How Usability Can Make Your Website Suck Less and Earn You More Customers

Guest post by Andy Hayes of Travel Online Partners

If you’re not familiar with website usability, the term might make you think of scientists in white lab coats and Rubik’s Cubes.

Funny, but not quite accurate.

What Is Usability?

For those of you who don’t know me, I currently am a writer, coach and own a few online businesses. Before that, I was working in enterprise web software (really, really big websites) for an international bank. In that role, one of my primary concerns was how usable our software was to the thousands of employees that were on our system. We had spent a fortune on the software, so we wanted people actually use it.

While my websites’ users and my business goals are now very different than way back then, I continue to follow some of the principles of usability that we used, and I’m still experimenting to try to understand how they apply to my current businesses. Usability, to me, is simply:

Making it as easy as possible for folks to decide to buy from you — and closing the deal.

That’s it and nothing more. One day, you might be working on your content. Yes, that’s copywriting but that’s usability too. Tomorrow maybe it is a new color for your buy now buttons. That’s graphic design, and usability. Usability is where all of those different skills come together to do just what it says above – getting visitors to take action, start to finish.

With definitions out of the way, how can usability improve your website and help you close the deal with more customers? How can you actually make some usability tweaks to your own website? Let’s talk through some examples.

Usability is Testing – Something You Should Be Doing Anyway

A lot of usability is testing – showing your ideal readers and ideal customers pages on your website, and then asking them questions. You should already be doing this. How can you improve if you don’t know how well you’re doing?

Most website owners have Google Analytics or another website tracking package. This tells you about your traffic, of course, and it can also be used to deduce lots of other information.

The misunderstanding is that much of the information in analytics tools are symptoms of a problem, not the actual problem itself. Your bounce rate (the number of people who arrive and immediately leave) might be high, but no software can tell you if your customer is confused by your wording or if it’s actually the garish color scheme that nobody can read on their monitor.

I’ll use a personal example from my consulting website, Travel Online Partners. We offer marketing support for travel businesses. It even says that in the banner of the website, so one would assume you couldn’t be more clear, right? Wrong. After we launched, analytics told us that our search engine referrals had almost a 100% bounce rate, with many other referring sites not far behind.

Why were so many people showing up and then leaving immediately? Analytics told us the symptom, but it wasn’t until we spoke to readers that I heard the actual problem: “Oh, I didn’t see the banner. I thought you were a travel agency.” Problems like this aren’t too difficult to fix, but you need to know what’s wrong.

Homework: Even if your business is entirely online, get out and talk to some people. You’ll be surprised at what you hear. How many times have you heard “you do what? Why didn’t I know that?” or “you know what would be great? If on your website, you could….” Do you have any symptoms of potential issues lurking in your analytics stats?

Details Count

In usability, details count. And by details, I really do mean details! It’s just the littlest tiny things that can make a big difference. Amazon is the king of paying attention to detail; even today, they routinely rotate out different page layouts, button colors, and other site options to test to see if they can get you to buy more. Everything spec of detail you see on Amazon is there for a reason.

I’ll use another personal example, this time about the fold. You more than likely know about above the fold / below the fold (that is, content that appears with or without scrolling). But did you know that on the fold is also important as well?

Last month, on my travel magazine we made a tiny change to our homepage. By intention, the last five articles published appear across the bottom line of the page, with part of the title scrolling off the page.

This has resulted in dropping our bounce rate by about 20%. Is it possible that other factors are contributing to that drop? Yes. I could have made this a very “official” test by implementing what’s called “A/B testing” – which requires software, such as the free Website Optimizer provided by Google, which will randomly serve the different versions of your page and then track the results.

For small businesses, I only recommend this for your bigger changes as it adds complexity and overhead, and by that I mean your time. I prefer to just go out and ask people, or try out the change and watch my stats closely.

Homework: Can you identify these tiny points in your website where tweaks can make the biggest difference? From the usability perspective, walk through the site as if you are your Ideal Reader. Every page. Start to finish. What works and what is confusing?

