Due to the sophistication of the internet and the volume of people on it, usability has moved beyond just ensuring your site works. By Martin Croft
Usability should be a big issue for any marketer who wants to either sell products or services online, or use the Web to project their brand or corporate image. Research clearly shows that the more usable a site is, the more effective it will be.
Furthermore, the usability of a site will have a direct impact on its quality rating. With Google, Yahoo! Search and MSN all upping the weight they give to quality – both when determining how high up in the natural listings a website appears and when selling pay-per-click advertising – the better-quality experience a site delivers, the easier it will be for potential customers to find it.
It used to be the case that many marketers gave a low priority to usability research and user-centred design when creating webpages. That seems to have changed in the past year or so, probably because of the increasing sophistication of the internet and the people who use it. Usability used to be understood as a focus on whether the basic mechanics of a site worked. Were pages readable? Were links correct? Were consumers able to perform simple tasks? Usability testing used to be done at defined stages of the website development process, often in a laboratory setting, using systems such as eye tracking, for example, to determine how consumers were actually viewing pages. Usability also tended (and still tends) to be automatically linked with accessibility. They may have many aspects in common, but they are not the same thing.
More than ‘nuts and bolts’
Accessibility revolves around how easy it is for people with disabilities to use a site. There is a legal requirement in the UK to ensure websites are accessible to disabled people. There is also strong evidence that the more accessible a website is to the disabled, the more usable it is for the average consumer. Accessibility too, however, tends to be a “nuts and bolts” issue.
The focus has shifted away from usability in its crudest sense to the whole user experience. As Marty Carroll, director of consulting at usability consultancy Foviance, says: “The Web has matured to the point where most sites have reached a hygiene level for ease of use; differentiation will come about by focusing on the overall experience offered to customers. Usability is a component, but is only one aspect of the experience. Other factors such as the emotional, aspirational, and fun elements of an experience will increasingly need to be assessed and measured.”
Peter Ballard, founding partner at usability consultancy Foolproof, agrees: “The days of basic usability errors being made on websites are pretty much over. The role of user experience has got increasingly complex as it has to be much more focused on consumers’ online buying behaviour.”
Most experts agree that usability has to move on from a pure focus on making sure the nuts and bolts of the site work, but that does not mean they think those elements are no longer important. They assume marketers understand the importance, and don’t need to have it constantly hammered into them.
If they do, though, Chris Rourke, managing director of usability and accessibility consultancy User Vision, puts it bluntly: “Clear, simple content is vital. Make sure calls to action stand out. Links should look like links and buttons like buttons. Test your site on different media and browsers.”
James Barley, account director at digital agency Code Computerlove, says: “Usability is key to marketing. How you ‘scent-trail’ and funnel users to purchase is a massive – if not the biggest – cog in conversion and sales.”
Code Computerlove recently worked on the redesign of hmv.com. Barley says: “HMV’s main goal was to make it easy for everyone to find and buy the product they want. Key changes made on the site in 2007 improved user experience with clearer calls to action, sign posts, scent trails and a simplified shopping process. Since the rebrand, hmv.com has experienced its highest-ever sales, margin rates, orders, conversion rates, average transaction value, e-mail open rates and e-mail sales.”
Reflection of the brand
User experience should also bring the brand to the fore, observes Nima Yassini, head of digital at integrated agency RMG Connect: “To make a site relevant and appealing in such a busy universe, usability should reflect the brand and its values, and must fit with customers’ experience. We applied this thinking to RMG’s recent rebuild of the Rimmel website. We identified the four key pillars of the brand – products, looks, London and Kate Moss – and built an easily navigated, exciting and significantly more popular site that truly reflects the consumers’ key interests in and experiences of the brand.”
But perhaps the most important point to be made about usability revolves around the systems for measuring it. According to Foviance’s Carroll: “User experience becomes a strategic imperative that can drive online performance rather than another piece of research to be conducted ad hoc.”
And that means “a transition from a largely qualitative discipline to one driven by hard numbers. This will be because usability research will move beyond usability labs to Web analytics data and the use of online research methodologies.”
Martin Croft is a contributing editor at Marketing Week