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Usability – Making your web site visitors’ lives easier

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Making your web site visitors’ lives easier

Why it helps to consider usability and user experience

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Amongst his various careers Keith spent several years at the HUSAT Research Institute in Loughborough doing research into usability.

He’s listed some of his pet hates in site design at the beginning of the usability and design link section.

This short article suggests a few things you can do to make your site better for people to find there way around.

usability ideas

Why think about user experience?

This benefits –them- and it helps –you- get your message or product across.

Really obvious? Good … it’s amazing how many people seem to have designed web sites for their own benefit.


First of all a few questions for you to ask about your site.

Pick a page at random, open it up and ask the following questions

  • Where am I?
  • Where can I go?
  • How did I get here?
  • And how can I get back where I was?

Is this immediately clear to a visitor?

Try to consider it from someone else’s viewpoint. Perhaps they have scripting turned off; perhaps they are using a speaking browser.

OK, lets go to your home page. Is it a bit clearer there? Does your message get across to visitors?  Have you decided what it is you want to say to them, or more importantly have you worked out what it is they want to hear from you? Do you really know who your visitors will be?

Making your web site better for people to use requires input at fundamental levels of design. You might query the selection of a random page above, but think of people finding pages via a search engine.  A lot of the feel that people will get for your site comes from their ease of finding what they want. Your job should be to help them in that task.

Note [2009] – it can take a while to get things improved. We only recently removed all links that open in a new window, amongst other things it breaks the ‘back’ button. We’ve also introduced a secondary right hand menu block with information about more of what’s on the site, and links to newest articles. Hopefully that improves things for more visitors.

In 2015, I spent many months moving all of the site content to a new WordPress based system. I’m hoping that it makes it easier for people to explore the many hundreds of pages of information and articles on the site. The move was partly motivated by a desire to make the site more mobile friendly, and partly to make it easier for me to update and expand the site.


A consistent look and feel helps people get round. It also helps convey the impression that the site was conceived as a whole rather than a thrown together collection of disparate parts. It also helps you maintain the site and add new content.

Simple things, like having contact details available and a good choice of colours for links (and followed links) all make for a better visitor experience. One basic thing that I forgot in some parts of the original Northlight site was the making a link specific to relevant text.

Note the difference between the following.

Click here to visit our usability section or here to visit our main photography section


We have a usability section and main photography section.

Usability research from UIE  does indeed show that the success of a link depends on:

  • How well the user can predict where the link will lead.
  • How well the user can differentiate one link from other, nearby links

When you are looking at your site from a usability perspective it is well worth remembering that

  1. You know it too well
  2. You have a particular style of browsing
  3. You are probably not like your typical visitor
  4. You -really- do know it too well

Get other people to check things and do remember to try out different browsers.

One other thing to have a look at is your <404> error page. People do enter wrong URLs and make mistakes. Try and make it helpful for them, almost anything looks better than getting a browser’s default ‘page not found’ error. You could just take them back to the home page, but why not be a little more helpful? The Northlight Images Error page has a different look (no menu bar) to give a quick visual clue that something is amiss, it has a basic site map and contact details, Hopefully it conveys the impression that you care about your visitors problem and want to help.

Where to go

I was sorely tempted to mention some of the atrocious sites I come across in browsing the web, but I’ll just suggest a visit to ‘Websites that Suck’ where you can gaze in awe at some of the exhibits.  I’m fully aware that designers are sometimes ‘just following orders’ but there really is no need for big Flash based ‘click to enter’ pages.

Learn from your own web browsing. Note what you like and what causes problems.  There is a collection of links I’ve found helpful in the Usability section should be a good starting point.

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