Aside from a keen eye for problem-solving and an ever-growing toolbox of technical skills, an effective web developer needs to keep an eye on usability.
Usability, a.k.a. UX (user experience), makes or breaks a website or software system. Without it, your website will likely fail in its primary purpose, be it selling a product or service, conveying information or gaining followers. With it, the end user will probably not notice but their time spent on your website will be rewarding for them and ultimately for you, as owner of that website.
Web usability comes in many flavours but put simply, it’s the ease of use of a website. Yes, things like fast loading pages, ease of navigation, intuitive design, clear calls to action and appropriate accessibility options for people with disabilities all play their part, but ultimately what is the overriding measure of how usable a website is?
If you’re a budding web designer, developer or your role comes anywhere near web solutions, then beg, borrow or steal a copy of Steve Krug’s book ‘Don’t Make Me Think’ (actually, don’t steal it). Or if you really don’t have the time to read it, just remember the title. Don’t make me think.
When you’re scoping, planning, building and testing your website (and in fact, this goes for most products, services or processes), keep that phrase in mind. As soon as the end user has stop and think what to do, where to look, what to click on, you’ve not done your job. Good usability means it is clear to the user from their first glance at your homepage who you are, what you do and what they need to do next. Stick by this simple guideline and you’re a good way there.
As Krug suggests, imagine your website user has a small vial of liquid. That’s their ‘reservoir of goodwill’. Each time they have to stop and think – search for a call to action (be it a button to press, link to click, phone number to call), wait for a graphic to load, can’t read your small text, can’t use the navigation menu or get confused for some other reason – they lose some of that goodwill. You can get away with it for a short time, but that reservoir doesn’t have to get drained too low before they give up and go elsewhere, maybe to your competitor’s website. Keep it topped up for them with good usability – research user requirements and habits, plan, design, build, test and test again – and they’ll stay with you. Don’t make them stop and think!