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Design is about the user experience

Blog post written by Dave Henson | 07 August 2012 | Category: Usability

This is taken from one of the chapters in our e-book: '20½ ways to make sure your website works for you'. If you want to find out what the other 19½ ways are, you can get the rest of the e-book by going here.

The simple rule here is to make the site as easy as possible to use at all stages. You want to keep people on the site and if they find that they can't use it easily then it doesn't matter how good your content is, they'll simply say goodbye and find someone else.

The first issue here is navigation. Don't confuse users with multiple navigations around the site. Keep it simple and make sure that the navigation is consistent across all pages of your website.

Make sure your site works in multiple browsers. You'll be forgiven for neglecting Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) because anyone still using that browser (which was launched in 2001) frankly deserves to get a bad web experience. They should have upgraded long ago. Even IE7 is now getting long in the tooth having been launched in 2006. (As a side note, it seems mad that there were 5 years between the launch of IE6 and IE7 particularly given how unreliable IE6 was). However, IE7 is still used by enough people to mean that it should not be totally disregarded. But make sure your site works in IE, Firefox, Chrome and Safari as well as on the iPad and Android tablets.

Whilst broadband has meant that we can now download web pages much more quickly, there's no excuse for bloating pages more than is necessary. Keep them slim so that they download quickly, enhancing the user experience.

Accessibility is another key issue. I could write an e-book on that subject alone but at the very least, make sure your website uses colours that contrast well with each other.

Also make it easy for people to find stuff on your site. We've already covered navigation but if you've got a large number of pages on your site (for example, a large products database) then add a search facility so that users can easily find what they are looking for. Preferably have this search facility as part of the navigation so that it appears in the same place on all pages of the site.

Is it easy to find stuff on your website or does your navigation need a review?

Cookies – the new law really takes the biscuit

Blog post written by Dave Henson | 12 October 2011 | Category: Usability

The government has given companies until 26 May 2012 to comply with the new EU's Privacy and Communications Directive which requires the user's consent before using cookies. This could open up a hornet's nest of problems and could potentially make websites a lot less useful and user-friendly.

So what exactly is a cookie? It's a small file placed on your PC by a website that they can retrieve each time you visit pages on the site. It is not dangerous and cannot harm your PC and it can only be used by the web domain that stored it in the first place.

Let me give you an example from one of our websites. The World Malaria Day website (http://www.worldmalariaday.org) has an option at the top to view the site in French. If you click on this flag, the website stores a cookie on your PC that holds the information saying that your language preference is French. The next time you visit the site, this cookie is retrieved and the site is automatically shown to you in French. Without this convenience you would have to click on the flag every time you visited in order to see the site in French – not very user-friendly at best.

Without wishing to confuse matters, there is another type of cookie which is non-persistent and which expires when you leave a site. These are called session cookies and are strictly necessary to hold web pages together. For example, if you have entered a password to access a site then every page you go to on that site needs to know that you have logged in and are able to view it. It can check a session cookie to do this. Without it, each page you went to would say "sorry we don't know who you are – go away!".

A similar thing might be used to keep your basket contents when shopping. Not being able to track this would be like having a supermarket basket with the bottom missing. Every time you put something in, it would immediately fall out again and your basket would remain forever empty.

A bigger impact will be felt if third party applications such as Google Analytics have to get permission to use cookies. If people are able to opt out then the reporting you are getting about your website visitors will be less accurate and therefore you will be less able to make informed decisions about your marketing. Will there be an alternative technological approach that can be adopted? It seems a wait and see approach is what is generally being recommended in the hope that analytics companies will come up with a solution.

As far as our sites are concerned, the majority just use the necessary session cookies but we will be carrying out a review and implementing changes where necessary.

Billy Connolly is a funny man, but his website isn’t funny

Blog post written by Dave Henson | 20 April 2010 | Category: Usability

So I had been meaning to write this blog post on usability for some time and, as is usual in business, other things got in the way – like work. And I thought to myself tonight, as I sat down to write this, "wouldn't it be typical if Billy Connolly had had his site redesigned in between me thinking of expressing my considered assessment of it and actually getting round to doing it."

I took a look tonight to make sure that he had not had it re-designed and, to my initial horror, he had! It was all different and I thought that was the end of this blog post. Then, as I looked at the site, it became clear that this man is a serial offender when it comes to usability.

Billy Connolly is a funny man, but his website isn't funny.

It's at www.billyconnolly.com and, whilst you could say that it is slightly better than the previous incarnation that I was preparing to have a pop at, that's not really saying much.

Now why, I hear you ask, are you picking on that nice Mr Connolly. Well, firstly and quite frankly, he should know better (or at least the people who are advising him should) and secondly, maybe he'll ring up and ask Novamedia to completely re-design it for him. OK, I won't hold my breath; he's probably more likely to call me and tell me to... (let's not go there).

What is wrong with the site? Firstly, it has no fixed menu and, if you want to find anything, you have to roll your mouse over the various elements on the home page until you come across what you want.

When you have clicked on an item, you are taken to the page and then there is no way to then go off to another page without clicking the back link to get back to the annoying home page.

The pages are all designed differently as though a bunch of amateur web designers was each given the job of designing one page with no communication between each designer.

The whole thing is just chaotic and anarchic. You could say that it reflects Billy Connolly's personality but, to me, web usability is too important an issue to treat in such a cavalier fashion. Being original doesn't mean making something unusable. You wouldn't design a chair with a hole instead of a seat because people would fall through when they sat on it and it wouldn't be usable. You wouldn't design a hot water bottle made out of tissue paper because you would be sued by people with scalded feet.

So Mr Connolly, what should you do to make your site usable? Here are a few tips to start with:

  • Design an easy-to-use, clear navigation system
  • Keep your navigation consistent – same place on all pages
  • Have a clear link to the home page
  • Don't overuse Flash. (Why do all comedians do this?)
  • If the site is large, have a search box so users can easily find content
  • If the site navigation is complex, use a breadcrumb link to tell users where they are

Anyway, that's enough ranting for the time being. It's getting late and I'm going to sit down and put on a Billy Connolly DVD to watch him doing what he does best – making people laugh.