Take a look at your website’s homepage. How many elements are there? Twenty? Thirty? Do you have multiple inconsistent links to different parts of your site? Do you have a pop-up that obscures the page? Do you have—horror of horrors—a visitor counter? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, your website is probably way too complicated and you might be missing out on the benefits of good website usability.

But don’t just take our word for it: look at the websites that are winning awards and you’ll spot a consistent theme: many of them are incredibly simple and easy to use. This is for a number of reasons. The first is that simpler websites look better. The second is that simplicity and clarity are key elements in making websites usable, and website usability is one of the most important factors in effective web design.

Principles of website usability
Illustration by OrangeCrush

In this guide, we’ll explore the key principles of website usability. We’ll cover what it is and how it relates to (and differs from) user experience (UX) design and designing for accessibility. Then, we’ll guide you through the process of using website usability principles to design your site.

What is website usability?

Let’s start with the basics: what exactly is website usability?

Website usability is a feature of websites and a way of designing them that focuses on the user’s needs. It utilizes user-centric design processes to ensure that websites are efficient and easy to use for the people who actually use them, rather than the people who designed them.

web design with good usability and navigation
Clarity and utility are the two goals of website usability. Design by akorn.creative
monochrome minimalist web design
Simplicity is the key to usability. Design by Bluesjay

Beyond this basic definition, however, lies a wealth of complexity. In fact, you’ll quickly realize that making your website usable (by making it simple!) is one of the most complex tasks in web design.

Clarity and utility are the two goals of website usability, and designers need to prioritize both. In other words, web designers are tasked with making websites that don’t just look appealing, but work exactly how users expect them to work, which is no small task for even the most experienced designer.

The 5 principles of web usability

Web usability can be broken into five key principles: availability, clarity, recognition, credibility and relevance. Here is a quick definition of each:

  • Availability. Availability is simply how easy it is to access your website. Your website’s availability can be affected by the web hosting platform you use and by how compatible it is with the devices users are accessing it with.
  • Clarity. Clarity is the core of website usability. Visitors come to your site with specific goals in mind, and we promise those goals don’t include checking out your web design skills! If your website’s design distracts or confuses visitors, they’ll either need more time to find what they came for, or they might forget their initial goal altogether and leave. In either case, they’re leaving dissatisfied and unlikely to come back.
  • Recognition. Recognition is a way of describing the learning process users undertake when they visit a new site. You might not feel that your website needs to be studied to be used, but in reality, all sites require at least a few seconds of assessment before a user can interact with them. The vast majority of users will, for instance, need to navigate back to your homepage at some point, and most will look for a logo in the top left corner of their screen to do so. If your website works differently, they’ll have to spend a few seconds learning how to get back to the homepage. When you design for usability, strive to keep this learning curve as short as possible.
  • Credibility. Even if customers can easily find the content or functionality they’re looking for, if they don’t trust it, the website is worse than useless for them. There are a lot of ways to demonstrate your credibility through your website design, like being transparent about your business and goals.
  • Relevance. Relevance is perhaps the most complex issue in usability because it describes whether the content that your customers see on your site is engaging. Creating engaging content involves carefully defining your target audience, determining what they want and meeting their needs as clearly as possible.

These five principles are the most important aspects of website usability. But it can be difficult to see how these elements are implemented in the real world, so let’s take an example. Perhaps the best example of website usability: Amazon.com.

screenshot of Amazon homepage
Via Amazon

Amazon is optimized for usability in lots of ways. For a start, the desktop version of the site is optimized for both tablets and desktop screens. Every page is dynamic, and the basic layout of each page adjusts to the size of the user’s screen. The separate mobile site has a cleaner interface and a clear hierarchy of content and has been optimized to work well with slower internet connections. Amazon.com also has almost no downtime, despite the millions of users on the site every day.

This usability is no accident. On their website, Amazon explicitly states their commitment to usability: “We’re always looking for ways to improve the usability of the site for our customers, including those with disabilities.” For screen readers, they specifically recommend their mobile site because of its cleaner presentation of the content.

Website usability vs. accessibility and UX

Usability, as a practice and a feature of web design, shares some elements with the concept of accessibility. But there is a key difference: usability relates to all users, whereas accessibility generally refers to those users who have a disability of some type.

Lifecoach website, exhibiting accessibility and usability
An innovative combination of image and text can improve accessibility and usability. Design by spoon lancer

Accessibility, as we explain in greater detail in our article about accessible web design, means designing websites and apps in a way that makes them accessible for people with disabilities. This can mean making the website compatible with various assistive devices or simply using thoughtful design. According to data from 2012, close to one in five Americans lives with a disability of some type. Worldwide, approximately one billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, live with a disability. By making your website accessible, you avoid potentially alienating users.

Designing for usability involves many of the same techniques as designing for accessibility, but it extends them. In fact, accessibility is best thought of as a subset of usability: both aim to make your website usable by as many people as possible, but accessibility specifically focuses on making it usable for visitors with disabilities. For example, you might decide to use high-contrast text so users with visual impairments can use your website more easily. You might then find that this text is easier for smartphone users to see and that by using it, you make your website more usable for all users.

Website usability is also frequently confused with another related approach to web design: user experience (UX). Website usability is best thought of as a subset of UX, in that UX usually denotes a broader field of study and design than just web interactions. UX includes everything from human-machine interactions to the anthropology of artificial intelligence. Most training courses in user experience stress that the insights they rely on apply to an incredibly broad range of contexts and devices, not just websites.

