Usability is a Conversation 174

Making your site more usable is really the art of making it easy for visitors to do what you want them to do.

Whether that’s coming to grips with what your site is about, commenting, subscribing, contacting you or buying your product, usability gets results.

“Usability” can seem like a pretty abstract term, though. What does it really mean? What does it involve? How do I get it? Do I have it already?

In this post, I want to discuss just how useful it is to think of your site’s usability as conversational.

Let’s talk

When you visit a new website or blog, you — and every other visitor — will be internally asking it some questions.

First, I want to show you an internal conversation between a visitor and a website lacking in usability. I’m using the image to represent a hypothetical website. (The yellow photo is by Flickr photographer bettybraun.)

Visitor: “Hi. You don’t know me. I was just wondering… what is this place?”

Site: “If you head to my About page, you’ll see that I’ve got two kids, a lovely wife, and that I live in the Bay Area. I also really like snowboarding.”

Visitor: “That’s… that’s all great — maybe we can talk about it later — but I’d still just like to know, uh, where I am. You know — what this place is, what you do here. That kind of thing.

Site: “Oh, you want to know, like, what sorts of things I write about, whether my content is worth your time — all that stuff?”

Visitor: “Exactly. Can you tell me?”

Site: “Why don’t you just read a few of my posts?”

Visitor: “Well… I’m kinda busy. There are about a hundred things on my to-read list. Why should I do you the favor of reading your content when you haven’t even explained what it’s about? It could be about model trains. I hate model trains.”

Site: “OK, yeah, I appreciate that. Here’s a compromise: you write a list of what I need to improve on the site, and I’ll take a look at it later in the week. Sound OK?”

Visitor: “Well… sure. That could be satisfying, in a way I can’t really explain. How do you want me to contact you when I’ve written it?”

Site: “You’ve got to ask me to tell you about myself. Then I’ll give you my contact details.”

Visitor: “That doesn’t make sense.”

Site: “Yeah it does. You can’t just ask: ‘How do I contact you?’ Oh, click on the contact page. That’s too simple. You’ve got to go to my About page again. You’ve got to read through that stuff about my snowboarding medals, then you get to my email address down the bottom.”

Visitor: “You know what… I think I’m just going to go check Google Reader. Maybe… maybe Kathy Sierra is blogging again. I just like to check sometimes.”

Site: “Hey — wait… you’re really going to miss out on some great stuff!”

Visitor: “Yeah — like what?”

Site: “If you’d just read my posts…”

* * *

I think the conversation shows how crippled a blog with bad usability really is. For all we know, poor Mr. Site could have created the blogging equivalent of the great American novel. What’s the use, though, if nobody feels compelled to read it?

Here’s the kind of conversation you do want happening on your blog.

Visitor: “Hi. You don’t know me. I was just wondering… what is this place?”

Site: “Hi there. You’ll see from the tag-line: “Making freelancers better,” that this blog is written for freelancers of all kinds. You can probably guess that the emphasis is on advice and tips. If you want some more information, just ask.”

Visitor: “Yeah, that would be good. You see, I’m a freelance coder. I mainly work on web apps and that sort of thing. I’m just wondering whether your content is written for people like me, or if it’s mainly for freelance writers, designers, those sorts of people. I’m just going to click on your About page — that will tell me, right?”

Site: “Yeah. As you can see from the first couple of sentences, the content I produce here is really written with all freelancers in mind. I actually worked as a freelance coder for about a year, but I do design mostly now.”

Visitor: “Right. And I see you’ve been working as a freelancer for nine years all up. You must really know your stuff.”

Site: “Well, I should hope so. You can see some examples of posts I’m really proud of towards the top of the sidebar. That’s all the stuff I think new visitors should get started with.”

Visitor: “Oh, wow. 101 Free Productivity Tools to Supercharge Your Freelancing. I’ve been thinking about my productivity a lot lately. Your other posts look great too. You know, I’m thinking of giving you a trial in my feed reader. How can I subscribe?”

Site: “You can see the orange RSS button just above those popular posts you’re looking at.”

Visitor: “That was easy. You know, I was also thinking about writing a guest-post for a freelance blog, and yours looks pretty popular. How would I contact you about that?”

Site: “There’s the Contact page, right next to my About page. There’s a form right on the page, so it should only take a minute.”

Visitor: “Fantastic. Will do. But first, I’ve got to bookmark your 101 Productivity Tools post. And you know what, for a change, I’m actually going to read it!”

* * *

What kind of conversation does your site have with every new visitor?