In light of the positive feedback received for A Beginner’s Guide to Making Your Site More Usable, I’ve composed a 19 point checklist that should be useful to any blogger looking for a practical way to evaluate (and improve) the usability of their blog. Many of the principles here will apply to websites, as well.
1. Does your site have an ‘About’ page?
The importance of this element is succinctly explained by usability expert, Jakob Neilsen:
It’s a simple matter of trust. Anonymous writings have less credence than something that’s signed. And, unless a person’s extraordinarily famous, it’s not enough to simply say that Joe Blogger writes the content. Readers want to know more about Joe. Does he have any credentials or experience in the field he’s commenting on? (Even if you don’t have formal credentials, readers will trust you more if you’re honest about that fact, set forth your informal experience, and explain the reason for your enthusiasm.) [Source]
2. Does your site have a ‘Contact’ page?
This page will be a first port of call for readers wanting to connect with you. Bloggers do tend to include contact information, but often as part of their ‘About’ page. This is quite counter-intuitive for the user. For example, if you wanted to ask someone for their email address, would you do it by asking: “Could you tell me about yourself?”
3. Are your headlines a meaningful preview of the article?
Vague headlines like “You Won’t Believe This” or “Some Thoughts on Politics” are bad usability and about as gripping as a waxed floor. Your headlines should encapsulate why a reader should pay attention to your article, and if possible, preview what they will find there.
4. Is the function of each element on your site obvious to your target audience?
An Alexa widget on a cooking blog is bad usability. In fact, Alexa, Technorati, and any other blogger/webmaster widgets are usability stumbling blocks on any site not about blogging/webmaster topics.
Two popular WordPress plug-ins I think well-and-truly break this usability principle in all contexts are the Share This! social media plug-in and Popularity Contest.
Share This! is an incredibly ambiguous term. It could mean any number of things, and when a reader isn’t sure what clicking on something will do, chances are she will not do it. My advice would be to stick with specific buttons for each social media service instead.
The Popularity Contest plug-in sticks ‘Popularity: 3%’ or another low percentile at the bottom of each post, and is broken in two ways: it makes no sense to those who don’t have the plug-in, and secondly, no-one wants to see a positive variable and a low percentile (i.e. Honesty: 2%)
5. Is it clear where each link will lead?
Regular readers will know this is a habit I’m trying to develop over time. Even if you want to hyperlink the text ‘click here’ (a strategy Copyblogger has suggested will increase click-throughs) it’s important that the text leading up to the link explains where the ‘click here’ will lead. If you’re using keyworded anchor text it should serve as a mini-preview of what you’re linking to.
6. Is your text readable?
If you suspect visitors are not thoroughly reading your articles, perhaps because their comments indicate only a partial understanding of what you’ve written, it may be because your text is difficult to read. This is an endemic problem because many bloggers only read their posts as they’re composing them and not once they’re published. I’d suggest getting a few friends to look at your posts and describe whether or not it is easy to read for them.
If you’re using a small font, or a serif font (like Georgia, or Times New Roman) — two trends I’ve seen growing more prevalent in recent times — then your content may be difficult to read.
7. Do your posts contain whitespace or images?
It’s important to use frequent paragraph breaks in web writing. Images will also make your posts easier to read. Each post is a wall of text in its unformatted form. Your goal should be to break it up into a series of bite-sized chunks.
8. Are you making good use of sub-headings?
I don’t think we should ever settle for scannable content. Sub-headings work to signpost your logic, to give readers an angle to approach the following paragraph, and to lay out your sequence of ideas. Sub-headings don’t make it easier to scan — they make it easier to read. If you want readers only to scan your posts, don’t format them.
9. Do your posts fluidly allow readers to comment when finished?
This is as simple as adding a comment link to the bottom of your posts. Most blog designs readily accommodate this but I still encounter some that don’t. If your comment link is under your headline, it’s in the wrong place.
10. Is your feed icon above the fold?
There’s a compelling reason to adhere to this standard: you will get more subscribers. Your feed button should be prominent, but it should never insult the intelligence of your readers: (I’ve occasionally seen feed buttons as big as a child’s hand!).
11. Does your header image link to your main page?
Many readers expect that clicking on your header will return them to your main page, and it’s become something of a web standard. If this is not possible with your design (for example, if your header image is the background for a cell), make sure there is a prominent link home near your header. Even if your header already links back to your main page, I think an additional text link is good usability.
12. Is there padding between your embedded images and text?
Text running into the sides of images is a nightmare for readers. Sentences are, after all, supposed to end in full-stops, not pictures of boats!
13. Are there wide margins around your posts?
Margins around text are fundamental to readability. If your blog posts run almost into your sidebar, or to the side of the screen, you should make your post column narrower.
14. Are your posts less than 2/3 a screen-length wide?
Contrary to popular belief, wide post margins are not good for readability. There is a reason newspaper columns are as narrow as they are. Compare, for example, the readability of Blogging Tips with that of Signal vs. Noise.
15. Are you making your best posts easily accessible?
Readers shouldn’t have to excavate killer posts from your archives. Further, I think any blogger who’s not highlighting their best stuff is selling short the long-term effort they’ve put into building their blog. A quick list of benefits: it shows readers your site is packed with value, it will ensure your best posts continue to generate comments and inbound links, and it will establish that the sum of your blog is more than just your most recent posts.
16. Are your color choices conducive to usability?
Black text on white is easiest to read, followed by black on light. Any writing on a dark background is hard to read, but worst is light text on a light background, or dark text on a dark background. James Reggio’s personal site is, in my opinion, an example of minimalism winning at the expense of usability. If each line of text was the color of the central two lines, it could be transformed into a usable and functional minimalist design.
17. Are your links easy to pick out?
A good practical tip to unsure this is to double format your links. They could be a different color to the plain text and underlined, or bold and underlined, for example. Often one form of formatting isn’t enough (for example, links only in different colors can be hard to pick out if the color is similar to that of your plain text. Underlined links not in a different color can look like underlined plain text, also.)
18. Are your images meaningful in their context?
Including images in your posts is not a good in and of itself. If they don’t relate, at least tangentially, or metaphorically, to your content, they will distract readers. Images should capture the essence of your content, or create an appropriate atmosphere for consuming it.
19. Are your essential navigational elements easily accessible?
The biggest culprit in breaking this usability principle is what I call the ‘footer ribbon’ (though perhaps designers have another name for it). It’s everywhere — even the ProBlogger redesign! The ‘footer ribbon’, if you have one, is just above your footer, beneath the content, and usually contains navigational elements, categories, and other important stuff.
To me, this is like throwing a party and serving finger-food under the table instead of on it. How many readers will look for important navigational functions in the nether regions of your main page? My advice would be to simplify your sidebar, move only those footer ribbon elements that are essential into your sidebar, and delete the ribbon.
Have I missed anything?
If I included every possible usability gaffe in this post it would be gargantuan, so I’ve tried to strip it down to the most essential principles. If you’ve got ticks next to all these, your site should have a good level of usability.
If I’ve missed anything important, or if you’d like advice on implementing some of these principles, please let me know in the comments section of this post.