About a month ago, I was given the opportunity to give a lecture on web usability at Waynesburg University, and now I'm passing it along to you, people of the internet. When most people consider web design, what they're really talking about is graphic design - the layout, imagery, color, styling, etc. This all has a huge effect on user experience, but there's a lot more going on behind the scenes. Things like effective marketing, information architecture, accessibility, and quality production have just as much to do with how usable (and how effective) a site is.
What is Usability, and Why Should I Care? Usability is how a user interacts with a website. Every website is looking to fulfill some business objective, whether it's selling something, convincing people to read content, or raising awareness for a cause. Creating a great user experience helps meet these goals. Just like a traditional brick and mortar storefront, the better experience someone has, the more likely they are to return. Conversely, if you make it difficult for someone to purchase from your website, they'll just go elsewhere. A few weeks ago, I was trying to order a poster. I tried a few times, and the checkout function just wasn't working. Now, I'm sure I could have called the company, or emailed the webmaster, but instead I just found the thing on Amazon and called it a day. Whatever it is that you want users to do, it's important that you make it easy for them.
Creating a great user experience comes from understanding the goals of your site, and the goals of your user. Design is a visual solution to a problem. What does the site need to do? What do you want to communicate? What is most important? The better you understand your site's goals, the better experience you can design for your users, and the more effective your design is at achieving your business goals. Say your primary goal is to get users to book a trip. Is the most attention-grabbing element the call to action, to book? Can users easily find how to book? Is contact information visible and obvious? It sounds obvious to make sure that the most visible thing is also the most important. But it's easy to get caught up in the look of a layout, without realizing that the thing you're calling attention to may not be the most important element.
Don't Annoy Your Users Users become frustrated when they don't know what to do to get the information that they want. Don't make me search your site map like I'm Indiana Jones. Great navigation does wonders for user experience, and lets a person know where they are, where they can go, and what their options are from here. You'll notice on a lot of larger sites (like Amazon, or Best Buy) they'll have what are called "breadcrumbs" - links that show you how you got to where you are (for example, Electronics > Cameras > Accessories > Lenses). It's an easy way to orient users to the site structure, and for them to navigate around several thousands of pages without becoming overwhelmed.
Users also want feedback when something goes wrong. This is arguably a bigger deal in designing forms and applications, but applies to websites as well. There are few things more frustrating than having a program crash, only to receive a vague "Program has quit. Error 504" message. Effective error messages should tell me what's going on, why it's happening, and what I can do about it. That poster I was trying to order? The error message simply said that the order didn't go through. Is there a problem with the server? Did I type in my credit card number wrong? Do you not process orders on Wednesdays? The site succeeded in telling me what was going on, but failed to tell me what course of action to take. You want to avoid frustrating your users. This means your goal is to anticipate what people are trying to achieve (or, what you want them to achieve), and help them do that.
Managing expectations also has a huge effect on how a user feels about your site. Anyone who's worked in customer service can tell you that most complaints are a result of customer's experiences not matching their expectations. Users also become frustrated for the same reason - if I click on a link titled "contact," I expect to get your contact info. If I suddenly find myself reading your company history instead, then my expectations aren't met. A great deal of thought goes into not only how the navigation is presented on the site, but how it's actually structured, and this is where we get into information architecture.
Information Architecture: Where Should I Put That? Whether you put "News" under the "About" tab or in its own section is an information architecture question. How you organize a site involves weighing a lot of factors, such as:
The site's goals (Do you want all users to be made aware of news?) The user's goals (Is the company's news of interest to all our visitors?) and basic common sense (How much news is there going to be?).
This influences navigation, page layout, and effects overall user experience. More content means more choices, and information architecture is more important for larger sites. This site, for example, has three whole links. It didn't exactly require a flowchart. When I was working on Jefferson Hospital's website, on the other hand, weeks worth of meetings went into just deciding what information would go where. When you have that much content, the site needs to be split into sections, and you need to provide useful navigation between them. Good user experience is reliable, useful, and unambiguous - to the people using the website.
Aesthetics vs. Usability Is one more important than the other? You can find an abundance of websites that are beautiful but difficult to use, or highly functional but equally ugly. And some of these sites are successful, so who am I to judge? Personally, I don't find separating aesthetics from usability to be helpful. The problem is a design problem. Sites should be visually appealing and functional, and you can certainly find examples of successful sites that are both. Ideally, you want to create a site that is beautiful, useful, and gives the user an experience that will encourage them to return.