Web Usability vs. Aesthetics When Budget Matters

Your Web site is your first introduction to a lot of potential customers, and while its visual design may dazzle your customers, they may not be able to get the information they need.

When it comes to designing a Web site for your business, usability is frequently sacrificed for concerns of the visual design and aesthetic appeal, as if “wowing” users will improve things like loyalty, intent to purchase, and satisfaction. While it is true that aesthetics can be an important part of creating a usable Web site, to the user it is often less important than providing a quick and easy path to the content they need.

Often it is the case the entire Web sites are built without ever stopping to ask the end-user if they can find the information they need. Typical refrains include not enough time, too expensive, or my favorite: we know who users are are and so we don’t need to ask them.

Stopping to ask the end-user is easy to overlook or even marginalize. And, while it’s true that user testing can be expensive or time-consuming, it doesn’t have to be.

Here are some suggestions for ensuring a usable site on a shoestring budget:

  1. Test early. Testing early is less expensive and can help you correct usability issues before it becomes really expensive to fix them. The most expensive time to fix usability issues is during the design and development phase, and after the site has launched. Test with users while the concept of the website is still being fleshed out. Use wireframes, or conceptual storyboards.
  2. Use a qualified usability expert. There’s no replacement for experience. Studies have shown that an expert can identify as many as twice the number of issues in the same time as a usability professional with less experience. The expert can often provide more effective solutions and recommendations as well. In many cases, an experienced usability professional can identify a lot of low-hanging fruit usability issues without the need for lab testing. While there’s no replacement for asking the end-user (always a good idea), if time and budget are of principle concern, then asking a usability expert to critique the design and provide recommendations can have a positive effect without blowing your budget.
  3. Plan for quick-hit user testing. Usability testing doesn’t have to be an all-out three-week marathon effort. Small, precisely planned intercepts scattered throughout the life-cycle can often be more effective than the 1-hit wonder. This is process often referred to as iterative design and testing.
  4. Plan for at least 1 usability test. Even if you know that there’s no time to implement any of the findings from the study before launch, you’ll know what the issues are and be ready to address them after the site launches.Designing Websites is fun and creative. But, remember for whom the site is being created. Most of the time we want users to be able to accomplish certain things on our website, and complexities of the visual design and interaction can interfere with your users’ ability to accomplish their goals, which in turn drives frustration and dissatisfaction.

In the long run, your users are more likely to find your site appealing and visit more frequently when the design doesn’t interfere with their ability to find the information they need. In my experience running usability studies, the visual design is a fleeting concern to the user; they quickly forget the “coolness” of the design when the site prevents them from achieving their objectives.

Conversely, when the site is usable and effective, users perceive the visual design as integral to the usability of the site. Incorporating usability testing doesn’t have to be expensive, just strategic. And, having a usable site doesn’t need to come at the sacrifice of compelling design or interaction. But, good design also ensures that the end user can effectively and efficiently accomplish their basic goals.

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