I have often wondered about two things on the web:
1. Why so many web sites are hard to use.
2. Why some web designers hate usability principles.
I dislike hyperbole (exaggeration) because it tends to cloud the issues with emotional "ranting" and anger.
But, although I know enough about web sites to discuss design and content writing enhancements, I still have trouble finding information and, to a lesser degree, performing tasks, at a great many web sites.
I refer to complex sites, and sites that give standard features "innovative" labels and non-standard locations.
Like labeling the standard "Contact Us" page, not "Contact Us" as most do, but something like "Communication Options", or putting the contact information in the "About Company XYZ" page. Or making it difficult to actually find the contact information by putting it deeply into the web site, making users click on "About XYZ Company", then "People", then "Feedback", then burying it in tiny print at the bottom of the "Feedback" page.
While this strategy may be appropriate for sites that get a lot of wacko or prank email, letters, and phone calls, it makes it annoyingly difficult for serious users and prospective customers to contact the company.
Lots of times I arrive at a home page that is so cluttered and busy, it's hard to get oriented. Where do I begin? Where, in all this visual and textual noise, is the one thing I happen to need right now?
Or there is no "search site" function for me to navigate on my own through the site, to try to forge a direct and swift path to the information I'm sure is somewhere on the site.
In spite of the frequency with which I encounter usability problems at web sites, I often also encounter extreme reactions on the part of some web designers against usability.
They seem to resent any serious focus on typical users of a site.
Perhaps they don't want to admit that they goofed up and made a site less usable than they know it could be.
They find it convenient to claim that users are stupid or inexperienced, so they don't have to admit any defects in their design or information architecture.
But the fact remains: too many web sites are still not as usable as they ought to be. Some even seem a bit user-hostile, or uncaring about typical user expectations and behavior patterns.
It would be like an automobile designer being indifferent or antagonistic to the needs and comfort of drivers, the end users of the automobiles. Like placing the horn and turn signals in the passenger side of the dashboard, or making a tiny rear view mirror. Cars must be highly and easily usable, or there will be many fatal accidents and the model will be recalled.
Too bad web sites can't be "recalled" and taken off the web for usability violations.
Recent Example on a Web Designer Discussion List
Just a couple of days ago, I posted two email commentaries on the topic of evaluating web sites in the context of how users interact with them, a topic that was begun by someone else.
Each post was attacked quite vigorously by a peculiar, hot-headed web designer. Since I said everything I wanted to say in the two posts, I refrained from continuing the debate.
Due to the designer's "flaming" (attempt to incite anger and self-defensive retaliations), the moderator of the discussion list emailed me and asked me to not respond to the designer's baiting, and said he considered the designer to be excessively hostile toward me personally.
This irate designer spoke negatively of my usability comments, the usability specialist Jakob Nielsen, usability research in general, and my skills as a communicator.
My point in the discussion list posts was that the true usability of any web site is unknown until you observe actual representative users attempt to interact with the contents and functionalities of the site. Anything less than this is speculation.
Thus, User Observation Testing is mandatory for genuine and comprehensive insight into the usability of a web site.
Judging by his responses, this poor designer was deeply disturbed by such thoughts. He wanted to dismiss the paramount importance of both user observation testing and usability principles.
He seemed to think that all usability concepts were aimed at him like a flurry of poisoned arrows. They seemed to threaten him, rather than enlighten him.
Any assertion of a usability enhancement principle, gleaned from years of user research by such specialists as Jared Spool, Jakob Nielsen, Steve Krug, Thomas Powell, and my own experience, were scoffed at and denied.
Non-usability Web Design Concerns
He, and other anti-usability web designers, tend to downplay usability and exalt non-usability web design concerns.
It's true that users are not the only group designers must consider. They have to please their boss, and/or the client, and they quite naturally seek the approval and praise of fellow designers.
Designers also state that they're limited by budget and technology limitations.
Users are seen by anti-usability designers as a nuisance, a bunch of dumbies who don't know what's best for them. A phrase bandied about is "users don't pay for web sites." We're told we must not let (ignorant) users "put demands upon us", or our web sites will become mediocre.
A phrase bandied about is "users don't pay for web sites." Ah, but they do, in the sense that if users find the site hard to use, they won't return to it and won't buy products at it.
All other factors being equal, a web site that accommodates users will tend to sell more product than a web site that's more difficult to use. And a profitable web site, then, is funded and supported by the profits it produces from its users.
Comparing Web Sites with Direct Mail
A direct mail promotion that fails to consider what customers want, and how recipients respond to direct mail offers, e.g. by not using a money-back guarantee, not including testimonials, etc., will not sell many products.
No direct marketer will ignore the needs of the customers being mailed to, and just mail out any random, whimsical creative package. To do so is marketing suicide.
Usability Principles are not "Dictates"
Web designers need not be paranoid of usability research. Usability principles do not "dictate" to the designer how to build a web site. They guide him and help him fashion a site that not only looks nice, but works on the level of users who will attempt to interact with the site.
Usability is slightly less important for a web site that is owned by a web designer or graphic artist, and has a target audience of other designers or artists.
In this case, more liberty is allowable, and even some low usability/high creativity challenges to the users may be acceptable. You may wish to shock, surprise, and amaze these special users, whereas on most other web sites this would not be a wise policy.
Anti-usability Designers are Suspect
Not to be mean-spirited, but I wonder why any designer would be against user testing and usability research. I wonder if the designer has something to hide, something that might shrivel if exposed to the harsh light of day.
I hope the reason for antagonism to usability is more benign. I hope a web designer is ruffled by usability concerns because he had a boss who tormented him with usability rants, and had no artistic appreciation of beauty or design brilliance.
This I can understand. If someone, a boss or client, tries to force some discipline upon you, you tend to react defensively, perhaps in an aggressive manner.
Yet, I don't have any grudge against beauty or innovation or creativity or technological progress.
All I mean to advance is high usability for all web sites, based on actual understanding of real, typical users. Not hypothetical notions of what users want, or designs that consider users to be stupid and not worth bothering about.
Usability analysts do not say that usability is the only concern to pay attention to when constructing a web site. Nor do we say that if the usability is great, this alone is enough to ensure the success of a web site.
But we do see many web sites where usability principles are violated and it's hard to find information, perform tasks, contact the owner, or otherwise interact with the site.
A seasoned web usability analyst can sit down and try to interact with a web site. This will give him his first indications of what needs to be fixed. But only when actual users are observed interacting with the site do you discover its true usability.
As Jakob Nielsen has said, and I paraphrase slightly here, commercial creativity is always under constraints. Commercial creativity is not "create any random thing you want", but is instead, "create something that satisfies the need, or solves the problem, of these users."
My famous, controversial motto:
"Web sites are made for users. Not for designers."