Usability in web development

7th April 2001

In this article User Vision discuss the importance of usability in web development.

Abstract: Usability is no longer a luxury for web development. Increasingly online businesses realise that sites which give their customers a poor user experience also give the business a poor return on their investment. E-commerce clients are starting to demand from web developers a level of competency in usability and related fields such as information architecture. Now is the time to increase your awareness and skills which will help satisfy this demand and achieve a competitive advantage in web development.

Ambitious predictions of an e-commerce revolution have been dampened by the reality that many people are not using the web to its full potential, despite its advantages and cost savings. Many factors have been blamed for e-commerce inertia, but an often-overlooked factor to e-commerce survival is simply the ease of web site use.
All too frequently, web users encounter slow loading pages, unclear instructions, inconsistent navigation, and animation that distracts rather than helps achieve a goal. These experiences prevent many web users from finding what they seek or completing their online transaction. Typical web users are fickle. They know that there are many other sites on the web to find what they are looking for, and they quickly leave sites that give them a bad experience – usually never to return.

The number of visitors who persevere to purchasing a product are surprisingly small. According to research by Shop.org and the Boston Consulting Group, the conversion rate (percentage of site visitors who purchase) of most sites is about 2%. Users leave sites for a variety of reason, many of them related to usability (see Figure 1).

Graph showing the points through a purchase process where users drop out.

Figure 1. Low conversion rate on most e-commerce sites results from several factors, many of which are related to usability.

What is causing this need for increased usability? One of the reasons is that as the web matures it introduces complexity along with new functionality. In the early days of the web graphics and HTML text formed the basis of the vast majority of web sites. As designers pushed the envelope and customers expected more from web sites, functions were added that often were only feasible with plug ins and technologies which some users and browser manufacturers have struggled to cope with ever since and the expanding web user base means these sites are used by people with a wide range of IT literacy. See Figure 2. As designers pushed the envelope and customers expected more from web sites, functions were added that often were only feasible with plug ins and new technologies. Some users and browser manufacturers have struggled to cope with this ever since and the expanding web user base means these sites are used by people with a wide range of IT literacy.

Graph showing the usability gap that has occurred due to an increase in technologies and various user abilities

Figure 2. More features and the technologies they rely on are introduced to meet consumer demand. Meanwhile the web user base has grown from a small group of experts to a wider range of abilities.

Applying the principles of usability throughout the design of a website has been shown to increase the conversion rate. To a certain degree, a Darwinistic ‘survival of the easiest’ applies in all today’s e-commerce websites, and the same will apply to new interactive mediums such as iTV and WAP / 3G phones. Since companies with an e-commerce channel are increasingly aware that web sites must be usable as well as attractive, they are including this requirement for new web site work. Members of the web development community need to acknowledge this reality and determine their strategy, whether it is increasing their own skills, hiring usability professionals for their teams, or forming alliances with usability experts.

Forum discussion:

With the growing interest in usability, there are several topics for discussion for this forum and the future:

  • Can Flash sites be usable? Some usability experts have deemed sites using Macromedia Flash as inherently unusable, yet there is growing evidence that usability and Flash can coexist.
  • Is the recent downturn in the ‘new economy’ likely to increase or decrease the demand for applying usability in projects?
  • What are the most cost-efficient techniques for identifying potential usability problems in deadline-driven projects? Is it better to outsource the usability responsibilities or try to build the necessary skills within the core development team?
  • To what degree should web developers stay true to the W3C approved HTML standards versus taking advantage of the capabilities and flexibility of the latest browsers to interpret other technologies?
  • Usability and customer experience – what is implied by ‘usability’ and the slightly more commercially oriented term ‘customer experience’. What are the areas of overlap and distinction?

Related Article: Read the review of Internet World Exhibition.

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This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is the Managing Director of User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.

The cost of a complete site overhaul is roughly thirty times that of incorporating usability testing early on.

Forrester Research Group, Why most web sites fail.