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Published: Thursday, April 20, 2000

Creating Usable Web Sites


When creating ASP pages, oftentimes developers will focus solely on the functionality needed. Does the ASP page work and do what it needs to do? Granted, this it is important to make sure your ASP page can answer this question in the affirmative, but far too often once developers have reached this milestone, they think their job is done. Not so! Developers also need to ask themselves:

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Is this ASP page usable?

Can a visitor easily accomplish the task the ASP page was intended for? The ease with which a visitor can use a given ASP page refers to the page's usability.

Why does Usability Matter?
The simple answer is "Why waste your time creating an ASP page that no one can use?" Software is notoriously unusable for the average computer user; programs like Microsoft Office are unbearably difficult to use for anything more than executing a simple task. (If you are scoffing at that last comment, take a moment to create an excel spreadsheet with address information for a number of people. Then go into Word and try to do a mail merge with the Excel document to print the addresses on labels.) If software weren't so unusable, would we have so many "... For Dummies" books? So many training classes and instructional videos?

With Web sites usability is essential, more so than with classical software, like Windows or Office. With classical software, users are willing to take the time to learn how to use the program since they've already invested a decent chunk of change. With the Web, however, if your site is difficult to use, I guarantee you that your visitors will jet over to a more usable site before you can say, "I wish I would have done some usability testing."

Creating a Usable Web Site
Creating a usable Web site requires, above all else, understanding what the user needs and how they interact with computers. The only sure-fire way to ensure your site is usable is to grab some people from your intended audience, sit them in front of a computer, and ask them to perform the tasks your Web site was designed to perform. Watch how they perform these tasks, look at what buttons they click, what links they follow. Also, be sure to ask the user to explain what he or she is thinking, what links or buttons they are looking for, and what they expect to see.

Running such tests may seem logistically impossible, but it isn't that difficult. In fact, studies show that performing usability tests with as few as five users is often "good enough" (Nielsen, http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20000319.html).

When building a Web site, also be sure to make sure you don't commit the Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design. Even though this article was written in 1996, it still makes a lot of good points. Also be sure to check out the Top 10 New Mistakes in Web Design. (If you find the Top 10 New Mistakes in Web Design useful, be sure to also read the user comments about the new Top 10 list.)

An Example of a Usable Web Site
Usability engineers often point to Amazon.com as a great example of a usable Web site. Amazon makes it painfully easy to find what you are looking for. One example of how Amazon excels over Barnes and Noble.com, in my opinion: enter an ISBN in the search box on the Amazon.com homepage. As expected, the book corresponding to the ISBN is displayed. Over at Barnes and Noble.com, however, such a search from the first page returns a list of possible hits. To do an ISBN search, you must enter Barnes and Noble's advanced search.

You've Convinced Me, Usability is Key. What Now?
If you are serious about creating usable Web sites, I strongly recommend that you spend several hours reading the many great usability articles on Jakob Nielsen's UseIt.com Web site. Nielsen, an usability expert, has authored many great articles on his site that will help you tremendously in ensuring that your Web site(s) are usable! Also be sure to check out this list of recommended books on Web site usability.

Happy Programming!


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