Usability - Websites and Beyond

Content From: HIV.govPublished: February 19, 20085 min read


We designed knowing that visitors only spend up to 30 seconds scanning a webpage. People look for trustworthy, updated, and easy-to-read information. If they can't find it, they leave the page quickly.

Question: So how do we provide our users with what they want and in the way they want it?

Answer: Ask them!

We have to admit there are many times our web development team gets excited about a new design or product and puts it up before conferring with our own usabilityExit Disclaimer consultant or, more importantly, our users. So, we have to remind ourselves to focus on usability.

To help us better understand usability, we spoke with two experts: Ginny RedishExit Disclaimer , an independent consultant, writer, and trainer; and our consultant, Jason Rendel.

What is usability?
According to our colleagues at, "Usability measures the quality of a user's experience when interacting with a product or system--whether a website, a software application, mobile technology, or any user-operated device. In general, usability refers to how well users can learn and use a product to achieve their goals and how satisfied they are with that process."

Ginny emphasized that usability is "an attribute of absolutely everything. It allows your audiences: 1) to find your site, blog, podcast, etc.; 2) to find what they want or need on the site; and 3) to understand what they find. Usability means that they can do all that in the time and with the effort that they think is worth spending." Ginny likes to describe usability as "a conversation between you and the people out there."

A key principle of usability is that it is user-centeredExit Disclaimer , meaning that users are involved throughout the development process. All of our time, energy, and good intentions must always come back our users--their needs, interests, preferences, and limitations.

How can you improve usability?
To ensure that your new media tool or website focuses on your users, you must involve them in planning, developing prototypes, writing content, and conducting usability tests. provides a good step-by-step visual overview for this process.

Start with asking your current and potential users for input--and remind yourself that you are not your users. As Jason told us, "the main point in building something for users is to build something they need. If what you build is burdensome to your users, they will find another way to get what they want ."

Assessing the site early and often is key. Once you have a prototype, even if it's on paper, make sure the site works for your users! This doesn't need to be costly, or take a lot of time. The experts told us that you can get useful feedback from just five or six users. At first, the team found that hard to believe--but we were wrong, and the the experts were right! (Just be sure to get feedback at different stages along the way...)

We've conducted successful usability tests for at several national HIV/AIDS conferences. We give participants different sample tasks and then observe how they use the site--what they click on, what their reactions are, where their eyes are drawn, and how they interact with the information.

Another usability technique is an expert review. This involves asking usability experts to evaluate the site and provide input about things that might be problematic.

We often think of usability for websites, but it is equally important for new media products. For example, if you're developing a podcast, ask some of your listeners questions such as:

  • How useful do you find the information?
  • Do you find the podcast easy to understand?
  • Does the podcast keep your attention?

Blogs can also benefit from usability testing (and we'll be doing that in next week's post). The beauty of a blog (and many other forms of social media) is that there are mechanisms inherent to the tool, such as the comments feature, that facilitate gathering information from users.

Ginny reminded us that we have to plan for, and test, more than the navigation. "From the beginning you should also be thinking about the content." She told us that we need to ask ourselves, "Whom are you talking to? What are your key messages? What do people need to hear?"

Usability and public health
Ginny shared with us an example of how usability can have an impact on public health. She explained, "The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries handles workers' compensation payments, which can be a complicated process. When they developed their website, they used a technique called "personas" to imagine their user--a young construction worker who has fallen off a ladder, is in pain, is worried about money, and is not very computer-savvy. The result is a very usable website that really considers the needs of their users."

Where can you go to learn more about usability?
At we find the following resources and organizations particularly useful:

In the meantime, we'll be conducting a quick assessment of this blog, and will report our findings in next week's post. Stay tuned!