Usability principles

How to make your web pages more usable for visitors.


The most effective way to improve the usability of a website is to test it with your users. This can be small scale and relatively cheap.

There are however some general principals that, when utilised, can aid usability.

Make pages scannable

In most situations, users come to the Web with a specific goal, task or question. They aren't there to read; they are there to gather information.

Remember, reading from a screen is a slower and more tiring process than reading in print.

  • Be succinct - use plain English and remove all needless words.
  • Use chunking - arrange text in to short paragraphs.
  • Add regular, meaningful subheadings - the users should know the general content of a page from the subheadings.
  • Use bulleted or numbered lists where appropriate.

Clear navigation

The purpose of website navigation is to provide a clear and smooth route to the information they are looking for.

  • Categorise information based on how the user is likely to look for it, rather than your internal structure.
  • Ensure there is always a clear and meaningful page title along with, where necessary, a short introduction.
  • Add on-page cross-links to other pages in your website that may also be relevant to the user.
  • Unless there is a very good reason to do so, it is best not to use the 'open in a new window' function. When a new window is opened the 'back' button becomes disabled, which is potentially annoying and confusing.
  • This includes making it clear where the user is at all times and never leading the user in to a 'dead-end'.

Use meaningful links

When faced with a sea of links it is important that the user can make a quick and informed decision about which is the right one for them.

  • The link label should clearly differentiate one link from another.
  • Effective links are consistent with, and tell the user something about, the link's destination.
  • Avoid ambiguous 'click here' links, which tell the user nothing about where the link will take them.

Convention helps

Although it is nice to be 'original' and creative when designing a website, it is important to acknowledge that some web conventions need to be followed.

  • A logo in the upper left corner of the page.
  • The main navigation bar down the left-hand side of the page.
  • Breadcrumbs listed horizontally below the logo.
  • Blue underlined links that change colour once visited.
  • No, or limited use of, in-line links.

Generally speaking, web conventions have become web conventions because they work. This is not to say they are the only way to do something, but by following an established convention the user doesn't have to learn 'your way' each time.

Further reading

The University utilises some universal web conventions and this information is based on the work of a number of individuals and organisations who provide guidance online.

These are some resources and articles which go into more depth about many of the points covered:

The World Wide Web Consortium
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). An international consortium that works to develop web standards and guidelines. Jakob Nielsen's Website
Jakob Nielsen's website contains lots of useful articles about user experience, testing, and current developments in approach and thinking about website design and usability.
A US government website, 'Guide to developing usable and useful websites'. Information is centred around four main headings of 'Plan', 'Analyse', 'Design', 'Test and refine'.

Web writing for many interest levels
A good article by Nathan Wallace on writing style for the web.

The Yale Style Guide
Comprehensive guide to planning, designing and producing an effective website.

Jakob Nielsen's website

Some articles by Jakob Nielsen:

Be Succinct! (Writing for the Web)

Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines

Inverted Pyramids in Cyberspace

How Users Read on the Web

Concise, Scannable, and Objective: How to Write for the Web

Why You Only Need to Test With 5 Users

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