In his book Designing Web Usability, renowned expert Jakob Nielsen says, “There is no web page so important that I cannot go elsewhere.”

Web usability is one of the most important aspects of web development, and yet it’s one of the aspects that is most often neglected. And one in which insufficient attention can drive visitors away¬†from your site, rather than to it.

Why Useability Is Important

There’s no telling where people will land on your site, or where they’ll be coming from. Some people will arrive from search engines, some from links to pages other than your home page. There’s no way to tell, so it’s best not to leave anything to chance.

There’s no greater waste than having people abandon your site because they can’t find the value proposition, or how to order products from you, or what to do to get some service.

So in that vein, here are some good useability principles to bear in mind. You might not be able to follow them all, but the more you can apply, the better your site will be to use. Nobody can afford to ignore these, unless their brand is so good, and their customers so loyal, that bad useability doesn’t impact their willingness to use the site.

Let The User Control The Experience

Don’t design your site according to absolute values. Using a relative value for things like text size and page width will let your site be accessible to the largest variety of people, and that’s what you want.

Keeping all types of potential visitors in mind, from the mobile to the huge-screen power user not only stops you from alienating people on different platforms, but generates good will for having considered their online needs.

Keep Your Design Consistent

People like to feel at home on websites, and their exposure to the common practices of the internet has left them with certain expectations when it comes to site design. For example, the top left of pages usually contains a logo, and a link to the home page. The search function may be below that, or in the top right corner.

If you present your users with a design element that they’re not expecting, or are unfamiliar with, there’s a good chance they’ll hit the back button, rather than try figure it out. There’s a reason for these kind of conventions on pages. And that’s because they’ve worked in the past. If you do want to try something unconventional, then make sure you’re consistent with it from page to page.

Site Searches

People like to search for information. If they’re looking for something specific, they hope a site search can find it for them faster than they would alone. If you’ve got a website with a lot of content, a site search option on every page might be a good idea. If you can’t do it yourself, many search engines offer site-specific options that you can include.

On small sites though, a search function will often leave the user empty handed. Something you want to avoid at all costs. Instead, make it easy for them to navigate and find information. A link to a site map may be useful in these cases.

Use Standard Conventions Where Possible

Everybody knows that blue underlined text means it’s a hyperlink. They don’t need to think about it, online experience has taught them.

Whenever you can, it’s a good idea to use that kind of standard convention that people will intuitively understand. In addition, standards-compliant sites may be viewed with more credibility by some users, and other webmasters may be more likely to link to them.

If your audience isn’t particularly concerned about it, it may not be an urgent requirement, but if possible, it’s always better for your development to be standards compliant.

Java & Browser Scripting

At least 5% of browsers are not Java enabled, for a variety of reasons. If your site is heavily dependent on JavaScript, those users won’t be able to see it. In fact, it’s probably best to minimise your reliance on Java as much as possible, not least because search engines don’t index it as easily or accurately as they do HTML.

If you do use Java, placing it in its own external .js file and linking to it from inside the pages will decrease load times. Be sure to use noscript tags to define its contents to users who have JavaScript disabled.

Keep File Size Small

Download time is a key factor in usability, and the “back” button is one of the most frequently used browser buttons. If your page takes too long to load, you’ll be losing users before they even see why they should stay.

Specify Image Details

Another way of helping your page load faster is to specify the sizes of pictures, allowing text to load before the images have rendered. Also, remember that in images which are linked, search engines will usually treat the “alt” text in the same way they would anchor text. The picture title tag is also a useful place to put a relevant keyword.

Minimise Load Times With CSS

An external style sheet is another way of reducing your page load times, and has the added advantage of helping you keep your pages looking consistent.

Since the style sheet of a site is only loaded once, and kept in the cache, users won’t have to load the same design elements over and over when they’re navigating between pages. The longer a person has to wait between page loads, the more likely it is that they’ll be distracted away from your site.

In Conclusion

Bearing these aspects in mind when you’re planning the development of your website (or, as some people seem fond of spelling it, “websight”), will go a long way toward improving your usability score. And good usability means a better chance of keeping your visitors around, which means a better chance of converting them.