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Improving Your Website's Usability

Does it flow? Is it up to date? Can it be easily navigated?

If you stop to contemplate the significance of the Internet and the progress that technology has made, it can be mind boggling. Less than a decade ago, most companies in the industry didn’t even have websites. Now we find ourselves in this technology-crazed 21st century, utilizing websites daily as a primary means of doing business.

Because the World Wide Web is such an important part of our everyday business, we should all be paying rather close attention to our own websites. But all too often we don’t. I’ve put together a few tips this month to improve the effectiveness of your company’s website.

Review your website
You may believe that because you regularly log onto your website, you can ignore this important step. But, typically, as you review your website, you will only see what you are accustomed to viewing and won’t be able to see changes that should be made. For example, have you ever written something then proofread it two or three times-only to find that when someone else reads it, there is a mistake? Your brain is telling your eyes what it is supposed to see instead of what it really sees. This same phenomenon may occur if you sail through your website with just a cursory review.

As you review your website, examine it closely for the overall look of the site: Does it convey what you want the message to be? Observe the site’s layout: Does it flow from link to link, page to page, in an orderly and logical manner that’s not confusing or disjointed?

When you find a site that impresses you in the way that it flows and the message it delivers, go back to your own site to see if it has similar characteristics. Conversely, when you are surfing a site that irritates you for whatever reason, check your own website to ensure you don’t have the same issues. You should spend some objective time measuring the effectiveness of your website.

Make it speedy
How many times have you found yourself on a slow website, waiting for what seems to be an eternity for the pages to load? If you are like the majority of Web users, your patience quickly runs out. And unless you absolutely have to gather information or place an order on that particular website, you will typically give up and head off to another website where you can accomplish the same purpose. Nothing will render your website more ineffective than slow speeds throughout the navigation process.

A number of factors can contribute to slow speeds. It may be that your HTML codes are bad, your graphics may be too large, or you may be using too many graphics. Perhaps you have too much information on the same page. If you use a lot of Flash programming or Java applets, these can also slow down your website.

Finally, don’t use an inexpensive or free hosting service for your site. For the same reasons that you may be tempted to use a service of this type, thousands of others will be also, making the bandwidth issue too cumbersome. While the financial savings may seem attractive, the trade-off is the loss of a significant customer base that will not have the patience to endure slow loading processes and repeated time-outs. Invest in the necessary resources to help your customers zip along when navigating through your site.

Easy navigation is key
The ability of visitors on your website to easily navigate to where they wish to go is critical to its success. Often, the temptation when building a site or developing a new area or page of your website will be to include too much information, making it burdensome to navigate. One Internet survey indicates that only 16% of Web users typically read Web pages word for word. Instead, most just skim through the website page by page looking for highlighted information that will provide the information they are looking for.

Because the majority will quickly browse through your site, it’s critical that the information you wish to get to your customers be placed in an obvious, easy-to-reach spot on the site. For example, when skimming a page, most of us are too lazy to use the scroll bar to get to the bottom section of the page that isn’t showing up on the monitor. Make sure that the most important information and links to the next sections of your website are placed on the upper part of the page ("above the fold," to use newspaper lingo), clearly visible to your users.

Another helpful navigation device is a site map. In our industry, Web users often will be looking for something specific, perhaps product information, maybe technical help, or a sales contact. Don’t make them navigate all over the place to find what they are looking for. Rather, provide an accurate site map that enables them to get where they want to go as quickly as they can. Once they arrive, they can then get the information they seek as well as a few hints of some other areas on your site that might be worth visiting. Clean, crisp navigation through your website will make the Web visit by your customer a good experience and will invite them to return again soon.

Keep it fresh
Consider the relevance of your website’s content: Is it up-to-date with the latest information about your company? Do you have new equipment that should be profiled or new product lines to be advertised? Even worse, is some of the information on your website obsolete?

An excellent way to determine whether or not your content is fresh is to review your website as if you are the customer, not as an owner or manager of the company. What is most important to you may not be the most important information to your customer. As you review your website, keep asking yourself: What would be the most relevant and useful information to your customer?

Looking through the eyes of your customer will give you a different but important perspective on what your website has to offer. Good feedback on how your site is being utilized by visitors can be accomplished by reviewing your server logs on a regular basis. Your Web log information will tell you which pages are visited most frequently, which pages are exited, how long your visitors stay on each page, and other significant information. This data can be critical in determining the usefulness of various parts of your website.

The road ahead
These steps should assist you in evaluating your current website’s effectiveness. If you make it a regular practice to review your site from a critical and objective point of view, you’ll make continual improvements that will assist your customers and ultimately continue to build your business.

Marty McGhie (marty@ferraricolor.com) is VP finance/operations of Ferrari Color, a digital-imaging center with Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Sacramento locations.