This is something new I’m going to try. Website Wednesdays, I’m going to try to write a bi-weekly column on websites and web usability every other Wednesday where I’ll talk about some of the challenges in developing modern websites.

I thought of a half dozen catchy titles for this post, but really it comes down to one thing. Usability. A usable website is a good website. The more usable your website, the more better a user’s experience will be with it, and the more successful it will be in the long run.

What’s interesting is that in my previous life I rarely got challenged about stuff. I said that we needed to do something one way, and people very rarely said “Why?”, so we just went in whatever direction that looked the most sensible. At InfoTech I’m constantly being challenged and asked to defend my position. It makes me really think about usability things, and figure out what barrier I’m trying to break down.

All of these barriers are ultimately web usability, which is a fancy word that really boils down to three main points.

1: Don’t make me think

2: Eliminate needless steps

3: Always provide an answer to a user’s question

1: Don’t make me think

This one’s so good that Steve Krugg wrote a whole book about it. Read this book. Carry it around with you. Sleep on it. Make it your bible.

A lot of people get clever. They think that by naming their search “Searchology” or something clever that relates to the “branding” of their site, they will be tying the concept into their site. The truth is people frantically scan a page looking for things to do, when they see something labeled “Search”, they know that that’s how they use a search.

There are other similar conventions, a link to “home” should always go to the top level of your site, your logo should always go to the top level of your site.

Some conventions are created due to repeated use by popular sites. Both shopping cart and login information tends to be in the upper right hand corner. Play INTO conventions, don’t shy away from them.

2: Eliminate needless steps.

My old boss Wayne Carrigan (who inspired me with the sage words of wisdom “Never take a job that doesn’t initially terrify you.”) had a great concept. “Click 3”, no content should ever be more than 3 clicks away from where you are at any given time.

That’s slightly muddied these days by the concept of a “click”. With web 2.0 stuff, and the proliferation of alternative user navigation systems, how do you define what’s a click? Is it the act of clicking the mouse button, or is it an entire screen refresh? To me the act of clicking a mouse is pretty mindless, it’s the resultant wait as the next page loads that really creates a “click”. So for now I will define a “click” as an action that requires a post back to the server (even if it’s just to redraw a section of the screen).

3: Always provide an answer to a user’s question.

If you can’t get someone to their destination in three clicks, provide clear methods of getting in touch with someone who can answer their question. “Contact Us” information should be clear and visible. Barriers to getting through to someone should be eliminated as much as possible, and while having a knowledge base that someone can use to answer basic questions is good, the simple truth is people needing help do not read these pages, if they couldn’t figure out how to find your “reset password” link, what makes you think they’re going to read the paragraphs of text devoted to step by step instructions on how to do it?

That’s not to say eliminate these pages, but make sure that you’ve got alternative pathways directly to another destination which will give them guided answers. Paypal, I’m looking at you, a phone number would be nice!

Over the several months I’m going to try to demonstrate a few of these principles in action as I build a new face for All New Comics, re-skin Radical Hive, launch ComicLift, and relaunch InfoTech.com.

As I go through these exercises I’ll post things I’ve learned here, and hopefully you can learn along with me.

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