Web Site Usability Checklist
By Larisa Thomason
Monday, February 23, 2004; 4:15pm EST
promotion is important: most visitors use a search engine to find your
site. But once they arrive, they have to be able to actually use the
site and understand the content. Otherwise, your site is a waste of
Our usability checklist highlights five important components of a
usable Web site. This month's Webmaster Tips issue also contains
handy, annotated checklists that address other important areas:
Design a clear and simple navigation system. According to Web
usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, a good navigation system should
answer three questions:
Where am I?
Where have I been?
Where can I go?
Your site's navigation system will answer all three questions if
you're careful to include these basic elements:
consistent. The navigation system should be in the same place
on every page and have the same format. Visitors will get confused
and frustrated if links appear and disappear unpredictably.
Consider using Server Side Includes for your main navigation
system to make certain the navigation system stays consistent.
text inside links. Don't make your visitors guess where a link
is going to take them. Visitors should be able to anticipate a
link's destination by reading the text in the link or on the
navigation button. This isn't the time to be cute or obscure -
visitors don't have the time or patience for it. If there's any
question about a link's destination, clarify the issue with a
TITLE attribute that explains exactly where the link goes.
Use CSS to
emphasize text links. Some designers dislike underlined text
links inside page content - although visitors expect to be able to
click on underlined text. If you decide to remove this important
visual navigation clue, style your links with CSS to replace
underlining with another, consistent visual technique like a
background color, different font, or text color that indicates a
text links. You can create some great looking menus using
on a dynamic menu system. Some users may have problems using a
mouse to navigate through the menu and others may be listening to
the page using a screen reader. Every page should have basic text
links that link to all major sections of the site.
text-based site map. Large or complex sites should always have
a text-based site map in addition to text links. Every page should
contain a text link to the site map. Lost visitors will use it to
find their way, while search engines spiders will have reliable
access to all your pages.
Include a home
page link inside your main navigation system. Visitors may
enter your site via an internal page, but hopefully they'll want
to head for the home page next.
Site logo links
to home page. Most sites include their logo somewhere at the
top of every page - generally in the top, left-hand corner.
Visitors expect this logo to be a link to your site's home page.
They'll often go there before looking for the home link in the
Include a site
search box. A robust site search feature helps visitors
quickly locate the information they want. Make the search box
prominent and be sure that it searches all of your site - and only
your site. We've run across far too many Web sites that include a
"Search the Web" search box on their home page. The result?
Visitors hardly get to the site before the search function sends
them to another site!
Keep the content clear and simple. You may attract visitors
with an eye-catching design, but content is what keeps them at the
site and encourages them to return. Content is also the best way to
boost your site in search engine rankings.
Always keep search engines in mind when you write content, but
remember that your ultimate audience is human visitors. Present your
content with humans in mind.
Don't save the
best for last. Place your most important content high on the
page. Think of a newspaper: the top story is always prominently
displayed above the fold. Check your page display at in a number
of different screen resolutions to make sure that your most
important content is visible when the page loads.
content easy to scan. You'll spend hours - maybe days -
writing your page content and it's really annoying to think that
visitors may read less than half of it. Format your content so
that it's easy to scan. Emphasize important points (or product
characteristics) with a combination of header tags, bold type,
color, or lists.
text inside images whenever possible. Text in images is
invisible to search engine spiders and to visitors who may have
images turned off in their browsers or who use assistive
technologies like screen readers.
Add ALT and
TITLE attributes to all images. Each image should have a
descriptive ALT attribute and TITLE attribute associated with it -
particularly images that are also links to other pages. That way,
they can quickly jump to the page they're interested in without
having to wait for the entire page to load.
contrast, contrast! Be careful with background images and
colors because they can obscure the text content on the page. Make
sure you have a good reason to deviate from the successful dark
text on a light background model. Visitors can't buy your products
if they can't read the content.
Support your brand. A good brand creates or reinforces a
user's impression of the site. When your site is strongly branded,
that means that visitors will think of you first when they go
shopping for your product or service. Branding on a Web site takes
time, effort, and close attention to page design and layout.
Keep colors and
typefaces consistent. Visitors should never click on an
internal link in your site and wonder if they've left your Web
site. Choose your colors and fonts carefully and use them
consistently throughout the site.
layout consistent. Use a Web site template to enforce a
uniform page structure. Visitors should be able to predict the
location of important page elements after visiting just one page
in your site.
page. Create a useful custom error page that helps visitors if
they should click on a broken internal link or type a URL
incorrectly. The custom error page should reflect the site's
overall color, type, and layout structure as much as possible and
provide useful links to help visitors find what they're looking
Create a good
tagline and use it on every page. A good tagline clearly and
concisely explains your "value proposition" or what makes your
site stand out from competing sites. It should be memorable and
reinforce your brand in one quick phrase.
Provide for visitor feedback. Forms are critical to the
success of ecommerce sites. Without forms, you can't have a shopping
cart. But any site usually needs at least one form to allow for user
feedback. A form helps you hide from email spiders and also helps
you control how user feedback is formatted and sent.
forms short and clearly note which information is required to
successfully submit the form. Take care to design accessible
forms that all visitors can use.
international users and don't require information they may not
have - like area codes or ZIP codes.
complete contact information including your business phone number
and postal address. A street address is preferred, but you may
want to use a PO box if yours is a home-based business. Visitors
will probably prefer to contact you using email or a form, but
they feel more comfortable with a site that allows other contact
Test the site on real users. Remember that you're the
designer so of course you effortlessly use the navigation system,
love the content, and understand the value proposition. But now it's
time to get user feedback - before your online users start sending
Usability testing helps you replicate the experience of the
average Web site user and correct problems before online visitors
find them. It also gives you valuable answers to other
enjoy using the site? If so, they'll stay longer and read more
understand the purpose of the site? If not, there's no
compelling reason to return.
Is there any
incentive to return after the first visit? Your site should
try to be the ultimate authority on the Web for your topic. A site
with depth and breadth encourages visitors to bookmark it and
refer friends interested in the same topic.
recover from errors? Usability testing is the best way to test
how well your site search, site map, forms, and custom error pages
function. They should all work together to guide a visitor through
the site and help him get where he's going. Frustrated visitors
aren't likely to return - ever.
usability means designing for your visitors instead of for yourself or
your client. A site that conforms to user expectations makes visitors
more comfortable and more apt to visit again and recommend the site to
their friends. Good usability is critical to your site's success.
Source of Article
The author of this
article is Larisa Thomason, Senior Web Analyst with NetMechanic, Inc.
NetMechanic is an online service specializing in html code checking,
search engine optimization and web site maintenance and promotion. For
more information visit