In my travels, I have seen a lot of “LIP SERVICE” applied to the subject of Web site usability.

I have seen sites and collateral that discuss its importance, tested software that claims to improve it, and worked with consultants that speak to it. But it is rare that I meet a person or firm that truly understands usability and its applications. So, I say to all of us marketers out there, Cavaet Emptor!
Allow me to start by simply stating what Web site usability is in its most rudimentary form. I will also illuminate what it is not and then, finally, juxtapose the two in their effect on your marketing efforts.
Web site usability defines how easy (or difficult) it is for your users to find what they are looking for. That’s it! Now, let’s dispel the most common myths of Web site usability so that we can begin to understand why it is so important to your marketing efforts.


Myth #1: Web site usability is a consulting service focused on how to improve conversions.

While Web site usability will make a tremendous impact on your conversion rate, it is not the same as simply trying to improve conversion rates based on testing or analytic data. “Conversion-focused” efforts determine how you can get your customers to do “what YOU want them to do” on your Web site (i.e. how you can get them to register, to purchase online, to download a whitepaper, etc.). “Usability-focused” efforts, on the other hand, determine how you can help your customers do “what THEY want to do” (i.e. helping them find the information that they are searching for). See the difference? While it may seem subtle at first, understanding this discrepancy is critical to truly improving conversion rates and ROI.

If you focus solely on A/B testing data or Web analytics data to try to improve conversion paths, you will only see incremental improvements. For example, you may shorten a registration form or change the nomenclature/position of your whitepaper offer and, as a result, experience a conversion rate jump from 2% to 2.2%. However, if you truly help your customer find what they want, their propensity to give you what YOU want can increase by factors of 2X – 3X or more!


Myth #2: Customer surveys, A/B or multivariate testing and general feedback on your site are related to usability.

Customer surveys only give feedback on your visitors’ perceptions about certain aspects of your site and is highly tainted by self-selection (i.e., those visitors who are the least satisfied with your site are the least likely to participate). While these surveys can provide some useful understanding of trends and general thinking, they will NEVER answer “WHY” customers do what they do – and that is the information you need to answer the “HOW” of effectively restructuring your Web site.

A/B or multivariate testing is the science of comparing one element (or multiple) in relation to another. But all you are really doing is introducing a number of variables and testing them against one another. The results will ONLY be relative to one another and NOT to the overall effectiveness of any given site or page tested. So, you will only become incrementally better at what it is you created – for example, if you have a poor landing page, you will only improve that poor landing page, as opposed to creating an effective landing page based on known research and then building on a proven foundation.

A/B or multivariate testing pains me particularly, because so many firms test the variants of a particular site to determine which factors are critical to its success. The problem is that 90% of what’s wrong with that site is probably ALREADY KNOWN through available research and basic principles of Web site usability. In the end, the customer is simply testing a flawed product and trying to improve on something that is already fundamentally set up to have less than optimal results. If one can instead apply basic best standards/practices of Web site usability AND THEN test the variants, one will see substantially better results.

Lastly, general feedback indicating how much visitors like your Web site is NO REASON to sleep well at night. What you really need to find out is what the thousands of customers that hit the back button upon landing on your site think and why they did not engage with your site. If we listen only to those who compliment us, we will be lulled into a false sense of security.


Myth #3: Usability is only for those with big marketing budgets.

This may have been true 5 years ago when it took hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn what was expected of a Web site—but today the opposite is true. Much of the research is public domain and the best practices and standards are well formulated and transferable. This is not to say that reading a few articles will make you a usability expert (certified experts are still the way to go), but now you can have a quick and inexpensive usability assessment ($7 -$18k) performed on your site. This will allow you to better understand what rules you are breaking, how they can be fixed, and the resulting impact on your customer experience and overall conversion rates. Once this is accomplished, you can then decide whether you want to take on the more expensive endeavor of true usability testing (some lower cost tools now allow it for under $25k).

My final advice on the subject of Web site usability is to be careful. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, usability is given a lot of lip service and it’s important to be sure that you work with a firm (or consultant) that has a degree or certification in the cognitive science of usability. Anything else is simply conversion consulting, and for that I will refer you back to Myth #1. Remember, it’s all about the user!