The psychology of usability: A few tips

In my view, usability is often the most overlooked part of the digital marketing mix. When J.B. Watson developed his behaviorist approach in the early part of the 20th century, he focused on the notion of what you see is what you get, and what you can’t see and don’t get, doesn’t exist.

I will not attempt to delve into the details of behaviorism and its shortcomings, but the reason I have included this, is for the purpose of focusing on the needed simplicity when it comes to web design and development.

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Even Watson recognised the need to include Ivan Pavlov’s work on classical conditioning into his theory to enable researchers to see how a specific stimulus triggered a certain response in people. From a usability perspective, we often focus on the seemingly obvious such as the strict adherence to the corporate identity of the company in the layout and theme of the website or the choosing of colours based on your personal preference and so on.

Users, however, react very differently to a website compared to a print advertisement. A users’ behaviour on your website is influenced by a number of different elements including, the speed of the site, ease-of-use, layout, colours and much more.

A lot more emphasis needs to be placed on usability, and this is the part where the art of web development meets the science of usability.

I always try using the following steps to ensure that the basics of a good user experience are adhered to:

1. Delivering the best user experience possible

While you need to adhere to the constraints and rules of your corporate identity or brand when designing a website, this doesn’t mean that it needs to look like last year’s annual report.

There are a number of tools to assist with the testing of different layouts and designs. Relatively new tools such as Loop11 allow you to perform online user group testing, cheaply and easily.

2. Simplicity

  • We often tend to over engineer when it comes to web development.
  • Keep things simple from a design and coding perspective. Your users will appreciate it and so will Google.
  • Recent research has revealed that web users spend 69% of their time viewing the left half of the page and 30% viewing the right half. A conventional layout is thus more likely to make sites profitable.
  • Keep navigation all the way to the left. This is where people look to find a list of current options.
  • Keep the main content a bit further in from the left.
  • The most important stuff should be showcased between one-third and halfway across the page. This is where users focus their attention the most.
  • Keep secondary content to the right. It won’t be seen as much here, but that’s okay — not everything can get top billing, and you need a place to put less-important material.

3. Speed

  • Simplicity often impacts the speed of the site. More code and bits of JavaScript here and there and page styles stuffed into individual pages without separating the styles into a clear CSS structure will impact the speed of the site. This will not only irritate your users, but also gives search engines a hard time understanding what your site is all about.
  • Make use of CSS and reusable code by implementing a JavaScript library such as jQuery or MooTools, this will also allow for the easy integration of Ajax and simplifying of layouts and content on the page.

4. Compatibility

  • By simplifying your code and using JavaScript libraries, or even Flash for that matter, it will assist in ensuring cross-browser compatibility, though I must point out that Flash is probably better for cross browser compatibility.
  • You want to ensure that a user on IE7 with XP will have the same experience as a user on Windows 7 with Firefox 3.

5. SEO

  • If your site is simple and laid out in a concise and easy-to-understand fashion, then the search engines will be able to understand and spider and index your site quickly, which can only help your site rank in the long term.

Usability is as much about continuous testing as it is about sticking to basics and a seasoning of some common sense.

“Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior.” (J.B.Watson, 1913)

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