Creating blockbusters with high usability and accessibility

It’s easy to exaggerate your focus on the graphical details when building a new website. You’re no doubt all too familiar with suggestions from your design team like “We must have a trendy hero image on the start page demonstrating what a cool crew we all are!” and “Wouldn’t it be just dandy having our logo encircled by the moon?”. However, to create a winning website formula, building a site that truly makes a difference to users and captures their attention, you instead need to concentrate your focus on its usability and accessibility.

In this blog post we give you some advice on how to boost the usability and accessibility of a site by constantly enhancing its structure and functionality from the start of the development project and throughout the governance phase.

Grounded in your business

Many factors have a bearing on the usability of a website. Key among them are, for instance, content relevance and the speed with which users understand how to navigate the site and find what they’re looking for. But, most importantly, the functions, structures and properties of the site must be firmly grounded in the business’ or organisation’s communications goals and the users’ needs and preferences.

The latter can of course be identified via interviews and questionnaires, but above all you must have a reference user group, reflecting the entire user base, throughout the project. By having the reference user group test functions, navigation and prototypes during the development phase, the usability and accessibility of the final solution can be optimised so as to meet the needs and preferences of the site’s intended user groups.

Facts not guesswork

Guesswork and assumptions may help you build a site faster, but its life will most likely be short, fragile and lonely. Basing the architecture and functionality of a site on real-life processes and user data is fundamental to its success. To create an efficient and user-oriented information and navigation structure, you must start by asking actual users about their information needs and by studying their search patterns. Mapping all these processes will also enable you to identify the functions and tools that are needed to support users in their daily work, collaborations, searches, shopping, etc.

The effort and time you invest in unearthing all necessary facts early on in the project will be richly rewarded in terms of a faster and more cost-efficient web development and implementation.

User-oriented and intuitive

“Usability” can be broken down into two distinct qualities: user benefit and user experience. User benefit defines the extent to which the user can fulfil the purpose of using the site. User experience is about the (dis)satisfaction experienced in using the site in terms of its being easy both to use and to understand.

“Accessibility” refers to a site’s response time/speed of use, mobile responsiveness, operational reliability, redundancy and disability support functions for users with visual impairment, colour blindness or other disabilities. Since January 2019 it’s mandatory for the Swedish public sector to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standard in any web, app or intranet development. Many other organisations and companies also follow WCAG when upgrading their sites’ accessibility.

In simple terms, high usability is achieved through user-oriented functions, interface and content. In practical terms, this means that:

  • The content must be relevant, i.e. the information, news, documents and media must be of interest or of practical use to the user. Targeting, authorisation and role-based functions will help you steer content to different user groups.

  • Functions and tools should be tailored to meet the needs of the user, helping him or her find information, execute tasks or achieve other objectives quickly and effortlessly. The user must also have been granted access to every necessary tool, function and data source.

  • The interface must be as intuitive as possible so that users do not have to be educated first or have to search for information on how to operate the site and its functions. What is perceived as intuitive will vary from one person or country to another, with the age of the user also being an important factor. A simple rule of thumb is to apply modern interface standards. Most users will then instantly and instinctively know how to use different buttons, icons and menus, etc. For instance, virtually every user in the world is today familiar with the hamburger menu in apps and responsive websites and knows how it works.

High findability

A priority in all our customer development projects is unerring focus on the optimisation of findability on the intranet or the website. The ease with which users can find news, documents, tools, people, projects, products, processes or, for example, information about a person’s employment is absolutely critical for the usability of the site. If users experience difficulties finding information, they will eventually reject it and look for other options.

There are many functions and site properties which in combination provide high findability. Some of the most important are:

  • Navigation. The navigation properties of a site constitute the visual, structural and cognitive support that helps users navigate and find whatever information they’re looking for. The choice, structure and positioning of images, menus and other information will either guide or mislead the user.

    For example, through eye scanning studies, we know for a fact that the user rarely reads a web page word for word. Instead, he or she scans the page in which texts, headlines, icons and images together form a context which helps the user interpret and find relevant information without having to read everything in detail. Most people unknowingly scan pages in the same pattern – from the top left to the right and then vertically down to scan out to the right again. The so-called F-Shaped Pattern was discovered by Jakob Nielsen in 2006. A recent study by Nielsen Norman Group in 2020 shows that our reading and scanning patterns are relatively unaltered, even though web design has changed a lot since 2006. These studies have highlighted the importance of positioning information strategically on the site, placing the most important information where most users commonly start their scanning. But you can in fact also influence and redirect a user’s habitual scanning actions by using creative menus, headlines, icons, visual hierarchies and guidelines.

  • Information structure. A common mistake is to shape the information structure so as to keep it in line with the business, service, product or organisational structure. Obviously, it’s important to study and map the company’s or organisation’s structures and processes in order to identify what information must be accessible on the site. But users seldom search for information on the basis of, for instance, a business’ organisational matrix or its hierarchically structured product divisions. The only way to map the information structure so as to match the search behaviour and information needs of users is simply by studying them and asking the relevant questions.

  • Search functionality. Most people “google” just about everything today. If you’re in the market for shoes then Google is where you go, and if you’re about to bake a cake you google recipes rather than flipping through a dusty old baking recipe book. As a consequence, practically every user expects a search experience similar to that of Google, Bing and comparable search engines on intranets and websites. Your search functionality should accordingly always incorporate the ability to categorise and to filter searches. Omnia, Episerver and similar intranet and CMS platforms have this type of advanced search functionality included.

Clear and simple

Clarity is obviously a basic prerequisite for a useful site. If the site is perceived as being confusing and poorly structured, or if the information is not spelt out in clear and unambiguous terms, the user will soon lose interest, get frustrated and eventually dismiss the site for good. However, when a site is clear-cut and to the point, users will find it easy to use and to understand.

Clarity is achieved through:

  • Focusing on the essentials. The lower the noise level, the easier it is for users to explore, find, interpret and understand, achieve their objectives and interact correctly on the site.

  • Recognition and belonging. Here we would again stress the importance of creating an intuitive user experience in order to facilitate better understanding and interaction.

  • Consistency. By creating a consistent user experience throughout the site, your messages, communications and information will be more easily understood and accepted. It’s basically a question of ensuring that everything is coordinated and harmonised from menus and the structure of pages to colours, images and tone of voice.

  • Feedback. When the user interacts with the site, it’s important that some kind of feedback is always given with the goal of encouraging the right sort of user behaviour.

Test and test again!

A site may have a stunning layout and be top of the class in terms of clarity and ease of use, but still be rejected by users if it’s not seen to be up-to-date and trustworthy. If the only news you can find there is old, if it’s rife with dead links and invalid functions, or if it’s impossible to verify the latest version of a document, then users will quickly lose confidence in the site.

This is why a governance team must always be at the ready to grab the reins as soon as the site leaves the development stage and goes live. One of the team’s most important and efficient methods of keeping the content and site updated and in continuous improvement is never-ending testing and user polls. And take note – you can never really create the perfect user experience since it can always be better! You need to stay constantly alert and responsive to users’ opinions and ever-changing needs, objectives and behaviour so you can continuously adapt the solution accordingly. If, for instance, the testing and polls show that more user education is needed, then it’s obvious that the site’s usability is waning and needs immediate attention.