Getting Out of Your Own Way

Having done many website evaluations over the years, I’ve seen some websites completely off the mark, and others that are just a smidge away from the bullseye. The biggest problem I see? Websites getting in their own way. What do I mean by that?

Here are just a few of the examples of where websites get in the way of their own success. These are all problems of usability in my mind:

  • Pages on a website that nobody can get to – because they aren’t linked anywhere.
  • Having one of those menus where you have to have a martial arts degree to get the drop downs to appear. Or worse, a menu who keeps moving around like a chameleon.
  • Sales pages and product descriptions that don’t reflect what is currently on offer. You changed direction and forgot to update the page. “Copyright 2008.” Whoops!
  • Hiding away testimonials. You’ve got testimonials, right? Do you have them on (almost) every page?
  • Download pages that offer you too many options – an affiliate link here, a banner ad there, oh, and way down here is your product. Too many choices and I’ll choose nothing.
  • No enthusiasm. Your Ideal Customer probably doesn’t need you doing jumping jacks on video, but come on – if you aren’t excited about your offer, why should your customer be?

You might be saying to yourself – hey, I know how to do these things! That’s why I try demystify the topic of usability, because everybody understands the concept of getting your customer to go from not knowing who you are to being a happy customer ready to refer others to you. It’s pulling every skill you have together to make using your website effortless.

Homework: Do you have roadblocks in the way of letting them do exactly that? Instead of focusing on the detail, like we did before, step back and think big picture. If this was your first time on the website, what would you think?

Think Traffic. Think Conversions. Think Usability.

You’ve got great traffic because you know the secrets of Think Traffic. Corbett’s inner mojo gives you the tools and information to bring quality visitors to your website. But what are you doing with them once they get there?

That’s where website usability comes in. A website that understands usability to their advantage can outperform a similar website that doesn’t have the same tricks and tweaks.

Whatever your goal is – to make money, to educate, to inspire, to entertain – make sure you’re doing it as best you can. Usability can help. Can you honestly say with an emphatic YES that you make it as easy as possible for folks to decide to buy from you—and close the deal?

Photo by Siddy Lam

30 thoughts on “How Usability Can Make Your Website Suck Less and Earn You More Customers”

  1. Another great post. I gave it a thumbs up on StumbleUpon.

    A big part of usability is giving visitors the tools they need to stay up to date i.e. twitter, rss, email newsletter, etc. That way first-time visitors can turn into return visitors.

    IMO it’s return visitors that are going to be the most likely buy from you, retweet your posts, stumble you, etc.

    Nick, The Traffic Guy

  2. Hey Andy… Great post

    I’ve touched on usability once before on my blog and it became one of my most popular posts – this is something a lot of people are interested in and want to learn how to do.. You explained it really well and I especially liked the “Get out of your own way” section – that was cool..

    Anyone that performs those simple tweaks should see a really good increase in the amount of people sticking around their site..

    Thanks for sharing

  3. Andy,

    I make it my duty to have an usability site so people can navigate and find what their looking for. All my post are inked in some type of way and fashion.

    These are some awesome tips that many people should follow.

    “TrafficColeman “Signing Off”

  4. Hi Andy,

    Usability seems to largely be a matter of asking questions and waiting for answers. Or, simply listening.

    I used to view criticism as criticism, instead of seeing it as feedback. Now I listen intently and take my ego out of the picture when someone offers an opinion about my site.

    Thanks for sharing the detailed, thought provoking post.

    Ryan Biddulph

    1. Ryan, I couldn’t agree more. Especially in these days where many of us are solopreneurs or very very heavily invested in our businesses personally, it is hard to view feedback as just that – feedback – particularly when it’s negative or constructive.

      And you are very welcome, hope it was helpful.

  5. Too many websites try use the latest whistle and bells and the message just gets lost. I like to say…..Kiss — Keep it simple stupid!

