Your Website Looks Great. But is it Usable?

As we continue to grow the Digital Ink brand, Forrest and I have been looking at a lot of websites of other creative and digital teams.

There are a lot of really unique websites out there, especially from agencies that are pushing the envelope with both design and technology.

But as I look at more and more of these websites with out-of-the-box designs, I am constantly amazed … and not in a good way.

It seems that many of today’s “creative” websites are built without at all considering if users can even use them.

Designing for Consistency and Familiarity

I love good design.

I really love good design.

I cannot stand design that is meant as a creative outlet for the designer and not a tool for the user.

Given the blank canvas nature of the web, it is especially easy for designers to create something unique — something that is unexpected — and present it to the world.

But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

There’s two things that people need to succeed in their goal on your website: consistency and familiarity.

Let’s talk about what those mean.

Consistency is the idea that, as a person navigates through your site, they have a consistent experience. That includes the:

  • placement of the menu navigation
  • layout of content
  • text and formatting styles

Familiarity means that your website follows a general set of best practices seen on the majority of websites, including:

  • Key items in specific locations, like logo and menu on the top or left-hand side
  • Using separate colors or styles for hyperlinked text
  • Content presented in an easy-to-read manner

The Nielsen Norman Group is our go-to usability research firm, and they’ve found time and again that there are specific best practices you need to implement if you want people to actually be able to use your site.

For example, breadcrumbs help. Don’t overwhelm with information. Logos should be left-aligned (yup, that’s something we need to change on our site).

If It’s Not Easy-to-Use, It’s Easy to Do Something Else

As the web is a lean-forward medium, people will leave your site if they don’t understand how to use it.

It’s not that difficult to understand this; you surely do it as you surf the web.

You have the power to go anywhere you want with the click of a mouse or keyboard; why waste your time or brainpower trying to figure out how a particular website works?

Websites that are creative but not usable rarely help people achieve their goals — unless their goal is to find agencies that build pretty but difficult-to-use sites.

If your website doesn’t adhere to industry best practices, then you’re just asking people to go somewhere else.

That doesn’t mean that every website needs to be bland and boring, though. There are plenty of ways to create great designs that help people achieve their goals.

Apple does it. So does ESPN. The NY Post does it too.

Each of these sites has clear branding. They use white space to maximize readability. They have clean, easy-to-understand navigation.

They each look unique, but adhere to industry norms.

Your Website is Art — But it Simply Can’t Be Admired

I’ve been a huge proponent of the idea that your website is like a work of art; never finished, only abandoned.

But unlike art, your website needs your user’s interaction to achieve your common goal.

Whether it’s reading the news, shopping for an item, or filling out a contact form, your website exists so that people can take action — not to simply stare at it in wonder.

No one will ever be able to interact with your site if they need to learn an entire new set of rules in order to use it. We simply don’t have the time or the motivation to figure out how your site works.

This is something Forrest and I are constantly thinking about as we design and develop our clients’ sites.

I wonder if agencies who have overly complex and over-designed websites do, too.

Jason Unger
About Jason Unger
Jason Unger is the Founder of Digital Ink, the creative and digital team that builds brands and helps companies grow. Based outside of Washington, D.C., Jason has done it all, from website strategy, design, development, troubleshooting, maintenance, content and marketing.