Usability is in the details
Although usability practitioners love to show examples of big usability issues with websites and applications, the vast majority of usability issues are typically in the details. By forcing your application users or website visitors to be constantly bothered with more detailed usability issues, you eventually wear down their patience and force them to decide whether to continue being annoyed, or to try a different application or website.
So, you may be asking, “what’s a big usability issue versus a minor or more detailed usability issue?”
Here’s my definition of a minor usability issue:
“A minor usability issue is an issue that is small enough to not cause task failure by itself, but is significant enough to cause additional cognitive load, errors, or an increase in time-on-task.”
Examples of usability issues in the details
As a demonstration of usability being in the details, I’ve identified a few examples of several minor, yet user-annoying usability issues that can wear down the patience of your users. Each of these minor issues in and of itself is not a big enough deal to make a person throw up their hands and storm away from your application or site. But added together, like the straws on a camel’s back, they can and do cause that effect.
The good news: detailed usability issues are typically easier to fix
The good news is; for the vast majority of detailed usability issues, a simple fix is usually all it takes to remove the problem and improve the usability for your users.
Tip: Find your minor usability issues, they’re easier to fix and can reward you with increased performance
After reading this article, have a look at your own applications or websites and identify where there are minor usability issues. Or better yet, observe someone who has little to no experience with your site or application use it. My bet is you’ll probably uncover several minor, yet annoying usability issues just by watching them go through the process. I think you’ll find finding and fixing minor usability issues is the easiest way to improve the usability of your site or application, without resorting to major re-designs.
The details: Several common usability issues
Usability issue #1 – Horizontal and vertical scrolling of important content
Forcing people to scroll both vertically and horizontally in your website or application is a usability issue because it requires more cognitive load (remembering what was read) and motor effort (moving scrollbars) than by simple presenting data with no scroll, or a vertical scroll only.
Trend micro antivirus is in the business of analyzing and recommending actions based on potential computer security risks for their customers. I’m assuming that typically their customers have little to no security knowledge, so the advice (content) Trend micro antivirus provides is very critical for user success.
It’s therefore a minor yet annoying usability detail that Trend micro antivirus displays a pop-up window whenever it detects the need to provide guidance, using horizontal and vertical scroll bars to display this all-important guidance within the pop-up.
In addition, another minor usability detail is the pop-up is not resizable, thus the customer is unable to modify the size of the display to better read the guidance.
Trend micro antivirus displays important security guidance in a horizontally and vertically scrolling pop-up window that is non-resizable.
Usability issue #2 – Non-alphabetical drop down menus
For most drop-down menus, a common best-practice is to use alphabetically ordered listings of links. This is especially true for websites or applications in which users either lack expertise with the subject matter or are infrequent users. The alphabetical ordering of choices helps users scan and find the link they seek.
GoDaddy.com is a domain and hosting company that provides a fairly large assortment of tools for their customers, most of which are accessible via drop-down menus. For their hosting tools, GoDaddy uses a drop-down menu that is not alphabetically ordered. Because users must read the entire list of links prior to determining which to select, this forces additional cognitive load, in essence slowing users down.
Although this may seem minor, if a customer is only infrequently using these tools, they must “re-learn” the list with each visit to the drop-down, causing additional friction and slow-downs. Coupled with many other small yet annoying usability issues, they could be enough to tip the scales and influence the customer to seek another hosting company.
Considering the low price-point for hosting, ANY customer friction is a potential customer-loser for these companies.
GoDaddy’s hosting control center drop-down menus are not alphabetically ordered.
Usability issue #3 – Poor form instructions and label alignment
Forms are the ONLY online tool your potential customers can use to purchase or request your products or services, so poor alignment of form instructions, labels and entry fields are minor yet annoying usability details that should be corrected promptly.
Taleo has a widely-used online application form candidates use to apply for jobs with a company. The Taleo form is quite long, and is often customized based on a company’s needs. However, attention to usability details in form design can slip, meaning the form causes increased cognitive load and decreased performance.
In this example, alignment issues with the email form instructions and label are causing additional cognitive load. The “Please create your password” instruction is right-aligned and thus displayed to the left above the password field. However, the “Re-type new password” instruction is left-aligned and thus is over the field, and not aligned with the rest of the labels. In addition, it is missing the red “required” asterisk, which will result in an error if the user submits the form without the re-typed password. Finally, note that there are no instructions for password length (which in this case is 6 characters minimum) nor for valid versus non-valid characters.
Many form developers today use a separate page for registration information, so that errors with the registration do not cause the rest of the form entry process to fail.
Taleo’s candidate application form demonstrates label alignment issues
Usability issue #4 – Poor alignment of or missing Action buttons
Another usability detail is proper alignment and use of primary (“Submit” or “Go” etc.) and secondary action buttons (“Save & Exit” or “Cancel” etc.). The point to having people use forms is to actually have them complete and send them, and so details with action buttons are important.
Using Taleo’s application form again as an example, the form is quite long, asking for full candidate information including address, prior jobs, demographic information and more. Because of the amount of time it may take to complete such a long form, providing the ability for people to save their partially completed form, and return later to finish it could be very important. However no “Save and exit” or related secondary action form is included (potentially because sign-up has not yet occurred).
In addition, clearly separating action buttons from other entry fields is also important, to reduce confusion as to their purpose. As demonstrated below the Taleo form has the “Submit” button placed apparently inside the visual space created by the horizontal lines above and below “Certificates/Licenses.”
Some people may be confused, wondering if the “Submit” button submits the entire form, or the “Certificates/Licenses” information only.
Conclusion: Usability is in the details
The four examples demonstrate typical minor yet annoying usability issues, highlighting the importance of paying attention to detail when creating a user experience. Although these common minor usability issues won’t cause task-failure by themselves, added together the annoyance factor becomes great enough that many users may decide to either not purchase or order the product or service, or to discontinue use of the application or website altogether, meaning lost customers, revenue and a poor Brand reputation.
It’s in each designer’s and developer’s best interest to pay attention to the little details. That’s because usability is in the details, which helps define the success or failure of the website or application.