out of that list? Contrary to the way in which we read printed matter, we see text before we see images on the Internet. Don't place important information in images as it might go unnoticed.

Restrictions must not be placed on users

Don't prevent your users from navigating through the Internet in the way that they want to. For example:

  1. Every time a link is opened in a new window the back button is disabled. Approximately, 60% of Web users employ the back button as their primary means of navigation. If you do this, then you're preventing 60% of your users from using their primary navigation - now, that can't be good.
  2. Don't use frames to lay out your website. Frames can cause a number of usability problems, namely:
    • Disabling the back button (see above)
    • Bookmarking not possible
    • Impossible to e-mail the link to someone else
    • Problems with printing
    • Users feel trapped if external links open in the same window
    • Search engine optimization issues

There are lots of other ways that websites can place restrictions on its users - can you think of any more? Just think back to the last time a website really infuriated you - what annoying thing did it do to make you feel that way?


This article has no explicit license attached to it but may contain usage terms in the article text or the download files themselves. If in doubt please contact the author via the discussion board below.

A list of licenses authors might use can be found here


About the Author

Trenton Moss
Web Developer
United Kingdom United Kingdom
Trenton Moss is crazy about usability and accessibility - so crazy that he founded Webcredible, an industry leading user experience consultancy, to help make the Internet a better place for everyone. He's very good at information architecture and interaction design.

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Comments and Discussions

GeneralThe sky is not falling, will not fall any time soon Pin
NGS 54967220-Apr-04 5:28
memberNGS 54967220-Apr-04 5:28 
GeneralA few points Pin
Mark Focas19-Apr-04 20:47
memberMark Focas19-Apr-04 20:47 
I thought you might have mentioned a little about usability for disabled people.
When it comes to the web, most people think of a disabled person as someone who can't see well, or at all. However, a lot of viewers have difficulty using a mouse, so keyboard navigation should be easy.
Images should have alt text to enable screen readers to read what they are.
Links need to be thought out, never use the 'click here for more info' style links, as a screen reader will not be able to place the link in context, when the user wants to list all the links on a page, they will just hear a whole lot of 'click here' messages. Audio and video (usually a bad idea on the web anyway) should have transcripts to enable those who cannot view or hear them.
Tables should make use of Captions, Table headers for rows and columns if appropriate, and colgroup and rowgroup. Try reading the average train timetable with a screen reader and you will see what I mean.
On the issue of frames, it is not strictly correct to say that a framed page cannot be bookmarked, with clever coding it can. I refer you to the Microsft MSDN site as an example. Try this link Xml Serialization to see an example of this
A rather pedantic point, this next one, but when you say we 'scan' a page, that actually means 'to examine closely' Perhaps you were after 'skim a page'? I would also mention the use of white space, especially if a lot of information is being presented. A lot of studies (and I am sorry here, I don't have any references) point to generous use of white space as an aid to retention of information.
Thanks for the thoughts. I didn't realise broadband usage was so low in the UK.

Being in a minority of one, doesn't make you insane
George Orwell
However, in my case it does

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