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Part II: Usability It’s not just for looks

In Part I we took a high level look at some of the fundamentals of usability (ie. Five components of usability). Now we will be diving a little bit deeper and examining why we should care.

Having previously worked on the development of a number of online social media communities for both fortune 500 companies and non-profits, I’ve noticed one common thing—usability gets short shrift to function and appearance.

Often times you will get a team that is either wholly focused on the question “are all the links redirecting accordingly” or alternatively you may see them saying “maybe we should have that color be #6699FF instead of #75A3FF” (those are shades of blue in case you’re curious). Both questions may have some validity and are tied to usability, but often times they crowd out the bigger picture of why.

Usability doesn’t just mean the website or application meets all of software requirements and is functioning, nor does it mean that it’s beautiful and appealing to the eye. It means that the software maximizes the business goal (ex: increasing page view) and satisfies user needs (ex: finding my desired web page). In web or application design we always need to evaluate, “what is our objective” and move from there.

For example, when developing a new website we decide that in order to assist the user in searching our extensive database of content we need a search box. We should think about what the average search length for our users might be—a study by Jakob Nielsen showed that the ideal search box is 27 characters wide, because it captures 90% of search queries.  Going back to the earlier example over the argument of color, we should choose a color with the business objective in mind, for example—getting the customer past the homepage. That might mean that we make all our links blue, because research shows that blue appeals most to users and clearly delineates links from other text (Van Schaik and Ling).

Usability isn’t form over function or vice versa—it is both form and function. The blue links could increase your click through rate by 20% resulting in a 5% increase in revenue, while the search box change could result in 10% drop in page abandonment.

Software that’s beautiful isn’t necessarily usable and software that’s plain isn’t necessarily bad either—heck, look at Google. A change in appearance can impact the business, so remember usability is not just for looks.

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