Every once in a while I invite some friends to go boating. As a host I want to make sure my friends have an enjoyable time. As a webmaster, I face the same challenge when designing the usability of my site. I want my readers to enjoy their experience enough to stay on my site, make a sale if possible, and hopefully, return in the future. Today I will parallel some guidelines I use in both my boating excursions and website usability designs.
1. It’s not so great, if on the dock they wait
Imagine a sunny weekday afternoon. I have invited a few friends and promised them an enjoyable afternoon and evening of boating. They have skipped out of work a few minutes early and crossed town in rush hour traffic to be on time. But they end up waiting at the dock while I wash the decks or coil every line ‘just so’. These tasks might make a boat owner bristle with pride, but my guests won’t necessarily enjoy themselves.
If I create a slow loading web page I have treated my readers as poorly as the skipper has treated his guests in the above example. A pretty site is nice, but few users are going to be enamored enough to wait around while the page loads. Better to be proactive. Here are a few things I address to shorten loading times.
First step is to look at any server executed code. I make sure my code doesn’t do any computation that isn’t necessary. My page can’t even begin to load before the server side execution is done so I need to make sure it is as lean as is prudent.
Next I look at the source of the page itself. I don’t usually find much to cut here. Sometimes I have large chunks of commented .html code that can be removed. If I am dealing with a long page I can squeeze it down a bit by renaming any user defined styles with short one or two characters names. This generally only works on large pages.
Of course, the images are generally the largest chunk of bandwidth. I attack them three ways. I use only the images that are necessary and only at the size needed. I instruct the browser how to format the page via width and height values so that text can be loaded and viewed while the slower images trickle in. And finally, I attempt to minimize image file sizes by optimizing these images with the appropriate image editing software.
2. More ‘turn right’, less ‘helm to starboard’ (Keep it simple)
I might sound quite ‘Yachty’ when I instruct my guest driver to put the ‘helm to starboard’, but I might be disappointed when he or she turns left into the path of a heavy freighter. My instructions were correct, but why should I expect my guest to learn my language? My web guests are no different.
My goal as a webmaster is too keep interested any user that finds my site. The last thing I want to do is distract them from my content by forcing them to learn the intricacies of my site. I’ll assist these users by using standard web practices. My links will be blue, visited links purple, the navigation links will reside in a traditional location to assist users in finding what they want quickly, and I’ll keep it the same from page to page.
3. Toss that cranky old two stroke outboard (but not into the bay!)
I don’t enjoy boating because of the noisy motor. I enjoy boating despite it. To minimize the racket I make sure to choose a quiet modern engine and only use it when it is necessary. In this way I hope to present as few annoyances as possible to my boating guests. My web pages will do the same. Bright colors or flashing graphics help grab attention, but may annoy many more than they help. And annoyed guests don’t stay long and seldom return. I find it is better to keep attention grabbing colors and images to a bare minimum. I’ll use them when absolutely necessary, but prefer to error on the side of restraint in hopes of not perturbing my readers.
4. An evening cocktail cruise vs. crossing the Atlantic
The friends I invite for an evening on the boat may range from folks who have never set foot on board to ‘Old Salts’. Their range of boating skills will range from zero to infinity. That doesn’t mean I should challenge those skills. I want an experience that is comfortable for everyone aboard.
I need to treat my web users with the same mindset. Some will have the latest browsers. Many won’t. Most will have decent bandwidth. But not all. I want each and every user to have a nice experience that doesn’t challenge them, their hardware, or their software. To this end I will make sure my pages load promptly (see number one above), display nicely on older browsers at lower resolutions, and don’t require the latest browser plug-ins.
5. If going boating isn’t convenient, most folks won’t
The regulations require a life vest for every person aboard but I don’t ask my guests to bring their own. If we encounter rain having foul weather gear is nice and I make sure to have an extra set or two on board. Basically, I want to make boating convenient.
Selling on line should be the same. If my site isn’t convenient, there are plenty of competitors out there that will create a convenient shopping experience. I try to keep the entire process quick and easy. It is nice to get extra information from buyers such as how they found my site or if they would like an e-newsletter, but I generally avoid even these simple steps to keep the purchasing process streamlined. Less clicks and fewer questions equals a more convenient transaction. The more convenient I can make buying, the more buying they will do.
Some folks will be Landlubbers for life
One of the lessons I’ve learned is that, no matter how good I am at taking care of my boating guests, not everyone will have a good time. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. The same lesson applies to my websites. I can’t deliver what every web user is looking for. But I’ll try my darndest to keep the attention and good graces of every web user that is interested in what I am selling.