Is Your Web Site User Friendly?

How to Make Your Site a Winning Destination

You've hired a Webmaster to design your Web site. Or maybe you've studied html coding and design, and are ready to create your own Web site. But if you build it, will they come? If you've already built it, do they like what you've done with the place?

A Web site is only as successful as its audience decides it is, and those audiences can be fickle — if they get impatient or frustrated with your Web site, they'll probably go elsewhere. Here's the good news: On the ever-changing Internet, you really do have a second chance to make a good impression.

Stephanie McFarland is a Web site usability consultant based in Fort Worth, Texas, who is also familiar with the unique challenges and needs of mobility/rehab suppliers and end-users. We asked her how mobility/rehab suppliers could benefit from understanding usability.

Q: What is a Web site usability study, and what is its value?

A: It is a study of a Web site to find out if it works the way you want it to, and if users respond positively to it. You're studying how users use the Web site. You're studying their behavior while they're using it, and usually you ask them to perform certain tasks, because you want to see if they can.

When you design a Web site, you need to make sure that people who are not connected to (your) organization can understand the content, the navigation, the features, those kinds of things. So it's making sure that the Web site works and that it follows Internet protocol in terms of how things are laid out. For instance, if something's underlined in blue, the Internet protocol is that that is a link that will take you to another page. You need to make sure you're following those kinds of standards.

In the mobility industry, you also need to make sure you are targeted. It's a very specific audience. This is not like, something that's going to be used by millions of people from all sorts of different backgrounds. Say you're a dealer and you're designing your site. You need to make sure it reaches that core audience. Because the chances of "Joe Smith," who's not connected to the DME industry, getting onto your site are pretty slim. You definitely want to follow Internet protocol, which pretty much everyone understands. But when you're developing a mobility-oriented site, you do need to make sure that it makes sense to your core users.

Q: So it's important to know your user — in our case, a mobility/rehab professional or a consumer who uses mobility/rehab equipment. Are there other usability rules to follow?

A: One of the major ones — and I see this a lot in mobility, because people think it's fancy and fun — is rotating images and things like that. You go onto the site, and there's a wheelchair that's dancing around. Users respond very negatively to things like that.

Q: What's wrong with a dancing wheelchair?

A: It's distracting; it takes your attention away from other parts of the Web page that might be important. If you have consumers going onto your site, some of them may have vision problems or some condition where flashing images could make their use of the site really cumbersome. Also, you have to think that you might not be dealing with really advanced, "techie" people who have fast Internet or wireless connections. So if you've got a page that has a huge file of a wheelchair dancing around, it's going to take forever for that page to load on their screen. (Users) might get frustrated. They may not even stick around for the wheelchair to load. It may look fun, and it may take a lot of effort to design, but in the end, there's very little payoff in terms of how users respond. It's usually a negative response.

Q: That's good news for smaller businesses: They may not have the marketing budget for a flashy, graphics-intensive site, but their customers don't want that anyway.

A: Their customers really aren't looking for that kind of thing. They're not looking for a lot of flash. They just want information and a level of respect. So if you get those things across, then that's OK. You don't need fancy graphics; you don't need dancing images.

Q: Can every Web site benefit from a usability study? Or are such studies only for certain companies with certain objectives?

A: I think even the most successful sites can use usability people. Think of it in terms of other aspects of your business. You don't hire somebody and never review them or never review what their job performance is like. Once you put up your Web site, you can't just assume that everybody's using it. Even sites like Amazon or Google all undergo redesigns; they all find something they can improve upon. It's just like any other aspect of what you do: Never assume that everybody's happy and that everything's perfect.

This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Mobility Management.

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