Using your website should be easy.

I like when technology is stupid simple.  If you’re a child of the 80’s like me, you remember the Atari 2600 controller.  It was a no-brainer.  In looking at it, you knew what to do with it.  One button to push, a joystick to move around.  It’s why my Dad and I got sucked into Space Invaders when I had chicken pox as a kid and a friend lent us their new Atari – because neither of us needed to know how to do anything to start having fun.

The first few iterations of the iPhone and it’s operating system (iOS) were like this too.  One big button on the whole device.  Grandparents could figure that out.  Children.  It’s part of why the iPhone took off like it did and held a special appeal from Android devices that had multiple hardware buttons to think about.  But as users’ needs and expectations have matured and grown more sophisticated, Apple has developed more and more nuanced ways to interact with their devices.  While this has made for awesome features, it feels like a lot of secret society stuff – you have to be a nerd like me to know about them.

My Dad and I got sucked into Space Invaders when I had chicken pox as a kid because neither of us needed to know how to do anything to start having fun.

Our websites can have similar problems if we’re not careful.  Too much content, too many features, or too many things to do can confuse and overwhelm users.  And often it’s just simple, easily corrected mistakes that can take our users out of the flow of the mission they’re on and the outcome we hope for them.

Apple’s super secret double probation Music app features

My wife and I were on a plane a few weeks ago and she was frustrated because she couldn’t figure out how to turn off shuffle on her iPhone’s Music app. I had to show her how the narrow, nondescript song title bar is actually a button that opens up a whole bunch of options. And the only reason I knew that was because when the Music app was last redesigned I had the same question and had to google it. And I’m what they call a power user.

See those three little dots on the right side of the “button”?  That’s a common convention for “click or tap me, there are options here.”  But this just compounds the mess – tapping on those three dots does open additional features (like favorite the song or add to playlist), but they’re different features than what happens if you tap the middle section, where the song title is.  So there’s an obvious play button on the far left, a sort-of-obvious “more here to do” button on the far right, and nothing at all obvious that you should tap the song title to do some really useful stuff like shuffle or repeat.  It’s pretty ridiculous.

Just about every time – honestly without exception – that a family member asks me to help them out with something on their iPhone, I notice how low the screen brightness is and I swipe up from the bottom to turn it up. (I don’t know why low screen brightness is a chronic issue, but it appears it is. At least in my family.) Almost every time the person is stunned that they could do that, totally unaware that this extra control panel for screen brightness.  Bluetooth and airplane mode, volume – even a flashlight and calculator! – is available yet hidden to them.  Without getting into a whole thing about the bloated interfaces of today’s devices, think about how absurd this is.  There is no reason a person who’s not a technonerd would know this is a function of their glass brick – that you should swipe from off the screen to on the screen in order to do a thing.  (I get the same response with Notification Center.)

Create a simple and obvious user experience

This is called usability.  Also the user experience, or – to guys like me – UX.  Good usability means your website is easy to use.  A basic way to do that – don’t make your users run errands for you. Identify the preferred outcome of a page on your site and then hit people over the head with it. Want people to call you? Don’t bury your phone number inside a Contact page or in tiny text way at the bottom of the screen. Want them to email you? Then put a form or your email address right there where it’s easy to see. A common error is a sentence like, “Just call us and we’ll be happy to talk,” without immediately following up with a phone number. It’s easy to overlook, until it isn’t – once you start to notice this common mistake it irritates you how often you see it online. It’s not the user’s responsibility to hunt down your phone number, after all.

Forgetting for a second what horrible usability the example above is from Apple, and how esoteric iOS devices are increasingly becoming for average, everyday not-nerds, it’s a great example of Apple making its users run errands for them. Go through a tutorial, read a help article, google it, swipe through an onboarding activity to “see what’s new” – those are all crutches, and poor ones at that. When we care about our visitors, we should treat them like guests in our home. We take their coats, we don’t tell them to figure out where to put them. We bring a drink to them, we don’t vaguely wave in the direction of the fridge. The same is true with our web experiences – especially as web experience are getting more dynamic, robust, and interactive. Don’t tell your users where to go – gently guide them there. Don’t ask them to do stuff for you – give them all the tools they need to easily and instinctively do the thing they want to do.

When we assume things of our users, we inevitably make it hard for them to use. When we do that we isolate them, alienate them, and ultimately erode their confidence in us. Keep it simple. Keep it obvious.

Here’s what I’d like you to do next:

Comb through your website like you’re not you. Like you’re a customer or prospect. You might even hit up a friend or relative – I actually call this my mother-in-law test. How much are you leaning on insider knowledge or expertise to understand how things work, or what words are, or where things are? That doesn’t mean you should dumb-down your language – you should be speaking in exactly the language your target audience expects and is comfortable with. But beware of things that make the most sense to you or your team, or where any kind of learning curve or friction to understanding is introduced.

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