There’s no question that the world of online marketing has become an increasingly visual place. The demand for visual and video content is booming, promotional emails are graphics-heavy, and websites aren’t complete without predominant imagery and interactive details. For better or worse, aesthetics have become a crucial consideration in most marketing efforts — so much so that a poor choice in font style or a website that looks like it’s stuck in early 2000s could severely hurt your brand’s credibility.
But there’s one thing that should never be sacrificed for the sake of aesthetics, one aspect of design that marketers cannot afford to forget (but too often do); one factor that could singlehandedly undermine all of your marketing initiatives completely — and that’s usability.
Usability refers to how easily a user can navigate your product or website, and takes into account such components as learnability (how quickly are users able to master basic tasks?), memorability (how quickly can users regain proficiency after a period of not using your product?), and errors (how often do users make mistakes, at what cost, and how quickly are they able to recover?).
If you’re starting to suspect that you may have not given these components quite as much consideration as you should have, let’s address three basic questions of usability, as well as the best approach for testing and optimizing for a user-friendly experience.
Is my website navigable?
The connection for marketers is obvious here: your website is where most of your marketing materials live, and if visitors can’t quickly and easily find the information they need, they will leave. Attractive design may momentarily hold their attention, but it can’t make up for navigation that is not user-friendly. Just a few examples of where website usability and marketing messages meet:
What your product is and how it can help should be apparent from the moment a visitor lands on your homepage. If this information isn’t obvious, no one will bother to look for it.
Place calls to action right next to your value proposition. Would you like to download a free white paper? Great, Get it Now!…not after scrolling to the bottom of this page.
Make sure your site is predictable (sounds like a bad thing, right?). You want visitors to be able to predict what they’ll find as they follow a path through your website — this is called information scent. Visitors will follow this trail as long as they believe they’re getting closer to the information they seek, but if the trail leads them somewhere unexpected, they’ll give up — or worse, feel deceived.
Is my product user-friendly?
Sure, it’s easier to market a user-friendly product, but product usability affects your daily marketing efforts even more than you may think. For one thing, adjusting your product to meet users’ needs helps with client retention, making your job easier. For another, understanding how clients use your product helps you to create content they will find valuable.
In an ideal world, your company will have a usability analyst on staff — someone to form a liaison between the engineers building the product and the people putting it to use. But if your company lacks the resources for this position, you, the marketer, will need to step in. Talk to your engineering team first, and figure out the best way to receive feedback and communicate suggestions to them. Consider setting up a user forum or idea exchange to give your users a voice, and, equally important, offer to help your engineers recruit users for usability testing.
Am I conducting usability testing?
“Usability is not an end product; rather it should be thought of as an emergent property…usability starts from the beginning, and in the beginning there is the customer.”
-Kipp Lynch & Simon Gillmore, Usability: The Key to Product Success
What does this quote mean for you? Observe your users in action before you even start designing. As usability expert Jakob Nielsen advises, test your old design, evaluate your competitor’s designs, develop a few iterations of your own, decide on a final design — then test again. Taking a proactive approach to usability rather than a reactive one can make the difference between having a product that is intuitive and user-friendly, and a product that is tolerable to use until a competitor comes out with something better.
And so I rest my case: whether or not you have to be directly involved with the usability testing process, website and product usability have an enormous impact on marketing success, and every marketer should have a solid understanding of these components. For some great resources on usability components, be sure to check out Jakob Nielsen’s site, as well as this article by Kipp Lynch and Simon Gillmore. And don’t forget to share your thoughts with us in our comments section!