A guest post by Pawel Grabowski

How to make sure that the site you work on is going to be easy to use to it’s visitors: an introduction to web usability for graphic designers

Have you ever got irritated with a site just because you couldn’t find any information on it? Or maybe you got lost within the site’s structure? Or simply didn’t know where you were and decided to abandon the site altogether?

Sure you have. Just like all of us. I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t felt this at least a handful of times.

But let’s go further. As a designer, have you ever had a client calling you saying that their users complain as they can’t use the site, can’t find the information they are looking for or maybe simply got lost?

Now, who’s going to be brave enough to say I have?

Well, it surely happened to me in the past and I know how terrible feeling it is. And after an initial shock my answer to that was to rethink my approach to web design. Before that I simply understood design for web as a continuation of my work as a graphic designer. Afterwards I discovered that design although important is only one of all factors of the website’s success.

It is the usability though, or how the definition puts it “the approach to making websites easy to use for the end-user without requiring him to undergo any specific training” that can make or break the site. In other words if your site can not be easily used by anyone, no matter how beautiful it is it will cause grief to it’s visitors and will most likely be quickly abandoned.

But how do you ensure that your user can use the site without undergoing a training beforehand?

Start by following those few steps. There is of course more to usability than that and I would recommend digging deeper into the subject but for now you should always remember to:

1. Design the site’s structure to be clear to the user, not you or your client.
You do not design for your client but for their users and always have that in mind. It’s very easy to create structure that only you and people you explain it to will understand.

2. Make sure that the navigation is clearly seen straight after logging onto the site and that it’s easy to use.
Avoid complicated navigation bars, make your navigation as simple for the user to operate as possible. Also place navigation in a prominent place on the screen. There are conventions for that and you probably can tell them already after viewing hundreds of sites. Stick to those conventions, they were created for a purpose.

3. Ensure that your visitor knows exactly what the site is all about after logging in.
Make sure that each page contains enough information to reveal what the company does. Remember to have that information on every page. You don’t know which page the user will land on first.

4. Tell the user clearly where he is within the site’s structure.
There are two proven techniques for that. Mark the page in the navigation where the user is. You’ve probably seen this many times before, the font may be bold and/or in different color. Or you may change graphics behind the button. The possibilities are endless but remember to mark the page the user is currently viewing.

5. Leave breadcrumbs on your track.
You have seen them many times as well, the “you are here:…” listing on a page. Breadcrumbs help the user to recreate the path they have taken to get to a place they are in now and may provide a great help, especially on large sites.

5+. Test test test
This is a crucial, yet most commonly forgotten step. Always test your site for usability. Run the site by some users, be it someone you know or ask your client to present the site to a handful of his clients. No matter what you go for, always test your site before it goes live and gather feedback.

Of course such testing is only a limited version of a proper usability test conducted in a lab but even with that you should be able to pick up some basic problems with your site.

PawelPawel Grabowski is a web usability and front end development specialist at think two, an Irish web consultancy working exclusively with designers and design studios. We help our clients win and deliver web projects of any size. He also publishes his own blog at www.papertopixel.org