IT intelligence: Website usability

Sue Fidler on what Amazon and eBay can teach charities about website usability.

There are two types of website usability: the one that we have had drilled into our heads about contrasts, tags and tabs, and the one we haven't really started talking about - yet.

Making your site accessible for blind, partially sighted and disabled users is an essential part of designing a good website. Making it usable for your visitors is critical.

Historically, we have learnt to talk about visitors rather than users, but in the world of a billion websites, most of us do not surf; we visit sites because we have clear reasons.

But most sites do not think about users and what they are looking for. We have taken brochure-ware to a level at which every piece of content we have is loaded - simply because we have it. Whether there is an audience or a purpose is irrelevant. Because there are no overheads to adding copy, we load as much as is possible. We have been told that content is king, so we have created a morass of content.

But what do users want? If they are new to your charity, they want a snapshot of who you are and what you do - something that can be displayed on the homepage with a few choice statements and images. If they know your charity, they have come for new information, to buy or donate, to volunteer or to campaign. Yet most of our sites bury this usable content under pages of copy about why, what and who we are.

The sites we love and use the most, such as Amazon, eBay and the BBC's website, give us what we want on the homepage and have exceptionally clear navigation tools. There are no pages about why they exist, because they exist for a clear purpose.

When we start honing our sites to meet user needs, and put in-depth content at the bottom rather than the top, they will be more usable.

- Sue Fidler is an independent charity ICT and internet consultant.

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