  6. Hey Andy, Great post to me usability is everything and especially for e- commerce websites, if you can’t find it what you looking for in 5 seconds you move on to the next website.


  7. Hey Andy,

    really like the magic you put out here. In fact, I never worried about usability to the degree where I should have. But some parts of my blog are not as successful as I want them to be, and that’s why I seriously have to think about usability more.

    I always think that if I understand how to navigate my page, I think everyone else does too. Looks like this isn’t always the case – and I’m going to make some serious changes now.

    Thanx for a refreshing post, Andy !

    1. Why thanks – magic is what we aim for.

      Get some of that external feedback – you’re too close to it, but other people will no doubt give you some easy yet really helpful tweaks.

  8. Great article on website usability. I’m my work I do a lot of evaluations of websites as well and it blows my mind how mamy businesses not stick with bad websites (with many and MORE problems you listed), but also defend the practice. It’s not wonder were in a recession, people just don’t help themselves at all!!

    I’m a huge fan of A/B testing, which is essentially throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. The one thing I might add to your homework is having someone ELSE look over your site, who hasn’t seen it before. Sit with them when you do it and notice their reactions.. how they browse, where they go, what they read, etc. You’ll get a true outsiders perspective.

    1. Yup – people get defensive because they think because THEY built it, it must be right. Even if their sales stats say otherwise. A shame, eh?

      Totally agree – there’s nothing like sitting on your hands and watching a total stranger get stuck and bounce around your site in a way you could never have predicted. It’s not pleasant but a wonderful learning experience.

  9. My job title is BUYER lol…. I KNOW about being a consumer…

    1) Unless you are a sole source, if the site doesnt work I go somewhere else

    2) If I cannot find the cart button I do not buy from there

    3) If after I have purchased from your site I have an important issue and your CONTACT us page does not have contact information (aka an phone number) i’ll find their number some other way ( Looking up owner of website, 411, Manta, D&B) , fix my problem, and dont purchase from them again.

    on the other side

    4) If you have great customer service, I remember the vendor

    5) If your website is completely effortless ( I can go, i can search, i can find the cart, the billing system works, i can have an account, i can go back to account information and look at previous orders) .. I WILL go back.

    SO YEAH! I completely agree. When there is a product being sold then the Buyer has to be able to use the site because (for most things) there are other sites available that offer the same or similar products or services.

    1. I think you hit on the magic word: effortless. It should be effortless for your customer, everything, from start to finish. Isn’t that what we’d all want when we buy stuff?

  10. I couldn’t agree more. I am fairly new to blogging, 4 months maybe? I currently am running a personal blog, and preparing to design and launch a business site, so I have spent the past couple of month looking at a lot of blogs and the things that have drawn me in and those things that turn me away.
    I participate in a couple of blog communities and a question was posed by a newer blogger today as to how to get people to her etsy shop. I went to her blog and could not find anything about her etsy shop, no link or anything. Since I knew she had an etsy, I went to her blogger profile to find it. Once at her etsy shop, she only had 2 pieces to sell. On both sites, any links she had were not clickable.
    I wrote a repsonse to her letting her know what I had discovered and my suggestions for helping her to increase traffic to her etsy. I just couldn’t believe how difficult she had made it for folks to find her, much less by from her!

    If I can remember which community it was, I am going to post a link to here!


  11. Hi Andy – Great article on usability. If you’re interested in additional information on the subject you should check out Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug and The Big Red Fez by Seth Godin. Each book provides some great tips on usability as it relates to website layout and you may find some things that you haven’t tried yet.

    1. Where do you think the inspiration from my eBook came from? :-)

      These are good – I also recommend Neuro Web Design as well as Predictably Irrational, which are also useful for those of you with sales pages.

    2. My apologies; I hadn’t read your e-book yet – I just discovered your blog a couple days ago.

      Glad to hear you’ve already read the usability books; I find that many people have never heard of usability, let alone read up on the subject! I hadn’t read either of the titles that you recommend, but will definitely add them to my reading list – thanks for the recommendations!

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