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Ryan Clukey
Owner and Principal Consultant
Bellevue, Washington
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Web Usability vs. Aesthetics When Budget Matters

Your Web site is your first introduction to a lot of potential customers, and while its visual design may dazzle your customers, they may not be able to get the information they need.
Written Aug 12, 2008, read 1972 times since then.


When it comes to designing a Web site for your business, usability is frequently sacrificed for concerns of the visual design and aesthetic appeal, as if "wowing" users will improve things like loyalty, intent to purchase, and satisfaction. While it is true that aesthetics can be an important part of creating a usable Web site, to the user it is often less important than providing a quick and easy path to the content they need. Often it is the case the entire Web sites are built without ever stopping to ask the end-user if they can find the information they need. Typical refrains include: not enough time, too expensive, or my favorite: we know who are users are and so we don't need to ask them. Stopping to ask the end-user is easy to overlook or even marginalize. And, while it's true that user testing can be expensive or time-consuming, it doesn't have to be. Here are some suggestions for ensuring a usable site on a shoestring budget:

  1. Test early. Testing early is less expensive and can help you correct usability issues before it becomes really expensive to fix them. The most expensive time to fix usability issues is during the design and development phase, and after the site has launched. Test with users while the concept of the website is still being fleshed out. Use wireframes, or conceptual storyboards.
  2. Use a qualified usability expert. There's no replacement for experience. Studies have shown that an expert can identify as many as twice the number of issues in the same time as a usability professional with less experience. The expert can often provide a more effective solutions and recommendations as well. In many cases an experienced usability professional can identify a lot of low-hanging fruit usability issues without the need for lab testing. While there's no replacement for asking the end-user (always a good idea), if time and budget are of principle concern, then asking a usability expert to critique the design and provide recommendations can have a positive effect without blowing your budget.
  3. Plan for quick-hit user testing. Usability testing doesn't have to be an all-out three week marathon effort. Small, precisely planned intercepts scattered throughout the life-cycle can often be more effective than the 1-hit wonder. This is process often referred to as iterative design and testing.
  4. Plan for at least 1 usability test. Even if you know that there's no time to implement any of the findings from the study before launch, you'll know what the issues are and be ready to address them after the site launches.Designing Web sites is fun and creative. But, remember for whom the site is being created. Most of the time we want users to be able to accomplish certain things on our web site, and complexities of the visual design and interaction can interfere with your users' ability to accomplish their goals, which in turn drives frustration and dissatisfaction.

In the long run, your users are more likely to find your site appealing and visit more frequently when the design doesn't interfere with their ability to find the information they need. In my experience running usability studies, the visual design is a fleeting concern to the user; they quickly forget the "coolness" of the design when the site prevents them from achieving their objectives. Conversely, when the site is usable and effective, users perceive the visual design as integral to the usability of the site. Incorporating usability testing doesn't have to be expensive, just strategic. And, having a usable site doesn't need to come at the sacrifice of compelling design or interaction. But, a good design also ensures that the end user can effectively and efficiently accomplish their basic goals.

Learn more about the author, Ryan Clukey.

Comment on this article

  • Regional Referral Guru 
Portland, Oregon 
Frank Hackett
    Posted by Frank Hackett, Portland, Oregon | Aug 20, 2008

    Hi Ryan, Very good article and tips. Recently my learning curve was on a sharp arch while launching ABRA and many of the topics you brought up ring very true.

    Someone once told me that some of the things that will drive you crazy and think will turn your clients off, will actually be small and meaningless in the long run. Listen to your clients and users. Afterall, they're the one using the site.

    Thanks for the article and rock on! Frank

  • Effective, Understandable and Affordable Market Research 
Kirkland, Washington 
Mike Pritchard
    Posted by Mike Pritchard, Kirkland, Washington | Aug 21, 2008

    Good article Ryan.

    I've recently gone through major site changes (catching my breath before the next round) and found Steve Krug's "Don't Make Me Think" very helpful.

    Also helpful, although not a dedicated usability book, was David Platt's "Why Software Sucks". Platt's mantra is "your user isn't you", which is particularly relevant to web sites.


  • Life, Prosperity, and Small Business Coach. Author. Speaker. Trainer. Singer/Songwriter. 
Seattle, Washington 
Kate Phillips
    Posted by Kate Phillips, Seattle, Washington | Aug 28, 2008

    Testing a website for usability to those who will be using it... such an obvious idea, but one I had not thought of. Thanks!

  • Web Designer 
Issaquah, Washington 
Kei Wakabayashi
    Posted by Kei Wakabayashi, Issaquah, Washington | Sep 09, 2008

    Ryan, couldn't agree more, great article! These points are even more true for web apps.

    To add to your first bullet point on "testing early", prototypes are also an excellent approach to getting user feedback early without spending too much time or resources upfront.

    Prototypes can be created for example with paper in a matter of a few hours. When this is tested against real users, I have experienced numerous times how the data gathered from this study ends up saving dozens of hours of development time in the future.

    Early in development, I have often experienced spending hours developing features that the target audience could care less about. Testing early definitely avoids unnecessary development. Your product turns out to be something users really utilize and care about from the get go.

    Thanks Ryan! K