Wait! Don’t launch your site yet

A while ago, I attended a meeting about entrepreneurship where a group of panelists talked about their startup experiences. These were all online ventures and two of these were startups looking for funding to take them to the next level, while the others were already in later stages. I left the meeting sincerely hoping that we can read the success stories of these new startups in business magazines and all over the internet in the very near future. As you would expect, the first thing I did after getting in front of my computer was to check out what these start-ups were about.

If you think about skipping this article assuming that I will start bragging about how great these startups are, wait! Although their businesses made sense, I was disappointed when I saw both of their web sites. I am not going to go into details of what these companies do, because that’s not the purpose of my article. What I really would like to discuss is how poor they were in terms of usability and how this can impact their success.

For those who are not familiar with “web site usability”, let me give some insight. In summary, web site usability is about presenting web site content in such a way that it is easy for users to find, understand and process. When you go to a web site you should be able to locate the information you are looking for without getting lost. You should be able to understand the content so you can use the information provided on the site. You should be able complete a transaction, for example an online purchase, without any problem. It is something close to what we more often know as user friendliness.

I am planning to get into more detail about this concept in my future articles. Then, I will try to shed more light on what usability is and how important usable web design is for a successful web presence.

Web site usability is very critical, because it has a direct impact on the experience of your web site users. If they are not pleased with your site, they have thousands of other web sites they can go to. Web users are impatient and can get easily frustrated if it takes time to get a piece of information out of your site. They will not like it if they cannot read or understand your content. If it takes too much time to fill up an online form, they will not do it. Once they see the lengthy form, they will click away to another site. And unfortunately, once they are gone, the chances of seeing them back at your web site is very small.

That is why you have to make sure that your site is developed with usability in mind. Not only that, you should also test your site very thoroughly before going live. This test should especially involve web users that represent your target audience. This will help you understand whether the experience of your visitors will be positive, which is a must for keeping them at your web site and for converting them into customers.

After this introduction about web usability, let’s get back to the web sites I started to talk about before. Unfortunately, both of these sites had various usability problems. It was not the only usability issue I saw, but to keep it short I would like to use the poor design of the search functionality of one of the sites as an example.

This site I am talking about provides detailed data of commercial US companies. To give the web site a try, I wanted to search for local web development companies.

Although there was a prominent search bar on top of the page, it had very limited functionality. I would expect a keyword based search instead of a company name filter. The 7,000+ companies I got as a result of my query came up since they had the word “web” in their names. But what about web development companies that don’t have “web” in their company names? On top of that, the amount of records returned (7,000+) made it impossible to find the local companies I am interested in. I would prefer an option to enter the zip code or select the state combined with a keyword entry to get a more useful search result.

I also tried the Advanced Search option hoping to get a more refined output. Again the company name filter instead of keyword search was a problem. The advanced search function provided the option to make a location based search, but it was very cumbersome. I wish I could simply enter the zip code and get search results within a certain distance from this location (This is how I am used to search something and many web site users would probably feel the same way). However, I first had to select the state, wait for the city drop down to be populated and select the city I am interested in. The zip code drop down was populated after selecting the city, but there was no need for the zip code drop down, because if I select the city/town I don’t need another filter for the zip code most of the time.

These types of usability problems will make it very hard to access information for the users of these example web sites. If they cannot get a value out of the site their users will not try another time. With various pending usability issues, these web sites will increase the number of runaway visitors and cause harm to their web site traffic.

I hope these start-ups get the best financing available and move on with their projects. And with their extra budgets they may have the chance to fix their usability issues and promote their sites to get back the users they might have lost.

Many small businesses may not be that lucky and have the luxury of spending their money on fixing obvious problems. Instead, before launching your site make sure that everything works fine. I am not talking about bugs alone. You have to check that the way you present your information or how you set up procedures on your site can be used by your visitors without confusion. If it is not good enough don’t publish it. I don’t know what your thoughts are about this, but I believe giving your users something that does not work for them will reduce the value of your web presence and business. On the other hand, if they realize that you provide them quality and ease of use, they will keep coming and asking for more.

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Rarely, do I have my customers start a conversation with the reason of their need for a web presence. These business owners start off on the wrong foot when planning their web sites. You should ask yourself, "Why do I need a web site". This is the first step in developing a successful web presence.