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Usability Guidelines for Web Sites

By Kenn Moffitt, Director of University Online Communications

I just returned from a conference in South Padre where I spoke about web site usability for news and information sites. I spent several months reading and rereading all of the web usability books that I could get me hands on including: Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed by Jakob Nielson, Designing Web Usability : The Practice of Simplicity by Jakob Nielson, Usability: The Site Speaks for Itself by Kelly Braun, and Shaping Web Usability: Interaction Design in Context by Albert N. Badre. 

The following list of usability recommendations kept showing up in all of the books. I bet I know what you will think when you read through the list. Probably something like “this stuff is just common sense”. I agree. A lot of the recommendations do “make sense” but they are not as “common” as you might think when you begin looking at UNT web sites.

Help Your Audience Find Site

  • Create an easy to remember web address for your site. This means that the web address should be easy to remember for your main audience not just that it is easy to remember if you are already familiar with UNT. Long acronyms and initials used in the names of web sites are not always remembered easily.
  • Make sure that your main site is registered with the major search engines. Believe it or not many people think that Yahoo or Google IS the internet and will not try your direct URL first.
  • Include your site’s web address in your staff’s e-mail signatures and on your letterhead and faxes to remind your audience of your web address.

Help Your Audience Return To Your Site

  • Allow the audience to create usable browser bookmarks
    • Title the page succinctly so that important information shows at the beginning in a browser’s favorites or bookmarks
    • Lead the title with a logical descriptive or key word such as the university name or initials (allows the user to quickly locate your site in the browser’s bookmarks or favorites since IE orders the bookmarks alphabetically instead of in the order created like Netscape).
    • Don’t include the word “home page” in the page title this takes up room in the bookmark or favorite for no real reason.

Help Your Audience Contact You

  • Make sure that contact information is prominently located on your site.
  • Use a real person’s e-mail address if possible. Generic e-mail address such as were perceived to be less likely to be answered promptly by audiences.

Help Your Audience Find What It Wants

  • The top right or left hand corners of the page are the most common spots where your audience expects to see a search link or search box.
  • Label the search button “search” or “go” (most used labels for search boxes on the web) instead of trying to be original or creative.
  • Include a large entry area for the search box (25-30 characters wide) in case the searcher types in larger search entries. 

Use Fonts and Colors Effectively

  • Use sans serif fonts for text heavy pages to increase readability. Serif fonts do not display as well as on paper because monitor resolution is not as high.
  • Make sure users can use the browser settings to adjust font sizes. 
  • Make sure that there is high contrast between background and foreground colors of a web page and to ensure proper printing on black and white printers (white text on dark backgrounds might not print in the default print settings in Netscape). 
  • Colors and fonts should be used to create visual hierarchies and to showcase content in order or importance.
  • Fonts and colors should be used to standardize the look of the pages within the site.

Organize and Display Your Site’s Content Effectively

  • Name and purpose of site should be prominent on the top of the home page with the site name repeated at the top of each page within the site.
  • Design your site for a resolution of 800x600 (the most popular screen resolution with 1024x768 coming in second place). 
  • Make sure additional content on the right-hand side of the page is not missed by those using the lower 640x480 monitor resolution.
  • Design critical content placement to take advantage of audience reading patterns from left to right and top to bottom (Z design).
  • Most important information should be “above the fold” (visible in the window without the audience having to scroll down).
  • Most important content should centered on the page (left, right and top margins are expected to be navigation, site name or advertising ). 

Use Links Effectively to Promote Navigation

  • Allow links to have visited and non-visited colors to give the audience a history of their actions.
  • Links should be succinct and should lead with information bearing words to promote scanning. There is no need to start every button image or navigation link with “UNT”. 
  • If clicking a link is going to do something other than open a html page warn the user in the link (for example clicking the link will launch a real audio presentation) 
  • If using a link for e-mail, type out the entire e-mail address in case the web browser is not configured to send mail and the user wants to write down the address for later.

Create Effective Headlines and Leads If You Have News Features

  • Headlines should be short to promote scanning. 
  • Headlines should act as the link to the actual news release or story (standard in the news web site genre and reduces the space needed for an additional link at the end of the lead) .
  • Leads should include actual information for the reader. 
  • Leads under the headlines shouldn’t automatically be the first paragraph of the story. Depending on the first paragraph’s content, sometimes the leads should be rewritten to communicate the stories main message and provide better information.

Use Images Correctly

  • Crop images for thumbnails so that the image portrays useful content. 
  • Recreate thumbnails of images instead of displaying big images at the smaller size. This will reduce the overall download time of the page.
  • Don’t overuse images in the visual design of your site, only use them if they allow you to convey essential information.
  • Include alt tags for accessibility with a brief description of the image (if the image is essential).

Further Reading

Please take a moment to look at a couple of Kenn's previous Benchmarks Online articles. They could prove to be very helpful to you. - Ed.