Take a look at this picture, it goes some way to explaining why usability has never been more important and will become increasingly so in the future. But what do the lines mean and what can we do in practice to ensure our sites take account of these changes?
The growth of the internet has brought less technical users
In its early years, the Internet was used largely by people who knew the ins and outs of computers, interfaces, controls and so on. They were conversant with how the Web worked and were passionate about technology in general. Now, however, people of all ages and levels of experience are jumping online who have significantly less interest in the Web for what it is, they just want to get stuff done more conveniently and just expect things to work.
So, you can see the average level of user ability has declined to the point where you can now assume a sizeable portion of visitors to your site will be novices or beginners to this whole web thingy. However, as the amount of what you can do with a website has risen, so has the complexity of interfaces and the level of interaction required to use them. With the massive growth in online content, websites can be a maze of pages for users to navigate which can pose a challenge to some.
Finally, there is the stratospheric growth in Internet use. Whereas once, it was something users looked at in the evening – ever mindful of those creeping phone bills, now it is always on, accessed over multiple devices and by all members of the family. It’s near impossible to complete everyday tasks without using the Web in some way. Buying weekly groceries, confirming an appointment at the hospital, paying bills, buying car tax can all be completed online compared to only a few years ago.Many organisations such as the NHS and HMRC are actively encouraging people to go online instead of taking up valuable staff time.
Improving usability is here to stay
So, good usability on a site and a rewarding user experience are here to stay and increasingly important to attract and keep visitors. Good user experience can only be created based on observing users and interpreting data, not some magical insight from the site owner, the sheer dynamism of your designers or by copying competitor sites. Examining what users do and why they do it is the key, as we discussed here, Design your website on what users do not what they say while getting a good set of profiles of your typical users is also important.
Ultimately, you need to consider the core design issues; what the user’s goal is, and what they want to achieve on the site, get that right and you have won half the battle.
The complexity of Web technology is likely to keep increasing
Looking at those lines, the remaining potential user base can only lower the level of general user ability, while boosting the growth curve. Whilst Web technology and Internet-enabled devices look like they will remain on a steep development curve to increase the gap between user abilities and interface complexity. The importance of good usability and seamless user experience is only likely to increase and this is evident in the sheer number of web design resources citing user experience as an accepted discipline alongside the more established ones of design, development and search engine marketing. It is important that usability can remain integrated into the design process for future website and gadget innovation to ensure the complexity gap doesn’t grow even further. Which moves us on to the next question, Will your site benefit from exposure to a wider, potentially global audience and how do you think you would go about attracting them?
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About Damian Rees
Damian has worked as a usability and user experience consultant for over 13 years. He has worked in senior roles within companies like the BBC and National Air Traffic Services where he has researched and designed for users in a variety of different contexts including web applications, voice recognition, and air traffic control interfaces. Follow Damian on twitter @damianrees