Zen and the Art of Website Usability

Web design has come a long way since the Wild West days of the 1990s. Back then, the virtual horizon was wide open and full of potential, but each rough and tumble town scattered throughout the land was populated by the likes of scrolling text, animated backgrounds, and other such shady characters; it was all truly a sight to make eyes sore. As the years passed, a certain form of Darwinism crept throughout the e-frontier effectively removing the less desirable design aspects from the gene pool. Or at least relegating them to the far corners of the land while shiny, new skyscrapers of websites began to appear.

Today, the Internet is a bustling metropolis. Web designers have hung up their ten-gallon hats and put on three-piece suits, so to speak. As this evolution occurred, for better or worse, it largely disregarded the ancient wisdom of the East; that oversight is now correcting itself, in the form of usability, which is ultimately just an evolutionary simplification… and, as we’ll see here, so very zen-like.

A fairly new word in the lexicon of web design, usability represents not just functionality but a wide array of parameters that fundamentally determine how quickly and easily a visitor to a given website is able to achieve a desired result. “Desired result” is somewhat a misnomer in that the desire of the visitor (perhaps to locate information) may differ slightly from the desire of the website owner (likely to generate a lead or close a sale).  Usability is the lynchpin that bridges these desires, creating a win-win for both the website owner and visitor.

Optimum usability of a website is largely determined by the specific type of website; a realty website and an e-commerce website serve very different purposes and will have very different features. There are, however, two fundamental aspects of modern web design that are universally applicable, and when understood and integrated, will absolutely increase the overall usability of any website: simplicity and responsiveness. Simplicity isn’t as simple as it may initially sound, surprisingly. Tongue-twisters aside, it can sometimes take an astute eye to objectively determine what should (and shouldn’t) be removed from your website for the greater good. Rest assured though, there is more content and information on your website than there need be. Less is more.

Begin by removing instances of duplicate content (your website undoubtedly repeats itself here and there). Determine the single best location for a piece of information, then summarily remove all other appearances of the same information throughout your entire website. Without going into too much detail, this process alone will render your website much more elegant, more easily searchable (for your visitors as well as search engines), and it will make managing the website later much more, well, manageable in that information will only need to be updated in a single location for future revisions of the website, as opposed to tracking down multiple instances of (for example) your pricing structure, which may evolve or fluctuate over time. A single instance of a piece of information leaves significantly less room for future editing errors. Not to be redundant, but less will always be more.

The neighbor of simplicity is clarity. As the fluff of a website is minimized and the actual content becomes optimized, it is often inevitable that the overall clarity be increased. For those extenuating, fringe circumstances out there, do be sure not to inadvertently somehow decrease overall clarity. Everything is a balance; don’t sacrifice clarity for brevity, because then you’ll have neither. But then you likely will have some confused customers that will reach out to you via alternate means, thus causing you greater expense on the bottom line.

We’re touching on many points beyond the scope of our conversation here, but as this is an exercise in zen, we understand the interconnectivity of all things, do we not?  Be sure not to let the mind wander too far, or for too long.

As we continue down the path of simplicity, and are joined by clarity, we will eventually be met by consistency. Ensuring that there are no contradictory statements anywhere on your website is paramount, as your legitimacy will decline exponentially for each occurrence. No matter the niche or industry, the aim is to always increase relevance and influence within your targeted demographic; inconsistencies on your website will accomplish the exact opposite.

As we reflect on simplicity, let us now take a deep breath and begin to embrace responsiveness. Fair warning that it gets a tiny bit tech-y for these next few paragraphs. One more deep breath… and here we go:

Responsive web design refers simply to a website’s ability to display the version of itself most appropriate for the device on which it is being viewed. This obviously manifested as a result of cellular phones, tablets, and other such mobile devices rising to prominence. Browsing a non-responsive website on a mobile device is highly inconvenient and will result in an increased amount of lost traffic as we humans are only going to increase our web browsing on such devices. Having a mobile version of your website is no longer avoidable, at this point it is best to simply accept this fact in the most zen-like way possible… try not to throw anything!

Fortunately, every website building platform in popular use today provides some type of concession in regard to creating or serving a mobile-friendly version of a given website. The solution can often be a quick installation of a simple plug-in via your website’s back-end dashboard. For highly custom websites, it will be best to employ the services of an experienced web designer to ensure everything is configured correctly to behave in the proper manner.

Whether we like it or not, the Internet is going to continue to evolve and certain technologies may battle it out for a while (ala VHS vs. Betamax) before a clear-cut winner is declared and becomes a standardization. Usability is the current standardization.

One must walk both the path of simplicity and the path of responsiveness, in tandem, in order to arrive at the destination of usability. These paths can be as easy or as difficult as you choose for them to be, but it is ultimately a path that everyone will walk eventually. Take it one step and one breath at a time; keep it zen-like!

About the Author

Sean Valant is the social media manager for HostGator.  He is not very Zen-like. You can find him online @seanvalant