Tips & Myths of Web Usability

What makes a website a great experience from an end user’s perspective? This topic was recently discussed at a meeting of legal knowledge managers in Toronto where Kerri McKenna from imason and Heather Ritchie from McCarthy Tétrault shared some excellent tips and challenged some myths. Most of the tips are common sense, with the key to web usability being consistency – within the site itself and with web design standards and conventions.

One of the best tips is to maximize the use of white space between paragraphs and in the left and right margins which makes the site easier to read. I find this tip vital for RSS readers as well, and often skip feeds that contain large paragraphs of text because they are difficult to read. According to a study by Lin in 2004, the use of white space can improve comprehension by 20% (Lin, 2004).

For page layout, studies have shown that users expect the search bar to be located in the top right corner and a link to the home page in the top left. The search bar should default to a simple search and be accessible on every page.

Also recommended is keeping the text short and concise by writing 50% less than what you would in print. Text should be easy to scan through the use of headings, bulleted lists and short paragraphs. Other useful tips include using bold and italics for emphasis instead of underlining, and using a maximum of four colours and three type faces. Links should be obvious through the use of underlining and colour.

User experience can be improved through minimizing the use of flashing text, pop-up windows, jargon, all-caps and legalese. “Click here” language should not be used for links, as it is extraneous. Instead use descriptive text that describes where the user will end up by clicking on the link.

Two myths that were debunked by usability studies include the ‘3 click rule’ and the myth of the page fold. Many sites try to design their content so it is buried only 3 clicks deep which can be a huge challenge. People don’t mind clicking as long as they feel they are on the right path and the clicks are in a logical order. The page fold myth states that users do not scroll beneath the visible part of the screen and so pages should be short in length. Actually, users will scroll if they believe there is something of value ‘below the fold’. They have less patience for horizontal (side to side) scrolling, so this should be avoided.

Existing sites can be enhanced by following many of these conventions but don’t forget usability testing. One of the best methods for testing usability is to observe users as they perform a pre-defined set of tasks while you document their roadblocks and frustrations. This can be monitored electronically or through a facilitator.

For law firms in Ontario, these usability tips should come in handy to assist them to comply with the Information and Communications Accessibility Standard, which is expected to become law within the next few years under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005. More information can be found on the AccessON website.

In closing, what makes a great experience is the ability to easily find, scan and understand content and navigate sites efficiently. Following web conventions and best practices will help to improve the site experience because users will know what to expect when they are on your site. 

The following are excellent resources if you are interested in reading more about web usability:

Nielsen, J & Loranger, H (2006) “ Prioritizing Web Usability

Lin, D. Y. M. (2004). “Evaluating older adults’ retention in hypertext perusal: impacts of presentation media as a function of text topology.” Computers in Human Behavior, 20.

Krug, Steve (2006) “Don’t Make Me Think” 

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