What Baby Strollers Can Teach Us About Web Site Usability


Not long ago, I was standing in a Babies R Us, searching for a travel stroller for my daughter. There were a lot to choose from but I managed to narrow the list of “contenders” down to the two that met my specifications for functionality, design and price.

The first stroller was a well-known “it” brand for well-heeled parents everywhere. I have to admit that it was slick-looking, and light. The only problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to open it. I spent 10 minutes trying to flip every lever, and find the page in the multi-lingual instruction book that supposedly told me how to do this. Finally I gave up, disgusted.

The second stroller, though still reasonable, was a less-popular brand and definitely less slick. Unlike the first, however, it was completely intuitive. Without reading any instructions, it was easy to figure out that the two little lever “thingamajigies” (technical term) on handle made the stroller fold down and from there, all one had to do to make it truly tiny was to fold it again in thirds.

I bought the second stroller.

Web sites are a lot like baby strollers when it comes to usability.

How often have you visited sites that are beautiful and technical…and impossible to use? You know the sites I’m talking about – the ones that contain navigation so technical that you can’t figure out how to make it work, or navigation names so clever that you’re not sure what to expect when you click on them? The worst offenders contain elaborate Flash movies, content or other elements that actually get in the way of your accessing the information you came to the site for in the first place.

The typical user, when faced with the challenge of having to figure out how to use a site in order to get what she wants, will abandon the effort and move on to the next site.

What’s a Web site owner to do? Here are a few quick tips:

  • Identify users’ goals for coming to the site. Why are they there? What do they want to accomplish before they leave? Note: This is not the same thing as what you want users to do on your site. Be honest with yourself and if you don’t know, try informally polling some of your typical users.
  • Make a clear path to that information or activity. Don’t make people think too hard (thank you Steve Krug) to find what they’re looking for and don’t present them with obstacles to overcome in order to access the information.
  • Conduct some informal user testing. Invite your mom, your yoga instructor, or better yet, a typical user (think, customer or prospect) to sit down and try to accomplish a task on your site while you silently watch. In fact, invite several people to do this. If you have usability problems, you’ll know right away.

While following these suggestions won’t solve all of your Web site’s problems, they’re a great first step to creating a site that’s easy to use, and ultimately, good for business.


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