How Usable is Your Web Site?

by Peter Fleck
©1999 Peter Fleck

Peter Fleck is President of PF Hyper, a Web consulting firm that helps companies build visitor-friendly, accessible Web sites. He also writes and teaches about Web stuff as a member of the Computer Education faculty of the Science Museum of Minnesota. He can be reached at pf@pfhyper.com.

According to the Georgia Institute of Technology's GVU Web surveys (http://www.gvu.gatech.edu/user_surveys/), the primary item visitors seek at your Web site is information. Are you helping or hindering that quest?

The web is one of the best mediums for providing information about your products and services. HyperText Markup Language (HTML), the structured language that we use to create Web pages, was designed to make it easy to convey information. But the power of HTML can also be used to turn your Web site into a confusing jumble of pages and to hide the information thoroughly.

How usable is your site at presenting important and sought-after information about your company? Can visitors move through quickly to read or retrieve the information they are looking for?

Sites suffering from unusability, will call attention to themselves. Visitors will get lost as they browse the site.

This article's intention is not to point fingers. Instead, it's hoped that it will help you evaluate the usability of your site. If your site is suffering some of the problems mentioned, be assured that you are not in the minority, and that fixes are not that difficult, in most cases, to implement.

The Obvious

If it's usable, the most sought-after information is at the visitor's fingertips. For example, your phone numbers: make sure you are displaying a contact phone number on the home page of your site in a prominent position. You would never publish a brochure without conspicuously displaying your company's phone number. This practice doesn't seem to have much priority on the Web. Multitudes of sites seem predisposed to minimizing contact with their company by hiding their phone numbers on inner pages.

It's not a bad idea to have all your contact information displayed on the home page. In fact, consider displaying it on each page, at the bottom in a smaller font size, with copyright info.

Other critical information should be easy to find within one click of the home page. (Part of your job, before your Web site is designed, is to know what that information is!) Prices are important. If you have a product, you need to tell people what it costs. That will be a first question on the mind of most of your visitors. If you are not selling direct, you should have a suggested retail price. You might even consider providing the street price.

If you are selling over the Net, please make shipping charges easy to find. Provide an estimate up front and don't force your visitor to go through the whole process of ordering just to see what the shipping choices and costs are. Very few sites get this right.

Finally, if you are not a direct seller, provide purchasing information for your product. It's easy to forget this if you are the distributor. List where your outlets are located or the URLs to their Web sites.


Your navigation scheme should be like a gentle guide that can direct your visitors throughout your site unobtrusively, giving just the right amount of help when necessary.

Part of the thought behind a good navigation scheme involves how you divide the content of your site in the first place. This should be in a hierarchical format so that visitors can follow links within a particular category at your site to get more and more specific information.

It may seem logical and helpful to give your visitor as many choices as possible in the form of links to other pages at your site (and the WWW) but generally, this makes actually choosing where to go next difficult. Limiting the choices available helps in guiding the visitor to the information they seek.

An easy and very usable design to work with is to simply have your home page contain links to four or five category pages. Each of the categories can be further subcategorized. You provide the visitor with links to all the main category pages and the home page on each of your pages. A familiar page is never far away and the link choices are not overwhelming.

Help the visitor navigate within longer pages too -- where they will have to scroll to read the entire text. Give them a link back to the top of the page from the bottom and, depending on the length, you might provide several links to the top throughout the page. If you have subsections on the page, you can provide links from the top directly to the subsections.

Send the Info But Please Hold the Graphics

Jakob Nielsen predicts that low-end users won't have acceptable Web response times (fast connections to the Web) until 2008 (Alertbox, "'Top Ten Mistakes' Revisited Three Years Later" http://www.useit.com/alertbox/990502.html).

When a visitor requests a page from the server that houses your site, the page has to be downloaded from the server to the visitor's computer. A usable page downloads quickly so the visitor can read the valuable information it contains. This should be as obvious as having your phone number on this quickly downloaded page.

Pictures are the major speed bumps. They slow down the downloading. Most of these pictures likely aren't worth the wait.

Think twice about every single picture on the page and what purpose it serves. Make sure each image is as compressed and small as possible which probably means finding some professional help. Graphics must be optimized for proper Web display and this usually requires image editing software.

Pictures are important. They can enhance your site. However, some visitors will not be able to view the pictures (for various reasons including vision problems) so make sure all of the information is available as text. In particular, pictures should have an alternate text description -- called an ALT attribute. Currently, many sites do not utilize ALT even though it has been a part of HTML since the beginning.