Simple website for Subsea Valley
UX means ensuring consistent interfaces across multiple devices. Design by Mike Barnes

In terms of web design, this means that the aim of usability is to make that website easy to use, while the aim of UX design is to provide a clear, intuitive and ultimately, enjoyable experience with the website. Think of them this way: if designing for usability is designing a simple navigation bar that takes less than a second for the user to figure out, designing for UX is designing that navigation and any buttons on the website in a bold color that pops against the background, drawing users’ eyes to them.

Designing for website usability

At this point, you might be thinking these general principles seem a little distant from the actual process of designing websites. But actually, the opposite is true. The core principles of website usability drive effective design and should play a role in all the design choices you make as you build your website.

web design with clear navigation
A clear navigational structure is key for web usability. Design by MercClass

 

Not only will adhering to these principles make your website better, it can actually save you money on web design. When you design your website with users’ needs in mind from the outset, you’re streamlining the design and development processes.

Follow this roadmap to ensure your next website is as usable as it can be.

1. User research

User research is perhaps the most important part of designing for website usability. Before you begin designing your site, and even if you have hired a web designer to do this for you, you should find out what your users need and want from your website through user research.

You might be surprised by what you find. It’s possible, for instance, that the majority of your customers are coming to your site to find the location of your physical store, rather than to buy your products online, but that this information is hidden away on a deeply-buried “contact” page. This is an easy fix: simply move your location to your front page.

website design for a subscription cake website
For example, users who want cake delivery subscriptions need to know how the subscription works. Website design by DSKY

There are a number of ways of conducting this research, but user journey maps can be a very effective way for designers to visualize how visitors navigate through a site. Sketch out this navigation path to get a sense of how users will travel through your website, then flesh this sketch out to create an effective design.

When you’re designing for website usability, keep in mind there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. While innovation and creative approaches to design can look great, sometimes it’s best to stick with designs that users know how to use. This was the approach taken by Microsoft the last time they redesigned their website. The design aesthetic looks contemporary, but the site’s layout is one we’ve seen and used thousands of times before.

screenshot of microsoft.com
At its core, Microsoft’s homepage has a very basic structure. Via Microsoft.com

Let’s break it down: at the top left, there is the logo telling us where we are. On the top right, there is a search field, allowing us to search the site using keywords. In the same row as the search field, there’s a button to log in and a shopping cart display. We’ve seen all of these web design elements before and already know what they all mean. In other words, the site conforms to what most people expect from a website.

2. Structure

The next step in designing for website usability is to take the insights from your user research and use them to create the fundamental structure of your website.

This should include some probing and searching questions about the content your website should feature. Good questions to explore include:

  • What are my website’s visitors looking for?
  • Which content is the most important to visitors?
  • What information does every visitor need, and what information is only relevant to some visitors?

For established businesses that have a long history of successes, many product lines and multiple innovative ad campaigns, there can be a tendency to put all of these front and center on the homepage. This is a mistake: putting too much information on your website will overwhelm your visitors, causing them to leave.

Instead, define three (at most) tasks that your visitors want to achieve and give each of them a separate section on your website. At this point, you should be able to sketch the navigational structure of your website on paper. Instead of jumping straight into web design software, draw everything out first. This will help to keep your design simple, resulting in enhanced usability.

A great example of simple but effective structural design is the Nike website.

Nike website
Much like Microsoft’s website, Nike’s navigation is obvious. Via Nike.com

The brand offers sportswear and equipment for different sports, and also for different types of people. When you first arrive at the site, you can choose how you want to navigate it: you can either choose to browse their store by men, women, or kids, or you can browse by sports. For example, if you are looking for new running shoes, you don’t even care about all the tennis or indoor sports shoes they also have. Nike’s website makes it super easy to find exactly what you’re looking for, and only what you’re looking for.

3. Hire a web designer

The next step in building a usable website is hiring a web designer. Even if you end up doing most of the actual building of your site on your own, working with an experienced web designer to create the website’s look and feel is a way to ensure the website usability principles we covered drive your design.

Remember, all great websites operate on the same usability principles, but that doesn’t mean they all look the same. When you’re searching for the right web designer, work with one who doesn’t just create websites that work well, but websites that effectively communicate their brands.

Testing website usability

Here’s the key point to remember when it comes to usability testing: good design is a process, not an event. Organizations need to continually test their sites’ usability and use their findings to make their websites even better. You can’t make assumptions about the choices your designers and developers made during the building process, you’ve got to test them. Just because the structure they used looked good on paper doesn’t mean the end user will have a seamless experience.

Homepage of a website for coders, with direct links to popular pages
Give the user what they want. Design by Mila Jones Cann

For this reason, usability testing is the first step in the web design process, and also the last.

Usability testing generally involves recruiting volunteers and asking them to use your website. By monitoring their clicks, mouse movements and behavior, you can identify potential pain points or flaws in the design. The participant can vocalize any problems they had and voice their feedback as well.

Through this process, you will generally uncover two types of problems. One type will be behavioral: your visitors can’t easily see how to get something done on your site. The second will be technical, if something isn’t working the way it should.

Whatever the outcome of your usability testing, you should use these insights to return to step one above. Designing a website means that you must continually assess the experience of your users, and continually seek to improve it. Otherwise, they’ll just go somewhere else.

Usability is a crucial part of great website design

Website usability is not optional. It’s a measure that can be applied to any website and describes how effective your website is and whether your website is an effective investment.

This simple point can be easily forgotten. Your website design might work well for managers when they test it, but they know what your business does and how it works. It might be a totally different story for your users. Re-focusing your design on your users, and on what they want to achieve, can make your website more usable. In other words, making your website easier to use means that more people will use it. And making it easier to use is best done by working in collaboration with a web designer.

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