“Usability affects how customers perceive and respond to products, services and artifacts of all types, including websites and applications.” – Ray Valdes and Brian Prentice from Gartner
The biggest usability mistake I ever made was not making an earnest effort to put myself in the user’s shoes. Understanding your user’s mindset is critical to usability. Because, as I found out, I didn’t really understand my user, I made several mistakes in usability design.
When designing websites, a lot of decisions made may appear to be common sense on the surface. You might think that usability mistakes are easy to catch, but most mistakes don’t consist of a solitary design element. Often, they are made up of a combination of smaller elements which makes usability issues harder to identify.
In this article, I will detail the faulty thought process that let me to make the usability mistakes that cost me dearly in previous traffic to the site.
Where it All Went Wrong
Typically, when I explore websites, I know what I am looking for and can competently navigate a website to find it. Google search bars, for me, are redundant. If I needed to find something with Google, I would have used it in the first place. As such, I did not include a search bar on the front page of the website.
I had a similar approach to interface design. Any function or text that is not absolutely necessary is extraneous and distracts the focus of the user. I considered everything that wasn’t absolutely essential as clutter and did away with it.
As a guiding principle, I used a quotation about UX from Gartner: “Strive for a great UX by realizing that design is not just about adding features, but also is about their carefully considered removal.”
Finally, when designing hyperlinks, I didn’t do anything “special”. Text links on tabbed elements were simply put in as labels. I am precise with the mouse on my desktop, so in my own testing, I saw no need to change the clickable area of the links.
The Downward Spiral that Ensued
While I might have thought that my site was straightforward and easy to navigate, it turns out that was a narrow-sighted approach.
Many users went to my site with a specific task in mind and wanted to search for it with the search bar. Research by Jakob Nielsen found that more than half of all users are search-dominant, and one fifth of the users are link-dominant. Search-dominant users are task-focused and head straight to the search function to find information as quickly as possible.
I found that many users found the blank slate page very confusing. The absence of information can look like the site hasn’t fully loaded, or that there are errors on the page, such as a 404 error.
I also found was that many users were imprecise with their clicks – many didn’t click precisely on the link but rather in the space around it. This was even more apparent on the mobile version of the site, where people were using touch controls.
How I Fixed the Issues
I was able to implement a Google search bar into the code quite easily, because Google already indexed the entirety of the site. I made sure to include the search bar on the front page for quick and easy access for search-dominant users.
I fixed the blank slate issue by making sure that all information was clearly presented, even if there was no data to display. For example, if there were no comments, I would explicitly write “no comments were found” in the field. The extra words were not clutter. They were vital for avoiding user confusion.
I fixed small clickable areas by creating additional padding around the links and using images as links. According to Signal v. Noise, padding around clickable links creates a feeling of comfort for the user.
As you can see, every single usability mistake I made could have been avoided with more careful consideration of the user’s perspective. A designer’s perspective can be skewed by your own experiences, just as mine were skewed by my own technical abilities. However, the good news is that all of the mistakes that I made had easy technical fixes.