Web Usability

Posted July 16th, 2007 by Mel Pedley

The dividing line between web accessibility and web usability is often blurred and difficult to distinguish. Whilst there is no doubt that the two topics do overlap to a significant degree, it is important to differentiate between them. Unlike web accessibility which impacts directly upon disabled users, web usability affects all users, and can be defined as a measure of how easy it is for a generic site visitor to carry out a task such as finding a given piece of information or buying a certain product. However, there are accessibility benefits to be gained from applying web usability principles to your designs. So let’s take a few simply usability concepts, look at why they are important and see what effect they may have on overall accessibility.

Take any prolonged discussion on web accessibility and there will come a point when someone mutters the phrase

“That’s not an accessibility problem. That’s a usability issue.”

As was demonstrated by The Great Accessibility Camp-Out, even very experienced developers have different ideas as to where accessibility stops and usability begins. But where do we draw the line? And can incorporating a few usability principles improve a site’s overall accessibility?

For a start, I think we need to understand, once and for all, that usability is not the same thing as accessibility.Web usability affects all users and , generally speaking, can be sub-divided into five core components:

How easy it is for visitors to find their way around the site during their first visit?
How quickly and easily can they perform tasks?
When visitors return to the site after a period of time, how quickly do they recall how to use the site?
How many errors do visitors make, how severe are those errors and how easily do they adjust?
How pleasant is the site to use?

So how do we turn these components into something practical we can use?

Rule 1: Don’t Make Me Think

This rule is discussed in Steve Krug’s book of the same name. If you haven’t already read this book, I’d seriously recommend adding it to your reading list as soon as possible. Much of this common sense approach to web usability can be boiled down to the following points:

Short Is Sweet

Developers and site owners often spend hours crafting perfect copy for each and every web page. Yet - once you’ve gone beyond adding those all important keywords for the search engines, the sad fact is that very few visitors are ever going to actually it sit back and read it. Users don’t read. They scan text and glance at headings looking for keywords.

It therefore follows that, if you can keep text short, concise and structured, you’ll get better visitor response per unit of copywriting effort. So every time you draft copy, try and reduce your first draft by 50%. Then try and halve it again. With luck, you’ll now be left with enough solid content to grab hold your visitor’s attention for a few seconds before they hit that mouse button again. From an accessibility perspective, the clearer and more concise your content, the easier it may be for users with learning difficulties to understand and absorb it.

Don’t Make Users Think

Your site visitors will not study each menu item carefully before making a considered choice as to which link to select. If you’re really lucky, they might glance down the site menu but, more likely, they’ll just hit the first link that looks about right. Generally speaking, users prefer to make a “best guess” than actually stop and work out what page to view next. So, if you make your link texts concise, accurate and unambigious, you’ll increase the chance that their “best guess” will turn out to be the “right choice” and that they will be left with a favourable impression of your site. Again, this approach will favour anyone who might otherwise have problems reading complex menus or understanding obscure phrases.

The “3 Click Rule” Isn’t A Rule

Frankly, I’ve no idea where this apparent “rule” sprang from but watch any web surfer for a short period of time and it will become apparent that this rule simply doesn’t work in reality. Users will happily click away if they feel that, with each click, they’re continuing to move in the right direction. Whilst excessively deep site architectures should be avoided, you can reinforce user motivation well beyond three clicks by ensuring that the topic of each page they hit is clearly outlined within the first few lines of content (sometimes referred to as “front loading”), that headers are used to sub-divide pages into easily digestible “chunks” and that links are clearly identified. Is it me or are we developing a theme here that favours anyone who might have a language or cognitive problem?

Web Surfers? Web Ditherers!

Most visitors don’t ’surf’ the Web. They muddle their way around it and dither every time they move from page to page. Try to make sure that any choices they do have are as clear and unambigious as possible. Users also panic easily, so provide a Home link on every page at the very least. Even better, try to make sure that they can jump from point C to point Y without having to pass through every point inbetween. Those that don’t panic will be impatient. Don’t make them jump through hoops or have to backtrack if you can avoid it.

Our accessibility net was just thrown a little wider. Now, not only are we trying to make thing easier for those with language difficulties but we’re also assisting those who may become easily lost or disorientated (cognitive problems); users who may have to rely on a mental model of a page (visually-impaired screen reader users) or those who may find complex navigation systems (such as flyout menus) difficult or impossible to use (sighted keyboard navigators).

