Friday, January 20, 2006

Keeping websites simple and easy to use

I learned something about the importance of keeping things simple in the last few months. I had been working on a new website for our community association (it's a big one - 1,300 houses). I wasn't developing the website from scratch. Instead I choose between service providers that do this type of pre-built website.

After a lot of evaluation on my part, and on the part of other committee members, we came to a decision, and set up the website on OneCommunity. I had very high hopes that lots of people would register, post content, interact with other community members, and keep on coming back online. There were tons of features - a calendar, classified ads, discussion forum, profiles, notice board, you name it. I did my best to encourage people to use the site.

What's happened so far? Well...nothing. Okay, not absolutely nothing, but not very much. When the site first went live, I went crazy putting up ads and posting in the discussion forum. But I was almost the only one, and the site never really took off.

Why is nobody using the site? It could be so useful (so I thought to myself). People could sell stuff they didn't need anymore to their neighbors. They could ask for and receive recommendations for babysitters, housecleaners, yard care services. They could post items of neighborhood interest.

But the bottom line was, it just wasn't easy to use. That critical fact was hidden to me, because I work with computers. I understand how websites work, and how to work around whatever doesn't work. Most people didn't understand it immediately, and weren't interested in investing the time into learning it. This one fact has been critical in making the new website bomb.

Why is Google so successful? Lots of reasons, of course, but mainly - they're so easy to use! There's one box to imput text, and there's 2 buttons (although frankly, I think they should get rid of the "I'm feeling lucky" button). Anybody can jump right in there and get information almost immediately.

There's a superb book on web usability called Don't Make Me Think. It's my all-time favorite book on web usability, but it also has a lot of lessons on how people process information in general, too.

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