Are You User-Friendly?

Like many businesses, chances are your firm is designing a new website or implementing significant updates. Before you get too busy selecting photos or writing copy, take some time to think about the user and their goals when visiting your site.

Recently, a client invited me to attend a presentation by a user experience (UX) consultant they had hired to review their existing website. Centralis is not so much a web design firm; they specialize in “interface design” – the true backbone of any website.

So, what is interface design and why is the user experience so important? Here’s what Steve Krug has to say about it:

“Navigation [interface design] isn’t just a feature of a web site, it is the web site, in the same way that the building, the shelves, and the cash registers are Sears. Without it, there’s no there there.”

Are we clear? Well, let’s make it even more simple; for the purposes of this post, we will define user experience (UX) as just that – the experience a user has when visiting a website or blog (note: user experience design is also applied to mobile applications and software).

There are a number of facets to UX, neatly encapsulated by designer Peter Moreville in this hexogan visual. As you can see, UX moves beyond simple navigation to encompass a spectrum of qualities including value, usefulness, credibility and even “findability” (I love adding new words to my vocabulary!). Moreville touches on each of these qualities in his article User Experience Design.

So, what did my client learn about their website? So much! Really too many things to list here. The following are a few tips that exemplify the “interface” mindset.

Know your audience is the first step in UX design and, frankly, in any marketing effort. Who is the customer? What are their needs? Why do they visit your site and what are they looking for? Before a page can be created or a word of copy written, it’s important to understand who your website is targeting and what they need to accomplish.

Identify your goals and keep them handy as you develop your website. Building a website is a huge project that can take you in many directions and diminish the focus. It’s a challenge to concentrate on a finite set of goals, but oh-so-necessary in providing a user-friendly experience. .

What is your market position? What differentiates you from your competitors? How can the website highlight these and support your business goals? What do you specifically want a visitor to learn from the website about you and your products/services? Ultimately, what do you want a visitor to do when visiting your website: Sign up for your blog? Email or call you to discuss a project? Whatever it is that you want them to do, make sure to offer ample opportunity (a button on every page, for example) and clear direction on how to accomplish it.

Focus your homepage so that it states clearly and simply who you are and what you do. Before the redesign, my client had two dense paragraphs of copy on their homepage talking about the firm history and service offerings, accompanied by some images and a slideshow feature. Most of the copy was the same color, size and font, offering little help to a visitor scanning for something specific. A messaging hierarchy, visual and word-based, is critical. Consider a bold header and tag line to position your site immediately as the right place for the visitor to be. An example:

MailChimp: Easy Email Newsletters   

Then, each core product or service you offer should also be found on the homepage in words (or images) to help a visitor find what they are looking for. This is NOT about clutter, but clarity, so you may need to group products under headings, tabs or buttons that allow the visitor to scan your homepage and understand where they need to go to find what they need. Again, our friends at MailChimp have done a great job developing a user-friendly homepage.

Lose industry terminology. Engaging a professional consultant to conduct a user study is the best way to get objective feedback. However, you could also do-it-yourself by forming a mini-focus group (preferably composed of people outside your firm! In fact, clients are best) to review your website noting terms that they find confusing. You could also select specific terms used in the website and ask the focus group for their definitions, how they interpret the words or phrases with regard to your service offering.

This was an eye-opening exercise for my client, a large printing company. The user study demonstrated that what the client perceived as relatively common terms such as “digital printing” and “wide format printing” were confusing to the study participants, all of whom are existing clients. Terms need to reflect visitor needs using words (or images or icons) they recognize. For the printing company, improved examples might include “low cost full-color postcards and bound books” and “posters and banners for your big event.”

Call the visitor to action on every page of your website. Never leave the visitor questioning, “so…now what?” Five seconds of this frustration and you’ve lost them (I really need to look at this one on my website!). To self-assess, open each page of your website and ask yourself, “Where do I go from here?” If there isn’t clear direction telling a visitor how to move forward in the process of learning more about you, contacting you or placing an order, then you need to make some revisions. Buttons that say “Contact us” or “See Case Studies” offer next-step options to the visitor. Likewise, strategically placed live links within the text can effectively direct traffic to other aspects of your web site. Keep visitors interested and moving within your site.

Applying the faceted, UX lens to your web page or blog can prove both shocking and empowering. It can be painful to acknowledge that your favorite image, copy block or page layout, while super cool, confuses your visitor and actually encourages them to leave your website. The flip side is that re-tooling your site to enhance your credibility, as well as the sites usability, desirability and accessibility, will encourage visitors toward the action that makes all the wheels turn…contacting you.