Rule 2: Don’t Assume

Do not assume that your site visitors:

  • Can use a mouse
  • Can see
  • Use a keyboard to navigate because they cannot see
  • Can read
  • Want to absorb great swathes of text even if they can read
  • Are experienced web users
  • Are novice web users
  • Know how to use their software
  • Haven’t customised their software extensively
  • Know what they want
  • Know where they are going

In short, don’t assume anything about your users if you can possibly help it. But also bear in mind that you, the developer, do not have to resolve every single problem. Web users are extremely adaptable and may have developed highly individualised approaches to deal with their own needs. The developer’s job is to provide the basic framework within which these approaches could be used as effectively as possible.

Rule 3: The Shop Analogy

Finally, imagine that you’ve been dropped, blindfolded, into a large store on a busy high street. On removing the blindfold, your first questions would probably be:

  • What is this shop?
  • What does it sell/offer?
  • What department am I in?
  • What are in the other departments?
  • What floor am I on?
  • Where can I go from here?
  • How can I get help?

Substitute “site” for “shop” and “web page” for “department” and you’ve encapsulated the mindset of visitors who arrives at an inner page of a web site via Google or another search engine. If you can develop an approach that answers these questions easily and effectively, you’re well on your way to developing a site that works with your visitors (rather than against them) and offers the most enjoyable and satisfying experience for everyone — irrespective of any special needs they may, or may not, have.

Whilst it is true that usability isn’t the same as accessibility, it isn’t rocket science either. And paying attention to the usability aspects of your site will almost certainly improve its overall accessibility at the same time.

It’s a win-win situation.

23 Responses to: “Web Usability”

  1. Dave Woods responds:
    Posted: July 16th, 2007 at 10:30 am

    I agree with the initial suggestion that accessibility and usability are different but would argue that accessibility is actually a part of usability.

    Surely there are six parts to usability: Learnability, Effectivity, Memorability, Reliability, Enjoyability and Accessibility.

    Also, accessibility effects all users and not just those with disabilities. What about users on dial-up connection, hand held devices, older browsers, users who choose to browse the web without the use of JavaScript? These are all parts of ensuring a usable experience but would come under the area of accessibility.

    This is obviously a controversial topic but just because it does effect poor sighted users, disabled users, people with colour blindness etc, the whole emphasis shouldn’t be put onto disabled people.

    The whole idea of accessibility is to ensure all users can have a usable experience whether they are disabled or not.

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  3. Dave Woods responds:
    Posted: July 16th, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    I completely agree with your comments and usability is such a grey area that there aren’t any out right validation tests that can be carried out in the same way as HTML, CSS and even to some extent the automated accessibility tests.

    That’s an interesting article although is it really that important which camp people fall into? I’m probably of the opinion that as long as web designers consider the implications of usability as well as all the aspects of accessibility including those mentioned that don’t affect disabled users, does it really matter what it’s categorised as, so long as it is actually catered for?

  4. Mike Cherim responds:
    Posted: July 16th, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    I find that there cannot be one without the other, in my eyes anyway. They’re married or hopelessly intertwined or something to that effect. Web accessibility requires a focus on site usability, and it’s pretty much impossible to call a web site truly usable (to everyone) if it’s inaccessible to certain groups. I believe there’s a codependency thing goin’ on.

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  6. Benjamin Hawkes-Lewis responds:
    Posted: July 17th, 2007 at 1:50 am

    usability is such a grey area that there aren’t any out right validation tests that can be carried out in the same way as HTML, CSS and even to some extent the automated accessibility tests.

    But you could carry out automated tests of some of these usability principles (which isn’t surprising, given their closeness to accessibility principles). For example, a robot could check that each page passes basic readability tests, uses headings in order, links back to the homepage, and has a help link.

  7. Craig Francis responds:
    Posted: July 17th, 2007 at 3:19 am

    Although, usability and accessibility could be seen as distinct topics, I don’t think we should focus on that distinction… at the end of the day, as web developers, we need to focus on both aspects.

    But having said that, good article Mel, its good to have a quick summary/reference that I can point people to.

  8. Koen Willems responds:
    Posted: July 17th, 2007 at 8:23 am

    Thanks for this article Mel!

    I agree, it’s no use putting opinions into Camp 1 or Camp 2. At the end of the day we indeed have to deliver a website on wich people can access all the provided information.

