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Tune Your Usability

Introduction

Website usability can be hard to define. It's very easy to spot a bad website which is frustrating to use, but more complicated to realise what makes a good website. It's also very difficult to take a step back from a website you've been involved with for a while, and try to get an outside view. The last few years has seen an emergence of the User Experience (UX) field and one of the key principals of that is to get real, quantifiable user experience from real users outside of the website owners, rather than opinions from the inside website owners. Performance is one of the key and most obvious usability measures (nobody likes a slow website), and is so critical this website has a whole separate section on optimising performance. Other considerations include how easy it is to find your website - if no users can get to your website then you've failed at the first usability hurdle! This leads into the world of Search Engine Optimisation or SEO, which has a bit of a black magic feel to it initially but is increasingly becoming less about tricks and hacks, and more about producing a quality website that users want to use. You also want to consider how easy is it to get what users want from your website. Have you ever looked up a restaurant online, you were going to that night and struggled to find opening times, an address or a phone number? Below are 5 ways you can make your website better. A lot of them are about, or recommend Google tools and that's not an intentional bias, but more reflects the market share of Google, while at the same time provides a lot of tools (most for free) to make websites better. Some people may not like Google for various reasons, but if you run a website you really can't afford to ignore them. They are also often at the forefront of emerging web technologies, and other search engines often follow what they do.

Top 5 Usability Recommendations

Here at Tune The Web I'm aiming, first and foremost, to give practical and useful advice that website owners can use. With that in mind I have prepared this top 5 list of usability recommendations I think every website should consider as a first step into securing your website:

Measure your your website usage

One of the key things to do when setting up a website is to be able to track how people are using it. How many visitors do you get? What pages are they looking at? What pages are they not looking at? How long do they spend on your website - are they off again with a few seconds (suggesting your website is not what they are looking for) or do they hang around on certain pages? Who are your users and where do they come from (both in real world terms of where they are based, and also in what site or search engine led them to your site). There are a wealth of analytic tools you can use to get this sort of information. Some web publishing tools (e.g. Wordpress) have them built in, and some require adding a bit of javascript to each of your pages to track usage.

Google Analytics is probably one of the most well known tools and integrates nicely with other Google products and features so certain should be one to consider. It involves registering for with a Google account (not necessarily a Gmail account as you can register any e-mail address as a Google account), and getting a javascript snippet of code to put on each page of your website. Depending on how you create your website this might be as easy as adding to your standard header, using a standard tool available for many publishing platforms or manually going through each page and adding them. This will then start tracking website users almost seamlessly in the background. It's actually quite an eye opener how much information they can track on users, though oddly enough the one thing they don't track is the search terms that lead to the site for privacy reasons (!?), though you can get a macro view of this if you link to Google Search Console (see below). There are alternatives to Google Analytics but, unless you've a good reason not to use it (e.g. some companies insist on other tools for various reasons), it should probably be top of the list for all the reasons given above about why Google tools feature so heavily on this page.

You should set up analytics tracking as soon as you can - even if you don't think you will have time to look at any of the results initially (and I strongly encourage you to make the time!), so when you need to look at this the historical information is already there. Learn more about Analytics tools.

Register your websites with search engine webmaster tools

Google provides the Google Search Console (formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools) which is the primary method it uses to communicate with websites to let them know of issues with their website (for example broken links, alerts if Google thinks your website has been compromised or informing you if Google will penalise you in search results if it thinks you are trying to rig search results). Registering your website is easy and you just need your a Google account (not necessarily a Gmail account) and some proof you own the website (often this involves putting a page, or tag on your website or linking via Google Analytics). As the primary search engine your users will likely use, registering with Google Search Console is a most of anyone interested in improving their site. Microsoft run a similar Bing Webmaster Tools, though personally I find it of less use thanks to the prevalence of Google. Still no harm to register that one too. Once you have registered with both sites you should visit regularly to review any issues. These tools also allow you to register a sitemap which will help tell the search engines all the pages on your website to help them index them better. Learn more about Webmaster tools.

Check the code on your website uses valid HTML and CSS

Believe it or not web browsers are incredibly forgiving pieces of software. Unlike most programs that will fall over as soon as something unexpected happens, web browsers will do their best to carry on and ignore mistakes on your website. This is great in that web surfers don't need to suffer for poor website coding, but bad in that it can often make real problems, and some other web browser or search engine might not handle bad code in the same way as others. One of the best ways you can use to avoid this is to check that your website follows proper standards. Running a webpage through a HTML validator is easy and can spot stupid coding errors that are easily fixed. Yes Sometimes they are a little behind the times and may flag errors for new features that it doesn't understand yet, but on the whole they are worthwhile to check, though, in the interests of balance it should be pointed out that some on the internet disagree. As well as validating HTML, you should also validate your CSS which again can be done easily with an online tool. HTML and CSS validation can also be done offline as part of your website development tools. Javascript validation is a little trickier and, if you are writing a lot of javascript then you should look into tools to handle this for you. Learn more about writing structured, semantic HTML.

Make it easy for search engines to know about your site

Search engines are a vital source of traffic for most websites, and usually were most websites visitors come from. Search Engine Optimisation or SEO is a huge topic and has spawned it's own industry of SEO experts (some of which have caused more harm than good!), but the basics are pretty simple and are something every website should do - even if you don't have the budget to have a separate digital marketing department or hire SEO experts. Make sure your web pages have meaningful titles, meta descriptions though it's generally accepted that meta keywords are no longer used. Add a sitemap. Make sure to use semantic HTML. Consider using Structured Data on your site. If you are running a business with a real location (e.g. a restaurant) then add yourself to Google Maps with your opening times. Doing these basic tips will benefit your users as well as have the side effect of improving your SEO. Google also have this starter guide to SEO which, although old, is well worth a read. Learn more about SEO.

Improve the accessibility of your website

Website Accessibility is usually associated with making your website usable for disable users. It's easily dismissed as not being worth the effort due to the feeling that only a small percentage of users will be affected, but it is something every website owner should consider and not just because of the legal obligations that you may need. Making an accessible website usually just means following good coding standards and practices and will improve your website for all users. As well as checking that correct code, semantic HTML will make you think more about how your website is structured, and will be used by search engines, and web browsers to understand your website better. All of this on top of being nicer to your disabled users! There are a number of tools where you can check your webpage accessibility including the Website Accessibility Evaluation Tool.

Summary

Improving the usability of your website can be done in numerous ways. Nothing beats user research and asking your users for their opinions, but in the above suggestions have concentrated on getting the basics right before your even do that. A well written, well structured, standards compliant website that your users can find and load properly is the very first step in ensuring that your website is "usable". There are a wealth of other topics not covered above so this is only the beginning. Navigation, for example, is another key usability item, that has not been mentioned above. Most websites have a main menubar at the top, but are those the right topics and how do users find pages not on the main navigation? Implementing a search feature to your website may also help, though you need to ensure the right pages are displayed when they search.

I've mentioned a number of tools above you can use to measure your website, but one well worth mentioning, which includes a lot of these tests and more is Nibbler's online website tester which runs through a number of tests and gives a great report on what you can do to improve your website.

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