by Lori Yaverbaum

I can´t wait to curl up in bed tonight with a good instruction manual.

Sounds strange—and pretty unbelievable, doesn’t it? That’s because it’s quicker—and more fun—to jump right in and start using a new product. As such, companies are devoting more and more resources to studying how people interact both physically and psychologically with technology in an effort to make their products and services so intuitive that an instruction manual is virtually unnecessary. The same idea applies to website usability.

What is usability?

Simply put, website usability is measured by how efficiently a person can obtain information or successfully perform a task when visiting a particular site. Ease of use results from how the site is structured and the way in which content is presented.

Why is usability important?

Consider your own behavior. Did you ever visit a website and find that it was:

Confusing and difficult to locate what you were looking for?

Time consuming to move from page to page?

Hard to read the content?

If so, my guess is that you quickly found an alternative site. The Internet is full of options, so why waste time being frustrated? Statistics show that once you’ve left that site, you’re not going to return. This clearly presents a lost opportunity for that particular company.

Improve your image—without speaking a word

Maximizing the usability of your website enhances the credibility of your business, is an indication of quality customer service, and, subsequently, increases your bottom line. For example:

A local newspaper has quoted you. From that article, 15 people search for you online. By applying usability standards, you’ve helped Google pick up your site, so all 15 people easily find you. This means that 15 people who might have called are now able to get an impression of who you are and learn about your services before picking up the phone.

By reading the content on your site, which, again, because of usability standards, is simply laid out, 10 of the prospects determine that you are not a good fit for their needs. You may be located too far away or may not offer the services they want. The other five, however, realize that you could be exactly what they’re looking for. So, instead of 15 people calling your office for information, you now have five good leads—a much better use of your time!

Usability basics

In addition to graphic design, basic website usability standards also incorporate navigation, text, and content.


A visitor finds his or her way around a website by clicking on tabs, buttons, or links. These navigation tools are generally located along the top of the page or down the left-hand side, but may appear anywhere.

It’s important that your navigation is clear and that the “language” is familiar to your visitors. For example, while you might think it’s obvious what VUL stands for, someone outside of your field (but in your target market) may not know that VUL represents “variable universal life.” Do not use acronyms as titles on your navigation buttons. Also, be sure to define an acronym the first time it appears on any page.

In addition, if you have more than seven or eight main navigation items, you should try to create subtopics within higher-level categories. For example, imagine the following topics are the main navigation buttons on your homepage:


About Us

Our Team

Our Philosophy

Company History

Services We Offer

Why We’re Different

Company A Clients

Company B Clients

Company C Clients

Market Information

Contact Us

By creating subtopics, your visitors are able to quickly scan the main categories and click on those for which they want more detailed information.


About Us

(subtopics: Our Team, Our Philosophy, Company History)

Services We Offer

Why We’re Different

Existing Clients

(subtopics: Company A, Company B, Company C)

Market Information

Contact Us

Text and content

It is widely agreed that the most important aspects of creating a usable site are the choice of font and the presentation of the content. These elements go hand in hand and apply to all online content, including email. Online reading behavior is very different from how we read print materials. As a result, content needs to be “readable” and “scannable” from an online perspective.

Readability is defined as how easily your content can be read and understood. It is a combination of how legible the words are on the screen and the writing style of the content. Studies show that some font types are easier to read online. For example, if you type the same word, in the same font size, but change the font, you will notice a difference. Arial, Verdana, and Tahoma are easier to read when viewed online. These are excellent font styles for your content. In addition, you should present your content at a minimum of a 10-point font. If your audience is mostly over age 65, consider using a 12-point font.

Furthermore, the contrast between text color and background is very important for legibility. Black text on a white background presents the highest contrast and is most desirable for reading ease.

Keep in mind that readers should not have to filter out unnecessary information. Try to cut approximately 50 percent of what you write in a print piece for online reading. Eliminate extraneous words, marketing hype, “sales” language, unnecessary storytelling, welcome language, and lengthy instructions.

In addition, you should try to write at a seventh- or eighth-grade reading level for the general population. This isn’t because your target audience is uneducated; rather, it’s that it’s much easier for readers to grasp a message and retain information when it’s simply written. You can measure the reading level of your content using Microsoft Word. Go to Tools > Spelling and Grammar> Options and check the box for “Show readability statistics.” The Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level appears after you run spell check.


Just as important as readability is scannability. Our eyes are drawn to various parts of a page. For instance, in the United States, we generally read from top to bottom and left to right, so the upper left corner is prime real estate. When reading online, visitors to your site will naturally scan the page until something catches their interest. That’s why it is important to write in an inverted pyramid style with the most important information first.

Our eyes are also attracted to larger or bolded text and links, which aid scanning efforts. Use titles and headlines to organize your writing, bold text to highlight your main points, bulleted lists when applicable, and links to connect visitors to relevant and/or more detailed information.

Another scanning aid is to “chunk” content into small pieces, keeping sentences to fewer than 20 words and paragraphs to fewer than six sentences.

It’s not rocket science

By applying some general usability principles to your website (and other online communications), you significantly increase the chances that a visitor to your site will find what he or she needs—easily. This helps your image and saves you—and your visitors—time.

It doesn’t matter whether your goal is to service existing clients or attract prospects. By applying some simple usability concepts to your website, you’ll have more time to focus on both.

Lori Yaverbaum is a Certified Usability Analyst and the manager of Web Services and Usability at Commonwealth Financial Network in Waltham, MA.