(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

What Is Web Usability, And Why Should I Care?

Some websites may look very cool at first sight, but in practice they are unusable and a big problem for everybody. Some web publishers, for example, transform material like photos, articles and stories, which are not movies, into movies viewable with web browsers, that is the same software programs used to read normal web pages. The two most frequent reasons for this behaviour are fashion and paranoia: some web publishers need to look as flashy as possible, in the illusion that this will convince more people to visit their website regularly. Others believe that all that effort will actually prevent illegal copying of their material.

The result is websites which are as practical to use as giving people, instead of a book, a videotape or a DVD where somebody holds the same book in front of the camera and turns the pages to let you read them. Such solution are much less usable than the original format: people have to read slowly because it takes more effort to download, and maybe need to buy a computer powerful enough to handle the movie version. The same applies to pages full of unnecessary decorations and images. Remember that the great majority of the world’s population (including a lot of people in “developed” countries) still has to work months or years to afford a computer. Even the others don’t really like to be forced to spend money without an actual reason. Besides this, Internet search engines (the websites which try to index all the content of the Internet) have much more difficulty in indexing text hidden in this way, so these websites are more difficult to find, and much less useful as marketing tools.

Next in the race for the “Website clients-who-don’t-get-it” Award come those websites owners who require or tolerate web pages which can be viewed well only with one model or version of browser, or for a certain resolution of the monitor. Such an attitude is just as smart and polite as saying “I’ll sell you this book only if you promise to read it when holding it exactly ten inches from your nose, even if it’s uncomfortable for your eyes or your arms are tired”: this flies right in the face of the Internet as a unifying technology. A website designed in this way is invariably optimized only for some of its potential users.

Another class of Internet stupidity consists of those websites based on brain-dead color adjustments like black text on blue background. Oh, and what about all the introductory commercials which plague many websites, wasting a lot of people’s time? Websites are not television: most of the time when you follow a link or type an Internet address it is because you already have a good idea of what you will find.

There is no reason to waste your time (or your money, if you are on a metered Internet Connection) with a mini-movie which takes much more time than text just to reach your computer. Everybody skips commercials: the only reason why many organizations and businesses pay designers for these introductions is they haven’t’ realized yet they are just that, expensive commercials which are very easy to skip, when not harmful because they bore potential customers.

Last but not least come those online stores which, by default, make your computer automatically play their favorite background music, ignoring the fact that people coming to their website from the office, or when kids sleep, will most likely not come back.

Making any of these mistakes may nullify all the time and money invested in a website. All these so-called “richer user experiences” were already a problem in 2002, when the report “A Fresh Look at Internet Speed” denounced that the load caused by all this eye candy was just too much for low speed Internet connections. Today this is still true. Bandwidth is still limited and expensive in many cases, both for websites and their users. Flat rate fast connections are still restricted to a few parts of the world, and those areas are usually the same where metered Internet access from (cell) phones and other portable devices is catching up. Regardless of speed, what about small displays or, much more important, disabled users? Ignoring usability can be OK for small, mostly private sites, or entertainment and game portals which would have no reason to exist if they could not sport every multimedia trick in the book.

The majority of websites, instead, that is all those which are theoretically meant to sell something or provide information and service to the greatest possible audience, should avoid all these mistakes like the plague.

Websites remain useful and usable (even as a marketing tool for small businesses) only if they take real people - all of them - into account. Real Web accessibility for disabled users is also becoming essential for any commercial website, if nothing else because its absence can bring lawsuits to your business: very recently, even a giant like the Target chain of department stores learned this the hard way.