    But since there are camps obviously, consider me in Camp 1. But that’s for a completely different reason.
    To my opinion it’s not only a matter of building usable and accessible websites, it’s also a matter of putting accessibility on the agenda (of decisionmakers, marketeers, politicians and so on).

    For the last couple of years I noticed the arguement of ‘accessibility for those who are disabled’ (in fact: the right on information) doesn’t make decisionmakers dance on the table.
    But when I tell them 25% of the youth is surfing mobile (and that percentage is increasing) or when I tell them millions of people spend two hour a day in traffic jams, -just doing nothing, so they could surf the internet-, than you should see they eyses of those marketeers, decisionmakers, politicians, and so on.

    So that’s the main reason I advocate: ‘accessibility is for everyone!’

  9. david blanchet responds:
    Posted: July 18th, 2007 at 1:52 am

    man all the illities and allities are making my head swim =), nice article.

  10. Jojo Esposa responds:
    Posted: July 18th, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    There really is a thin line that divides accessibility and usability. They are most often interrelated. What then should be our first priority, make our site accessible or usable?

  11. Mike Cherim responds:
    Posted: July 19th, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    @Jojo: I try to make sure my sites are accessible, mostly by relying on the sound and semantic use of markup — making a solid foundation on which I will build. I then try to make sure anything I add to this good start will be viewed as a progressive enhancement — on top of the sound and semantic markup. So far so good. I then start adding colors and styles to enhance it further: link focus is a good example since most browsers do a poor job with it. And to make it look good. I then try to make sure I have clear and helpful pages, and content on said pages. Done.

    Looking back through the process in this way, you should be able to see as I do that factoring in usability is an integral part of each and every station along the way.

    What then should be our first priority, make our site accessible or usable? — Jojo

    Really good question. I’m not going to give a direct answer, but it should be a clear one: If your site isn’t accessible, meaning primarily in this case that disabled users won’t be able to access the content or will have difficulty doing so means that disabled users will be negatively affected, and of course that needs to be addressed. If a site isn’t usable, though, it affects everyone.

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  13. iddaa responds:
    Posted: July 24th, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    I agree with the initial suggestion that accessibility and usability are different but would argue that accessibility is actually a part of usability.

  14. John Ungar responds:
    Posted: July 25th, 2007 at 2:41 am

    I agree with many of the comments here; accessibility is a subset of usability. The reason I think that the assertion that accessibility is different from usability is wrong is because your comment about usability affecting all users is flawed. Almost all usability issues only affect a subset of users, these might be a large subset. Disabled users are a subset of all users so can be seen as having usability issues.

    If something isn’t usable it is inaccessible.

    Many business are really buying into usability now but few are dealing with accessibility so it is logically best to have it as a subset of usability and pushed with all the other usability factors.

    It is important that the usability/user experience community speaks in one voice about accessibility being part of usability otherwise we risk confusing business and make them less likely to hook into the ideas.

  15. Mike Cherim responds:
    Posted: July 25th, 2007 at 7:29 am

    Disabled users are a subset of all users so can be seen as having usability issues. — John Ungar

    True. I should have written can affect everyone. It’s possible, dare say likely, that a major usability issue will affect a larger sub-set group or larger number of sub-set groups.

  16. Ian responds:
    Posted: July 25th, 2007 at 8:04 am

    Interesting article. However, it could also be argued that accessibility is just usability for people with disabilities. In other words, by including people with disabilities as target users in a user-centred approach, accessibility can be achieved. I would go further and say that it is far more effective and efficient to include consideration of disability in design drivers, than it is to treat accessibility as a separate topic and activity.
    And I would argue that people with disabilities are entitled to proper consideration in terms of user experience and usability, rather than the almost grudging allowance that is implied by the term “accessibility”.

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  20. Phil Smears responds:
    Posted: September 2nd, 2007 at 4:16 am

    However, it could also be argued that accessibility is just usability for people with disabilities.

    I very much agree but would remove the word ‘just’ :) . As an example, content headings e.g. header 1, header 2 etc. are an accessibility requirement but really the lack of them just makes a page less usable for a specific group of people. In some cases poor mark up can make a page completely unusable for a disabled user group but it’s still a usability issue. So an accessibility issue is always a usability issue - but only for a particular disabled user group.

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