Try to minimize the number of pictures and their sizes on the home page of your site. You want to grab the visitor's attention immediately with the home page and forcing them to wait for the 100K image of your corporate headquarters to download doesn't succeed at this very well. Linking from the home page to an image of the headquarters is much wiser.

In cases where you do need to display a larger image -- a product photo for example -- warn the visitor with a thumbnail that links to the larger display, or a link that describes what will be coming down the pipe.

Broken Links

Broken links are like broken windows on a building -- they make your site look like it's not maintained. The first question the visitor will ask is: "Does the owner ever visit this site?"

Broken image links are horribly obvious and unnecessary. Fix them fast.

Links to other pages at your site that don't work impede navigation and will likely result in the visitor leaving since they can't get to page they want to browse.

Check all the links at your site regularly and make sure they work or remove them. Software -- some of it free -- is available for checking links and creating a report.

Let It Bleed

Java, JavaScript, and the various plug-in technologies that add animation, interactivity, and "whiz-bang" to your pages all have their place in the Web universe but it is too early to rely on them as the only method to convey information. Make sure to offer alternative pages that don't include these new technologies.

Both Java and JavaScript can be turned off in the visitor's browser settings. Java has also had many versions and it's possible for visitors with older browsers, that use older "Java Virtual Machines," to end up with frozen computers or crashed programs.

Plug-ins will often require the user to go somewhere else, download software, and possibly troubleshoot why it then doesn't work. With at least 5 million sites on the Web, why would anyone want to spend the time doing this at your site? They will move on to friendlier territory.

This is not to say that these new technologies shouldn't be tried. The key is to warn the visitor about the technologies and what they may need to see them displayed and to also present the information in an alternative format.

Why Web Sites Are Unusable: Theories On Why Sites Are Poorly Built

We still haven't found many instances where content should play second fiddle to navigation or graphics, despite what the designers want to think.

Jared Spool interview

Web designers with background and training in designing for computer screens are hard to find. Most of them come from the print world.

Many of these former print designers don't recognize how the print world is different from the Web world. Design for a printed piece is "frozen" and then printed. If someone finds that the text on the printed material is too small to read, they are not able to change the size of the type.

Web design and display doesn't work this way. If the text is too small, the visitor can change the size of the type, drastically altering the original design. Also changeable at the visitor's end are font faces, sizes, and colors; background colors; and browser window width. Any or all of these can destroy the designer's design.

Some designers see this as a battle and will do everything in their power to stop the visitor from changing the look of the page. They are destined to lose. HTML, our presentation language, and the Web itself were designed with user adjustments in mind. Design for Web pages should be a suggestion and not a mandate.

Now add in the fact that most of your visitors are using one of the two major browsers and each one can display pages differently from the other. The harder the designer tries to achieve a particular design and "freeze" it in one browser; the more likely the page will look different when accessed with the other browser. The browser version (Netscape 2.0 or Netscape 4.0, for example) can also affect display.

This inherent flexibility and user-centeredness of the Web is really an advantage. It allows a Web site to be equally accessible to a blind person as to a sighted person. At least this will work if the designer and developer know what they are doing.

And this brings us to a second reason why the Web is in the shape it's in today and that's bad HTML. HTML is seductively simple. There are relatively few developers and designers that really know the language well and many tools for creating Web pages that create the pages with incorrect HTML. If a designer or developer is sloppy and there are HTML coding mistakes on their pages, often the browser will still manage to display it. However, the other major browser might not display it correctly or as intended, and the next version of a browser might display it differently or not at all. If a designer and/or developer takes the time to learn the syntax of the language and write what is referred to as "well-formed" HTML, the display will be far more consistent no matter what sort of software is accessing the page.


In one of Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox columns ("Failure of Corporate Websites", http://www.useit.com/alertbox/981018.html), he provides some figures from Forrester Research that estimate the cost of "bad Web design." This includes the loss of approximately 50% of potential sales as people "can't find stuff," and losing "repeat visits from 40% of the users who do not return to a site when their first visit resulted in a negative experience."

If your site suffers from some of the problems mentioned in this article, you may be losing sales and visits. Your site is not alone: many, maybe even the majority, of the sites on the WWW also suffer from more than one.

The solution is to take the time to evaluate your site, assess its usability, and then to implement the changes necessary to make www.yourcompany.com usable and well-designed.